I came across an article today that intrigued me. Since the movie Glory Road hit the theaters last year, there has been a lot of talk about how that movie depicted history, how much was dramatized and what parts were pure fiction. There have been a good number of articles written about Rupp back then, including this one by Gregory Favre, who claims to have interviewed Rupp. In the article, Rupp suggests to Favre he would be happy to coach an integrated team, then feels compelled to back off this statement after his comments cause an uproar in Birmingham, Alabama. Favre alleges that Rupp called him and told him to say he was misquoted because of all the heat he was catching, presumably from those SEC teams firmly opposed to integration.
This article paints Rupp in an interesting and fairly negative light, as a man who was apparently not opposed to integration, but who was unwilling to go to the mat for it. It also paints Rupp as a bit of a megalomaniac, recalling that he suggested integration in the SEC would happen when Rupp said it would.
I can't say whether or not the author was being truthful, or his memory accurate -- 45 years is a long time to remember something and it may well be that he doesn't get it right. But even if he does, it calls into question the perception that Rupp was a racist. The article speaks more of a man in touch with the politics of the league and of the South at that time, and a person unwilling to risk his reputation or his position by pushing for racial integration at Kentucky.
Supposing this is true, I have to wonder what all the uproar is about. As a person who lived through the civil rights era, albeit at a very young age, it strikes me that racial politics haven't really changed all that much in spite of our advances. Anyone who was not willing to sacrifice themselves for what was right is seen in hindsight as opposing right and enabling wrong. But is that the same thing as racism as is often alleged by others? I'm not so sure.
The saying "hindsight is 20/20 surely comes to mind when we look at America in those days. Yes, we know perfectly well now that the Jim Crow South was a sad chapter in our history. Yet there are many people who were in an even better position than Rupp to fight for change, though they generally get a pass for not doing so. That doesn't seem to be the case with Rupp. Somehow, the basketball coach at Kentucky has been placed in such a position of power and importance by historical hindsight that nobody can understand how Rupp could be unwilling to put his career on the line for such a noble cause.
In another article I ran across today, Larry Conley, a man who is well-known and respected in the Commonwealth and who played on the 1966 Kentucky men's basketball team was allegedly interviewed by a person I have never heard of who goes by the handle of tcgathens. Tcgathens interviewed Conley and asked him specifically about racism and Rupp, and his answers are quite illuminating. Now, I can't vouch for the veracity or accuracy of this interview, so I ask the reader to consider that this interview can't really be verified, but as far as I know, neither can some of the comments by Gregory Favre above.
I found this quote by Conley quite interesting:
Question: But many people over time have said that Adolph Rupp was a racist, and the movie portrays him as such.
Answer: Listen, Adoph Rupp may have been many things, but he was not a racist. He was a brilliant man. On plane trips, he did not read basketball playbooks, he read the New York Times. He was a very well read man. People have told me that I only say these things about him because he was my coach. No way. I hated every minute I played for him because of the type personality he had. He was also a very aloof man. He was cold to many, many people and it had nothing to do with race.
So here we have it -- still more in a long line of remembrances that either tend to indict or exonerate Coach Rupp of allegations of racism during his years as head coach at Kentucky. Favre indicts Rupp for not standing up for his apparent comfort with coaching an integrated team, and then asking him to deceive his readers after his comments brought on criticism. That is certainly inherently blameworthy, and that in retrospect, Rupp is surely deserving of criticism for trying to convince a reporter to dissemble.
Even Conley said that he didn't like playing for Coach Rupp, because he was "aloof" and "cold to many." There can be little doubt that Rupp was something of a shameless self-promoter and is hardly a lovable historical figure except to his family and Wildcat fans who remember the success of his basketball teams. He is rarely remembered as a warm, loving person -- to the contrary, "aloof" and "cold" are far more frequently used to describe him, at least in his capacity as head basketball coach.
In sum, I have no idea if Rupp was a racist or not, but based on what I have been able to find, he doesn't fit the mold in a simplistic or white supremacist kind of way. Does the fact that he may not have been an overt racist get him off the hook? How much inaction in an environment such as the one which existed in 1961 or even 1966 becomes blameworthy when it comes to standing up for the rights of the oppressed? When does a failure to lead become racism?
These are questions we can't even answer now, 46 and 40 years (respectively) removed. I doubt we will ever be able to answer them in the context in which they occurred.