The Transylvania Times -

By John Lanier

Historian: Integration Of Cheerleaders Was Difficult To Achieve - Brevard NC


While the integration of white and black athletes in the 1960s and ‘70s took place with relatively few problems, the integration of cheerleading squads was more problematic.

Pamela Grundy, a sports historian, told a crowd of roughly 50 people attending her talk, “Athletes, Cheerleaders and Civil Rights in North Carolina,” at the county library last week that team integration went somewhat smoothly due to obvious objective measures.

“Either you can hit the basket or you can’t. Either you can hit the receiver or you can’t,” said Grundy. “It’s very clear who’s good.”

Grundy said there is also this intense desire to win games, so players and coaches might sublimate their racial feelings in order for the team to win.

“Everybody wants to win,” she said.

Grundy also credited the coaching ethos of “fair play” and “competition” as a significant contributor to the fair treatment of players.

In 1967, when blacks began to attend Ashley High School in Gastonia, the school’s basketball coach, Larry Rhodes, who was white, started five black players.

Even though there were phone calls and threats made if he did not start some of the white players, Rhodes stuck to his decision.

“This was not the first time Larry Rhodes had felt pressure,” said Grundy, adding that in previous years, parents had pressured him to play their sons.

“You play the best guys,” said Rhodes in an interview years later.

Rhodes’ team went on to win the state championship that year.

“Cheerleading was very different from sports,” said Grundy.

The biggest challenge with cheerleading is that it is subjective.

Grundy said most of the squads were chosen either by the student body, a committee comprised of faculty or the cheerleading coach.

Since blacks were often in the minority, they rarely were selected by the student body to be on the squad. When it came to committees or the cheerleading coaches, they were mostly white and selected white cheerleaders.

Grundy said the selections were based more on the style and culture, not necessarily race.

A photo of the Myers Park (a top-tier all-white school in Charlotte) cheerleading squad revealed girls with similar hair styles standing very straight with arms and limbs in the same position.

Not only did the cheerleaders attempt to look alike, but Grundy said their movements were synchronized and they mostly used their arms.

Uniformity, in both looks and movements, was paramount.

Another photo showed the cheerleading squad from the same year at West Charlotte (the black equivalent of Myers Park).

The cheerleaders had different hair styles and they were in different poses. Grundy said that while their cheers too were synchronized, they used their legs and hips more than their arms.

And cheerleaders involved the crowds to participate in the cheers, often in a “call and response” format whose precursors were African chants.

Many of the cheers had foot stomping by both cheerleaders and fans.

“Foot stomping was turned into an art,” said Grundy.

Grundy said that when schools integrated, blacks were usually in the minority. If they were in the majority, many of the white students left the public schools and attended white private schools that were often established as Christian academies.

As a result, in the integrated public schools, whites were still the majority and most of those who selected cheerleading squads were accustomed to white cheerleading standards.

“A black girl basically doesn’t have a chance,” said Grundy, adding that those who selected squads thought the black cheerleaders could “catch up” in a few years.

Since many black girls were excluded from cheerleading squads, students began to protest and in some cases there were riots.

In 1969 in small Burlington, N.C., violence erupted when Walter Williams High selected an all-white cheerleading squad.

Shops were looted, buildings were burned and one man was shot to death.

Grundy said that once those who selected the cheerleading squad realized what a huge issue it was and that blacks were being excluded, either intentionally or not, things began to change.

Since a lot of those involved with the schools, including teachers and students, were working hard to make integration work, they began to re-assess selection criteria.

One of the solutions was to implement quotas in which a certain number of cheerleaders had to be from each race.

Increasing the number of black cheerleaders also dovetailed with efforts to have more black teachers and black coaches in the integrated schools.

Grundy said that while many of the racial and cultural issues have been addressed, vestiges of those differences and tensions remain.

“These are not easy issues,” said Grundy. “They were not easy issues then; they are not easy issues now.”


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