Attack on Bright Was a Tragic Day in Stillwater
Drake University’s Johnny Bright was leading the nation’s college players in rushing and total offense midway through the 1951 football season. He had a good chance to become the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy if it had not been for the odious racism openly practiced in many states and many institutions of higher education in those days.
Bright was running neck-and-neck with another great African-American back, Ollie Matson of the University of San Francisco, for the rushing title that year when racial hatred turned to violence 60 years ago this week at Stillwater, Okla.
Drake University of Des Moines, Iowa, had a Division I major college football team in 1951 when it was a member of the Missouri Valley Conference. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Bright was one of the best single wing tailbacks in the nation when many teams such as Princeton and Tennessee stuck to that attack in preference to the newer T formation offense.
As such, Bright was a real triple threat as runner, passer and receiver. He led the nation in total offense yardage in both his sophomore and junior years of 1949 and 1950 and was headed for a third such season. Freshmen did not play varsity in those days.
Bright, who also starred in basketball and track at Drake, was an excellent student and a true all-American who could carry his team to victory over just about any opponent.
So it was that the undefeated Drake team, led by Bright, carried a 5-0 won-lost record into an important Missouri Valley Conference game against Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) on Lewis Field in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Oct. 20, 1951.
Drake was undefeated and Bright was a black athlete who was one of the two or three best backs in the country that season. Oklahoma was a state with segregation laws. Word got around the Stillwater campus early that week that Oklahoma A&M players would be “out to get the n_ _ _ _ _.“
I wrote in The New York Times that what occurred on that tragic day in Stillwater left Bright “the victim of one of the ugliest racial incidents in college sports history.” I have no reason to change my opinion of this outrageous, planned assault on Bright.
Starting with Drake’s first offensive play, Bright was targeted by the Aggies’ left defensive tackle, Wilbanks Smith, whether or not Bright had the ball. It was not long before Bright suffered serious injuries. He was knocked unconscious three times within the first 10 minutes of action and suffered a fractured jaw.
Actually, Smith went at Bright on the first Drake offensive play of the game, striking Bright with his right fist and apparently breaking his jaw with that blow. In those days, football helmets did not have face masks to protect players. There was either no protection at all or a single, light bar running across the face about level with the mouth.
Smith continued his attack as Bright hung in. On a subsequent play, Smith went directly for Bright, who had handed the ball off to another Drake running back. Bright was a number of yards back of and to the right of the ball carrier when Smith struck with his forearm to the jaw. This last blow put Bright out of the game, which was the intent of the Oklahoma A&M coaching staff and team.
With Bright gone, Oklahoma won the game, 27-14.
Two photographers, John Robinson and Don Ultang, captured that final indignity that crippled Bright, possibly breaking more bones in the jaw than had been fractured by Smith’s initial blows.
The Des Moines Register published the six sequential pictures that showed Smith’s final attack on Bright. Life Magazine also published those pictures, giving nationwide witness to the horrors of the premeditated racial attack. These pictures show seven Oklahoma A&M defensive players, six of whom are looking at Drake’s No. 30, the ball carrier, while Smith is only looking at and charging at No. 43, Bright, who is some distance from the ball carrier.
The six pictures won the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for photojournalism.
This attack on Bright was not the rogue action of a young, racist athlete, even though Smith, a native Oklahoman who graduated to become an engineer, took sole blame for the incident throughout the years following the terrible game.
The blame can be placed on many people. But most importantly, the attack on Bright had to be carried out with the approval of the head football coach at Oklahoma A&M, Jennings B. Whitworth. A native of Arkansas who played his college football at the University of Alabama, Whitworth was a losing college head football coach for five years at Oklahoma A&M and three years at his alma mater, Alabama.
Following the Bright game, there were numerous reports attributed to members of that 1951 Oklahoma A&M team in which they claimed to have practiced all week on getting after Bright to injure him and put him out of the game. Coach Whitworth had to know about this and had to sanction Smith’s actions. It is obvious that Whitworth and his coaching staff did nothing to stop Smith after the tackle’s first assault on Bright. It was a matter of hitting Bright until he was out of the game.
Within days of the game, Drake University officials asked the Missouri Valley Conference to take some action against Oklahoma A&M for the disgraceful behavior. Not pleased with the lack of response to their request and the failure of Oklahoma A&M to apologize for Smith’s behavior, Drake University withdrew from the Missouri Valley Conference before the end of the 1951 season.
Drake has not been a major football institution for years and currently participates in non-scholarship football.
Bright, a native of a rather segregated and racist Terre Haute, Ind., originally enrolled at Michigan State only to leave within a couple of weeks and enter Drake in the fall of 1948. But even Drake did not allow black students to live on campus then, including Bright.
Once he was put out of action in that game at Stillwater, Okla., Bright lost any chance to win the Heisman Trophy.
Ollie Matson, the star of the undefeated, untied and uninvited University of San Francisco Dons, finished the 1951 season as the nation’s leading rusher. Nevertheless, Princeton’s Dick Kazmaier, a Caucasian, was voted winner of the 1951 Heisman Trophy. Bright finished fifth in the 1951 Heisman vote, while Matson did not even make it into the top five. It was not until 1961 that Syracuse’s Ernie Davis became the first black athlete to win the Heisman Trophy.
Matson and his entire San Francisco team also suffered indignities of racism as the 1951 Dons, considered by some to have been the best college team ever assembled, were not invited to the Cotton, Sugar or Orange Bowl games because San Francisco had two black players, Matson and Burl Toler, a lineman.
A year before Bright’s racial confrontation in Stillwater, Matson was also a victim of severe physical punishment during a game in Oklahoma when the University of San Francisco played at the University of Tulsa.
Matson said, “I got hit with everything: fists, elbows, knees and finished the game with two black eyes, a bloody nose and my face puffed up like a pound cake. I scored three touchdowns and they were all called back.”
Although the first round draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1952, Bright opted for the Canadian Football League, claiming the National Football League had too many Southern, racist players and other serious racial issues. Bright had two successful seasons with the Calgary Stampeders and then 11 big years for the Edmonton Eskimos, leading that team to three consecutive Grey Cup titles, 1954-1956.
Johnny Bright died suddenly of a heart attack in 1983 at age 53 after serving for years as a schoolteacher and then a junior high school principal in Edmonton, where he is buried.
In September 2005, Oklahoma State University officially apologized to Drake University for the heinous attack 54 years after the fact and 22 years after Bright died.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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