The day after a Black woman refused to yield her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, America’s latest battle over civil rights garnered front-page headlines. The news stories capturing the country’s attention in early December 1955 did not concern Rosa Parks, however, but University of Pittsburgh football player Bobby Grier.
The 22-year-old Black fullback with a balky knee was thrust into the national spotlight not because of his football exploits, but the color of his skin. At a time when many Southern states barred African Americans from attending public universities, officials in segregated New Orleans invited Grier’s team to play Georgia Tech in the 1956 Sugar Bowl.
Although integrated teams had received invitations to the bowl game before, no Black player had played in the contest since its 1935 inception. Instead, Black players watched the action from the press box and were barred from practicing or staying in the same hotel as their teammates.
Segregation extended to the stands of Tulane Stadium, where white fans bore tickets stipulating they were “issued for a person of the Caucasian Race.”
Although colleges from the North routinely benched Black players when they traveled to the Deep South, change was coming slowly by December 1955. That month, three Black starters from the University of San Francisco basketball team, including future Hall of Famers Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, played in New Orleans against Loyola University.
But when Sugar Bowl officials agreed to Grier’s participation as well as Pittsburgh’s demand that its 10,000-seat section in Tulane Stadium be integrated, one segregationist governor ignited a national controversy.
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Georgia Governor Tries to Bar Georgia Tech from Playing
In the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin vowed to defend his state’s segregationist policies. “No matter how much the Supreme Court seeks to sugarcoat its bitter pill of tyranny, the people of Georgia and the South will not swallow it,” he declared.
When the States’ Rights Council of Georgia, co-founded by Griffin, called on Georgia Tech to boycott the Sugar Bowl rather than play an integrated team, the governor turned the game into a political football. He urged Georgia’s Board of Regents to prevent the state university from taking the field.
“The South stands at Armageddon,” he ranted in a telegram. “The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle. There is no more difference in compromising integrity of race on the playing field than in doing so in the classrooms. One break in the dike and the relentless enemy will rush in and destroy us.”
The unassuming Grier, Pittsburgh’s only Black player, suddenly found himself at the center of a maelstrom. “I never ran into this kind of thing before, either at home or on the team,” he told the media. “I’m awfully sorry it has happened.”
Grier had grown up in integrated neighborhoods and played integrated sports in Massillon, Ohio, before experiencing segregation first-hand in college when Pittsburgh traveled below the Mason-Dixon Line.
“When we played down South, we were separated. The Black players stayed at a Black college or a motel that was close,” Grier said in a 2014 oral history interview with The Historic New Orleans Collection.
When the media asked Grier if he would sit out the Sugar Bowl if it meant his white teammates could play, the university rallied behind the cry of “No Grier! No game!” “Bobby Grier will travel, eat, live, practice and play with the team,” the university said in a statement.
“We’re a team,” said tackle Don Agaton. “We don’t play without one man.”
Georgia Tech Resists the Georgia Governor
While Pitt students rallied around their classmate, Georgia Tech’s all-white student body defied Griffin as well. A river of flame flowed down Atlanta’s Peachtree Street as 2,000 torch-carrying students marched two miles from campus to the governor’s mansion. They incinerated effigies of Griffin, uprooted parking meters, overturned furniture inside the State Capitol and placed cans and signs on Confederate statues.
Effigies of the governor were also set ablaze at Mercer and Emory universities, while even students at rival University of Georgia joined in solidarity with signs that read: “This time we are for Tech.”
Only one out of 50 telegrams to Georgia Tech supported the governor. “I’m 60 years old, and I have never broken a contract and I’m not going to break one now,” vowed Georgia Tech president Dr. Blake Van Leer.
Undeterred, Griffin said the Sugar Bowl should be played with “Southern rules”—that is with no Black players. “In Rome do as the Romans do,” he said. “If we played in the North, we would play under Northern rules. Although Louisiana is not Georgia, we should play under Southern rules.”
The regents, however, approved Georgia Tech’s participation in the integrated Sugar Bowl, although one board member worried about its long-term impact: “This will show the world that Georgia stands for segregation where there is no money involved but will sell out when it is.”
Sugar Bowl Spotlight Remains on Bobby Grier
With the matchup set, Pittsburgh traveled to New Orleans and lodged on the all-white Tulane University campus. “As I look back at it, I say I was probably the first Black to sleep in a dormitory there at Tulane,” Grier recalled in the oral history.
When a practice injury befell Pittsburgh’s starting fullback and safety, Grier was in the starting lineup as the Sugar Bowl kicked off January 2, 1956. After making the tackle on the opening kickoff, Grier quickly found himself back in the spotlight.
On Georgia Tech’s second possession, the back judge flagged Grier for a questionable pass interference penalty on a 32-yard throw to the end zone that sailed over the receiver’s head while Grier was flat on the ground. With the ball placed on the 1-yard line, Georgia Tech ran it in for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. It was the game’s only score.
Despite leading Pittsburgh’s rushing attack with 51 yards on a hobbled knee, Grier was in tears after the game because of the costly pass interference penalty, which the Pittsburgh-based official later admitted was a mistake. “I’m on the ground, the ball’s over his head. So how could I push him? He’s behind me,” Grier recalled.
Although there were no catcalls from fans or opposing players during the game, Southern hospitality was in short supply from the manager of the segregated St. Charles Hotel, site of the post-game awards banquet.
“If he shows up, I won’t block his way to the dinner,” he said of Grier. “But you know he would never come.”
Not only did Grier take his rightful place at the awards banquet, but he accepted an invitation to dine with a group of Georgia Tech players. (In 2019, the Sugar Bowl inducted Grier into its Hall of Fame.)
Racial change came slowly on and off the football field after the 1956 Sugar Bowl as segregationists took harder lines. Louisiana banned racially mixed events, and Georgia’s Board of Regents passed a new policy that prohibited Georgia and Georgia Tech from playing integrated teams in segregated states.
Benjamin E. Mays, who mentored civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., lamented that segregation in campus classrooms didn’t spark similar protests at the 1956 Sugar Bowl. “If the Board of Regents had denied a Negro student admission to Georgia Tech or the University of Georgia, there would hardly have been a demonstration,” he wrote. “But football is big business.”
Still, he did see progress. “Years ago, Georgia Tech would have said to Pittsburgh, ‘Leave Grier home,’ and Pittsburgh would have left him home.”