April 23, 2015
By Christopher Walsh
They can still remember the sound like it was yesterday. That would be the sound of silence, which was how they were greeted when walking into the locker room for the first time, with everyone stopping what they were doing and just staring at the first black athletes to try and walk on to the University of Alabama football team.
This was 1967, before basketball player Wendell Hudson became Alabama’s first scholarship athlete, Sam Cunningham famously ran through the Crimson Tide, and the football program added Wilbur Jackson, with John Mitchell becoming the first black player to get into a game in 1971.
Forty-eight years later, last Saturday morning, the sound that Arthur Dunning, Andrew Pernell and Dock Rone heard was something very different: the sound of not one, but two, standing ovations. As part of a special ceremony in their honor by the A Club (Alabama’s Lettermen’s Association) Dunning, Pernell and Rone were named honorary members of the A Club.
“Extraordinarily exciting,” Dunning said of the honor.
“Just beautiful,” Pernell said, describing the shared sense of pride.
“Right now I’m overwhelmed. I never thought this day would come,” Rone said afterward. “I used to fantasize about being part of the A Club.”
Initially there were five pioneers in the spring of 1967, Melvin Leverett and Jerome Tucker being the others (Leverett is deceased while Tucker is an attorney in Birmingham), which is even more telling since there were only a few black students enrolled at Alabama at the time. Dunning, Pernell and Tucker lived in the same dorm and, obviously, their decision was not made lightly.
“What the three of us were trying to do was normalize what goes on every football game at Bryant-Denny Stadium now, which was the best athletes that this campus can recruit would have the ability and encouragement to be on the field,” said Dunning, who earned three degrees at Alabama and is now serving as the president of Albany State University in Georgia. “I came because of the academic program, but I think what the three of us thought about was the whole idea of pushing the boundaries.”
Yet the group, as a whole, Dunning said, “had uneven expectations. Some wanted to play and some wanted to make a statement, and I think we did both very well.”
Rone, in particular, was primarily interested in playing football and proving to himself that he was good enough to be on what was arguably best program in the nation. The Crimson Tide was coming off its undefeated 1966 season that didn’t result in a national championship, following the one-loss 1964 and 1965 campaigns that did.
“I didn’t come to Alabama with that ambition,” he said. “My first fall there, and going to the games and so forth – the pageantry, the spirit, the fan base and how much people enjoyed Alabama football – made me feel that `I want to be a part of that’.”
So Rone went to Coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant’s office and asked for permission to try and walk on in the spring, an extremely nerve-wracking experience in and of itself. Bryant warned that it wouldn’t be easy, but gave his consent.
“It was tough,” said Rone, a guard, while Dunning described the brutal workouts as like being in a car wreck even though the players are much bigger today. “I think nature has it right, it makes 19- and 20-year olds fearless,” he quipped about both the racial tensions and playing football.
Pernell lasted the longest of the five, to fall practice, and was poised to do so again in 1968 only to have his efforts derailed by a technicality.
At the time Southeastern Conference rules didn’t allow students receiving academic scholarships to play sports (which has since been changed). So he had to make a decision between playing football and the scholarship, which he couldn’t afford to attend Alabama without.
Pernell said he felt more “dejected” than anything else.
“At that point I thought all my efforts had been in vain, and nobody remembered the work that we did,” he said, adding about Saturday: “On this occasion I feel vindicated, validated, because somebody does remember.”
The genesis of creating the honorary memberships began when James Sanderson, President of the A-Club football committee, attended the premiere of Keith Dunnavant’s documentary movie, “Three Days at Foster,” which included interviews of the three. He left the theater with the inclusion idea.
“It was just something I felt that needed to be done,” Sanderson said.
He wasn’t the alone as numerous others wrote the committee urging honorary admission, among them 1974 co-captains Sylvester Croom and Richard T. Davis.
“Dr. Arthur Dunning’s bold and fearless act was a foundational piece to Alabama football being what it is today and gave goals to many black boys to one day wear the crimson and white. It was more than playing football, it was breaking a barrier that seemed unthinkable at the time, but was one of the greatest things to happen at our university ever,” wrote Shaun Alexander, the National Football League’s MVP in 2005. “This letter is more than a nominate letter. It is a thank you letter.”
“The men who courageously stepped forward to test their talent, training and abilities on a playing field of sometimes unwelcoming peers, were true heroes. They were not out to gain anything other than the opportunity to compete,” wrote Ralph Stokes (1972-74 halfback). “Nothing about their choice was easy and I believe they deserve our respect and gratitude.”
“They were true pioneers” wrote former A-Club president Thomas Somerville, Jr., a lineman who faced Rone in practice that spring and added: “I had no doubt he could play with us.”
Although tensions remained high both on campus and throughout the state when he played, Pernell said it didn’t translate to the locker room other than being treated as if they weren’t there at all, with none of the camaraderie that’s usually felt between teammates.
Pernell recalled: “One of the players came up to me one day in private and said, `Y’all is just as good as we are, but if my Daddy knew I said that he’d kill me’.”
Who knows? That former teammate might have been one of those standing and applauding Saturday as Pernell gave everyone a little something to think about during his acceptance speech.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Pernell said. “If you accept that proposition I would pose two questions: Why must the arc be so long, and why must it bend toward justice?”