Up Next

Black History Always

‘If they could do it, I could do it’: The integration of Ole Miss football

James Reed and Ben Williams, who played from 1972 to 1975, are honored by the school and College Football Hall of Fame

James Reed still gets asked the question: How does a Black high school football star from Meridian, Mississippi, in the early 1970s decide to play at the University of Mississippi?

At Ole Miss, where Colonel Rebel was the mascot, the Confederate flag flew in the stands and “Dixie” was played at games, and where white students rioted in response to James Meredith integrating the university?

“Because they did. Because it was there – the examples,” Reed answered on a Zoom call from his home near Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. “The individuals who integrated Southern Mississippi, Mississippi State. You saw all of this unfold, whether it was LSU, whether it was Auburn, whether it was University of Georgia – you saw this unfolding.

“And you said to yourself, ‘If they could do it, I could do it.’ ”

Reed just followed his brother

Reed, 66, knows many names of the football and basketball athletes who preceded him around the South before he joined Ben Williams as a freshman at Ole Miss in 1972. He played against some of them and grew up with others in Meridian, such as Robert Bell, one of the first two Black football players at Mississippi State.

Reed in some ways followed his brother, Elius, a pioneer at Meridian High School and East Mississippi Junior College — decades before it became famous as Last Chance U on Netflix. Elius Reed was one of the first Black students to attend the once all-white high school in the recently desegregated city, and then one of the first Black football player at East Mississippi Junior College.

Elius was breaking down barriers at Meridian at about the same time Reed, the youngest of five siblings, was facing similar choices: attend the all-Black public school or Kate Griffin Junior High, still nearly all-white.

In both cases, their parents decided that not only were their sons ready for that new world, it was time the new world got ready for them.

“Quite naturally, I wanted to go where all my friends were. There were no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Reed recalled. “I knew nothing about Kate Griffin. Of course, the school administrators and my parents and the good Lord above said, ‘You’re going to Kate Griffin.’ ”

Once there, he became the first Black student to play a varsity sport, making the football team despite never having played organized ball before. He met coach Don Evans, who introduced him to other aspects of the world, such as eating out. His wife visited the team and showed them culinary etiquette.

“I hadn’t eaten in a restaurant until then,” Reed said, laughing, “unless you count Wendy’s and Pizza Hut.”

Having role models early in life and learning to navigate integration served Reed well. He had a 36-year career in local, state and federal law enforcement. His last 26 years were as a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, from which he retired in 2011.

They opened the door, others followed

But first he went to Ole Miss, along with Williams, who became one of the greatest defensive players in program history. Williams, who later played 10 seasons in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, died in May 2020 at age 65.

Williams enrolled at Ole Miss in 1971, making him and Reed the first two Black football players in school history. Williams still holds the school records for career sacks with 37 and single-season sacks with 18.

They were among a sudden influx of Black athletes who formed the support system each needed. In four years, three Black basketball players and four football players entered the state flagship university that was notorious among Black people. Coolidge Ball integrated the Ole Miss basketball program in 1970, and Dean Hudson joined him in 1971. Reed and Williams arrived on the football team in 1972, and in 1973 they were joined by Gary Turner and Pete Robinson, as well as basketball player Walter Actwood.

Ball helped recruit Reed and Williams to Ole Miss. In turn, Reed and Williams, who became roommates, helped recruit the Black athletes who followed. With integration still new on campus, Reed took note of the Black nonathletes, too.

James Reed (top row, third from left) and Ben Williams (third row, third from right) with University of Mississippi freshmen football players in 1972.

James Reed

“I thank God that there were so many African Americans at Ole Miss who were not athletes but were regular students, who went on to great things beyond that,” he said. “The young people who went on to law school and graduate school and were headed to outstanding careers.”

Reed and Williams wasted little time. Williams had already made a name for himself as a freshman in 1972, when the NCAA ban on freshmen playing varsity was lifted and he was allowed to play. Reed starred on the undefeated freshman team that year.

Both were sophomores the next season when Ole Miss – 4-5 and playing under its second coach of the season – upset No. 16 Tennessee 28-18 on national television.

Reed rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns, and he and Williams were named the offensive and defensive players of the game by ABC and Chevrolet, which awarded $1,000 scholarships in each player’s name to the winners back then.

Like most college football fans in the 1960s and ’70s, Reed remembered growing up and associating the games with those scholarships. He never thought of what he might do if he ever won one. He and Williams quickly decided what to do.

“We immediately went to whoever were the powers that be and said, ‘We would like to see minority students receive those funds,’ ” Reed said. “And there were four students who received $500 scholarships each. Again, you’re 18, 19 years old and you’re thinking, ‘Wow, can I have some impact?’ Yes, you can.”

Ole Miss plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of James Reed (above) and Ben Williams’ integration of the football team.

University of Mississippi

Both players got to meet the recipients of the scholarships when they enrolled the following year. “I have that picture somewhere in my archives,” Reed said, grinning again.

As with most schools new to integration, the floodgates for Black players opened. Michael Sweet, a running back from Vicksburg, Mississippi, watched the Tennessee game in which Reed starred and said decades later, “I knew I’d have a chance to play there.” Reed, Williams and the other Black players hosted Sweet and other Black recruits, widening a circle that just a few years earlier had not even existed.

“I’m grateful to James Reed and Ben and all those guys I looked up to,” added Sweet, who played at Ole Miss from 1974 to 1976 and is now director of ministries at Gateway Rescue Mission in Jackson, Mississippi.

racism in Oxford

Reed’s answers to the obvious questions about playing at Ole Miss come easily, about the good and the bad.

