When sports becomes more than just a game
Sometimes it’s the setbacks in life that steer you closer toward your purpose in life. Just ask Godfrey Dillard.
Now 69, Dillard was a trailblazing athlete throughout his high school and college career, but it was a sports-related injury that yanked him off the basketball court just long enough for him to follow yet another path leading to an activity in which he also excelled, namely raising hell.
Or, to say it more politely, he became a civil rights activist.
Dillard is widely known for being one of the two African American lawyers who participated in the famous reverse discrimination suit of Gratz v. Bollinger filed by a disgruntled white student against the University of Michigan claiming that the school admissions policy discriminated against white people.
But decades before that time came, Dillard was making a name for himself in Detroit during the early ‘60s as a superior high school athlete who excelled in both basketball and football (he was All-State in both sports), and also did quite well in baseball and hockey. One of the few black students enrolled at Visitation High School, a Catholic high school that used to be located at 12th and Webb, Dillard remembers his time there under the tutelage of the Dominican nuns as a largely positive experience where he learned early on that he could compete both academically and athletically against the best, white as well as black.
“We won one championship every year I was there,” in both football and basketball, said Dillard, who also recalled playing hockey against the Canadians on Belle Isle on the pond and in Windsor.
One of five children, Dillard had three brothers and one sister. All of the brothers excelled in sports. His father, Earl Dillard one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, died right after World War II at the age of 36.
“During the wintertime, football is over and it’s too cold, so we played hockey. ..One thing about my mother with four boys and no father, she encouraged sports. My older brother was a star athlete, he went to Western Michigan University. My other brother was All-State, All-American football player for Central High School. So that’s where her excess money went. We needed football shoes, helmets, whatever.”
Dillard’s strength in sports attracted the attention of college scouts across the nation.
“I was highly recruited, had over 30 schools that wanted me, but I went to Vanderbilt [University], where I was the first black in the SEC (Southeastern Conference). Thing about that is you got Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, and of course that’s during the height of the civil rights movement. Freedom Summer ’64, ’65, ’66. I came in ’66.
“I came to the south in part to participate in the southern movement. To try to break down the segregation patterns in the south. As an athlete, my way of doing it was sports.”
Still, “It made me naïve” going to Visitation High School, because Dillard was a black man accustomed to being accepted by whites. “I didn’t have any feeling of inferiority vis-à-vis white folks.”
“But southern racism was different than northern racism. Even though I felt like I navigated the northern, when I hit that, it was totally different. And then I became politically active. I started the first black newspaper at Vanderbilt. I was the first black Afro-American president of the [black] student government. And I pushed for more black teachers, more black classrooms, more black studies, more black administrators.” He helped create the first black student union on campus.
“There were only eight black folks on the entire [Nashville, Tennessee] campus. And I was the only one from the north.”
All the other black students were from the segregated south and more fluent in the ways of southern racism, whereas Dillard talked trash on the court and had no problem being aggressive on the court. But in the south at that time “black folks didn’t talk trash. They shut their mouths and they played. …There was a backlash against me eventually.”
Perry Wallace, the other black player on the team, was the hometown hero from Nashville, who had gone to the local black school. He had been on the State Championship team that broke the color barrier when it became the first time whites played against blacks in the state of Tennessee. Wallace’s team won. Wallace was also a valedictorian and an All American.
“He could have went anywhere, but the pressures from the black community in Nashville for him to go to Vanderbilt and break that [color] barrier was tremendous.”
“Freshman year, he (Perry Wallace) and I, we break the color barrier in Starkville, Mississippi at Mississippi State. But folks were on top of us, man. This was in Sports Illustrated. This was big. The place was packed for the freshman game. Because at that time freshmen didn’t play varsity. I guess I was so young and naïve I didn’t know to be scared.
“Because when I look back on it, I was in a very dangerous situation. But we didn’t really focus in on that, we focused in on what we were doing, which was playing basketball. Anyway, it was a crazy scene, the state troopers were out, they (the crowd) were throwing stuff at us, calling us names, it was just unbelievable. But that was the historic game. The first time a black ever played against a white boy in the state of Mississippi.”
Sophomore year, Dillard was at the peak of his game when, as fate would have it, he blew out his knee. So for the rest of the year at school he committed himself to his activism in addition to his studies. To put it mildly, that didn’t play well in the South.
“I didn’t understand that athletes weren’t supposed to be politically active,” he said. “When I came back my junior year, they kicked me off the team.”
So Dillard left Vanderbilt, came back home to enroll in Eastern Michigan University for his senior year and still managed to graduate on time.
“My whole experience at Vanderbilt made me want to be a lawyer, so I went to University of Michigan Law School and graduated from there.”
Then he decided to get a Masters in International Affairs from George Washington University. And then he was recruited by the State Department to be a foreign service officer in Africa where he remained for several years before resigning and returning home to practice law. Dillard has worked with many of the more prominent lawyers in town, and Milton Henry certainly counts as one of that number. It was Henry he worked with on the Gratz v. Bollinger case.
“It was about race, but blacks weren’t represented because the plaintiff was white and the defendant was white. And yet you’re talking about black people, but we don’t have a seat at the table.”
Dillard and Henry decided it was important that the black perspective be represented in such a momentous case, so they filed a motion to intervene when the case was filed in Detroit .
“We decided to intervene on behalf of people of color, and that is the first time that has ever happened where the minority group was actually allowed to be a party,” which meant they could cross examine witnesses as well as present evidence.