Harry Flournoy:
how the court ruled on race

A rambling by Tom Knapp

In 1966, Harry Flournoy wasn't thinking about making civil rights history. He just wanted to play basketball -- and win.

Flournoy, who grew up in Gary, Ind., and went to Texas Western College in El Paso, accepted racism as a fact of life. He was angry, but felt powerless. All that changed -- for Flournoy personally and the nation at large -- in 1966 when he led to all-black starting lineup of the Texas Western Miners to victory over the all-white Kentucky Wildcats to win the NCAA men's basketball final.

The story was featured in the film Glory Road.

"They told us you can't have five black players on the floor at one time because they don't think fast enough for that game," Flournoy said Sunday at McCaskey East High School in Lancaster, Pa., where a crowd of more than 250 people gathered as part of the YWCA of Lancaster's ongoing series of programs on racial justice.

"Although we don't often have public conversations about racism," Maureen Powers, executive director of the Lancaster YWCA, told the crowd, "we feel it is important to provide a safe place to do so."

Detractors said black players lacked leadership and discipline, Flournoy said. "They said, 'When the going gets tough, they're going to quit on you. That's how they are.' That's what the mind-set was."

But Texas Western basketball coach Don Haskins knew better, and with a series of championship victories in 1966, he taught the country that black players could more than hold their own on the court. "Racists occupy a small portion of this country," Flournoy said. "But it's like a cancer. If you don't check it, it spreads. And spreads."

Flournoy said there in no place for racism in the U.S. "It goes against the very reason that these United States were created," he said.

"The '60s was a turbulent time," Flournoy said. "In Gary, he said, "there were no signs -- 'whites only,' 'colored only' -- but we knew where we could go, where our boundaries were."

His life first got shaken up in 1951, when Flournoy's mother moved her 7-year-old son from an all-black school to one with a white majority. "I felt comfortable going to an all-black school, going home to an all-black neighborhood, having all black friends," he said. "And that was my world until I was 7 years old. Then I went to Emerson: 7 years old and being spit at, 7 years old and being called names, 7 years old and having teachers tell me I wasn't worthy of being there."

By the time he reached high school, he said, "there was so much racism going on that I really developed a dislike for white people. I did not like white people at all."

Then two white men drove up in a white car one day and changed his life. One of them was Haskins, who was recruiting for the Miners. Flournoy said he didn't like Haskins from the start because "he was eating my apple pie." But Flournoy's very formidable mother decided that day that her son would be going to El Paso.

"We had a coach that was a great man," Flournoy said. "He did what we all should do. He looked past our exteriors ... and chose his players by what they could do."

Now it's time to pass that wisdom on to the next generation, Flournoy said. "We're here to make sure that the life of those coming after us is better. If they have to go through the same things that we had to go through, we haven't done anything," he said. "We all have an opportunity to make a difference ... but if in the time between your birth and your death there's no difference, that's a waste of a life.

"You never know -- I didn't know -- when you're going to get tapped on the shoulder to make a difference in someone's life."

After his talk, Flournoy joined a panel on racism that included Jonathan Fox of the Lancaster County Human Relations Commission, restorative justice practitioner Charito Calvachi-Mateyko, YWCA volunteer Beckie Meyer and racial justice trainer Conrad Moore.

Biologically, Calvachi-Mateyko said, people are all part of the human race.

"Racism is junk science. It's not based in anything," she said. "Racism is a social construction based on economic violence to control and exploit others."

Meyer said she grieves over the privilege enjoyed by fellow white people and urges them to "get out of your little white box, and you'll be amazed how your life will change."

"We all have obligations," Flournoy added. "It's not just for white people to change. It's for people of color to change, too."

Most black athletes and entertainers are doing little with their millions to help out "their own on the street," Flournoy said. "We have to be kinder to our own ... and that's everyone."

Flournoy returned to center stage to take questions from the audience, then sat in the corner of the auditorium to greet people and sign autographs. He asked each youngster who approached him how they were doing in school and praised those who were doing well. Later, Flournoy said he doesn't worry about preaching to the choir when he talks.

"I don't think about it," he said. "If all I reach is one person, then I've reached exactly who I was supposed to reach."

by Tom Knapp
16 March 2009