“I’m not saying everything was peaches and cream,” he said. The ugly, racist, hurtful incidents he faced came with a lesson about the people who brought him to the school and the program.

Billy Kinard, the Ole Miss head coach who brought Reed and Williams to campus, was a former player there and a longtime SEC assistant coach. He’d never played with or against Black players and rarely, if ever, coached them.

His replacement early in Reed’s sophomore season was Johnny Vaught, followed by Ken Cooper for his final two seasons. Neither had played against or coached Black players.

Cooper later hired Tommy Thompson, who was the first black coach at Ole Miss. He was hired as an assistant running back Coach.

“They had not coached African American athletes,” Reed said. “Now, you got African American athletes you got to learn to deal with and coach. There were issues that came up. They were demeaning in nature. But the thing about it is, they dealt with those issues. They realized going forward that if this thing was to work – and this is just me talking – that they had to deal with it, and they dealt with it effectively.

“I was 17 years old. I didn’t want to hear that. But what it taught me was that there was a way to effectively deal with these situations. So, the way you handled these situations in high school and in college – now you’re a professional, and how are you going to handle these things.” – James Reed

“I’ve heard most recently that [offensive] things were said at other schools, and according to the players, the coaches ignored it,” said Reed, as he shook his head. “Those comments were made [to us], and as soon as it was brought to the coaches’ attention, they called a team meeting, and they said, ‘We need to make sure we understand that the enemy is the guy on the other side of the field trying to take your head off on Saturday morning, not the guy sleeping down the hall from you.”

Reed and his teammates heard the taunts and slurs, from fans and from his own teammates. In response, his white teammates offered to fight those players, or fight the occasional out-of-control fan. Kinard, Reed said, made it a policy that if one of his players got out of line with a Black teammate, he’d kick him off the team. Later, he said, a coach threatened to go fight a drunk fan who had yelled slurs at Reed.

Reed didn’t ignore it. Better yet, he said, he learned another lesson that carried him through life.

“I was 17 years old. I didn’t want to hear that,” he said. “But what it taught me was that there was a way to effectively deal with these situations. So, the way you handled these situations in high school and in college – now you’re a professional, and how are you going to handle these things.

“It’s easy to look back and say, ‘I learned this great lesson.’ But when you’re going through it, it’s not the most pleasant thing. But it prepared you for situations that you would face later on in life, whether we were football players or athletes or dealing with the regular student body as African Americans. If we can survive this, we can survive life.”

Reed did more than that. His football career effectively ended after college. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns but did not make the team, and an injury ended a brief chance at playing in Canada. He went into law enforcement, where he’d earned his degree, and by the time he retired he had served in stations around the world, including Iraq, and worked protective service details for members of Congress and foreign dignitaries in Washington.

Trailblazers remembered

His alma mater and college football are making sure his role in changing history won’t be forgotten.

The College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta made Reed part of its Black History Month celebration last week. The Blood, Sweat and Tears exhibit, on display through May 2021, tells the story of integration in college football and includes a 45-minute YouTube interview about his life and career as part of a series on trailblazing Black players in the sport.

Plans are in the works at Ole Miss to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Reed and Williams’ integration of the football team. The school is dedicating a statue of Ball on campus in May. It also recognized their arrivals no fewer than four times before.

Most notable was the renaming of the foyer of the Olivia and Archie Manning Athletics Performance Center at Ole Miss in honor of Reed and Williams in 2014, the Williams-Reed Football Foyer. Williams attended the ceremony, even though in ill health, along with some fellow players and coaches from their playing days.

“You have had a part in history,” Reed said. “If the Manning complex is torn down today, if you Google my name – James Reed, Ben Williams, Ole Miss – guess what will pop up. Our names will forever be etched in history.”

It brought to mind the teammates and friends from those days whose efforts were similarly honored. Bell and Frank Dowsing, the first two Black players at Mississippi State, have a plaza at their stadium named for them. Ball is getting a statue. The late Johnny Fisher, who played with Reed’s brother Elius at East Mississippi Junior College (now East Mississippi Community College) and later became a professor there, had a building named for him on that campus in 2018.

Reed laughs at how in just a few decades, programs went from all-white to mostly Black, and are now a good 70% Black. That reminded him of a recent visit to campus for another honor, after which he watched the Ole Miss spring game.

“Somebody says, ‘James, there’s somebody who wants to meet you,’ ” Reed recalled. “It’s Dexter McCluster!”

McCluster, who played at Ole Miss in the late 2000s, is one of the greatest running backs and all-purpose players in school history and made the Pro Bowl during his NFL career. McCluster gave him a bear hug and told him, “I have always wanted to meet you. Thank you for what you did.”

The reminders of his role in pushing his school, his state and society forward keep on coming all these years later.

“You think, ‘Wow, did what you did really have an impact?’ And the answer to that is, obviously it’s so,” Reed said. “Was it only limited to Ole Miss? No, it was extended to other teams and other schools. Those guys saw you play, whether they went to Ole Miss or went to Tennessee or Alabama.

“I’m sure in their psyche they thought, ‘If James Reed can do it, if Ben Williams, if Gary Tucker or Walter Actwood or Pete Robinson can do it, I can do it.’ ”

Just like when James Reed saw his big brother Elius do it.

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture. He also is the author of "It Was Always a Choice: Picking Up the Baton of Athlete Activism," published in 2022.