In 1972, Robert “Gentle Ben” Williams, a 6 foot 3, 250-pound defensive tackle from Yazoo City, Miss., came to play football for the university. He and James Reed, a fellow African-American running back from Meridian, Miss. were the first two black football recruits in Ole Miss history. However, Williams was the first African American to play varsity ball.
Ten years after Meredith walked onto campus, Williams says prejudices never surfaced.
“We really didn’t have any problems with racism you know or nothing like that. You know they had a degree of respect for me,” said Ben Williams.
So why is this? Racial tensions were still present on the campus of Ole Miss in the 1970s. While Williams attended the university between 1972-1976, African-American students were still victims of isolation and oppression. Just two years prior to Williams attending, Dr. Don Cole, the current assistant provost and assistant to the chancellor, and seven others were expelled from the university for protesting the Ole Miss environment.
“Here our protests was to get better treatment, to somehow get the university to do something, to have a more welcoming experience for individuals like myself,” Cole said. “Our appeal to administration seemed as if it was falling on deaf ears, and so as a result, we began to demonstrate and protest.”
Yet, it was a different story according to Williams. He was very talented on the field; he was an All-American defensive tackle and eventually became Ole Miss’s first African-American football captain as well. Off the field, Williams’ great personality stood out; he was a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., and the first Black “Colonel Reb” in school history, an honor awarded to the most popular male on campus.
“We always assume that academics delivers to athletics, but what we don’t understand well enough is the capacity of athletic departments to help open up and create spaces for racial reconciliation, racial sensitivity and diversity awareness,” said Dr. Jennifer Stollman, academic director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
When people looked at Ben Williams, from his perspective, race wasn’t a topic of discussion. By all accounts, he was well respected among his peers.
“He was very popular, Ben was always a favorite. He was always a favorite. With the black students and the white students,” said his wife Linda.
Today’s African-American athletes are often very popular, as well. Because of their ability to do well in their respective sports, they may feel more welcome and included by the white population than other African Americans at the university.
“I think that the African-American athletes that attend this institution have a different experience. I think they’re somewhat revered at times, and so it comes with some privileges,” said Jamil Northcutt, the Ole Miss Assistant Athletic Director for Internal Operations.
On the other hand, the feeling of isolation can still be an issue for the non-athletic African-American student.
“In terms of what I noticed, generally our white counterparts don’t extend an invitation to hang out with us. If it’s not athletics, then we have to excel in academics or join as many organizations as possible to feel welcomed in circles. It would be hard for a typical student to feel welcomed who’s not involved or doing well in academics,” said, an African-American student at the university who didn’t want to be identified.
Though Ole Miss athletics took longer to include African Americans than the rest of the university, the trail blazed by Ben Williams and others seems to have been less rocky. The next victory will come when those who battle on the gridiron and those who just battle for good grades are treated equally.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKO1qqTM7j8 This documentary excerpt, produced by Ole Miss graduate student Brandon Rook, provides insight into the experience of the first African-American varsity football player at Ole Miss. He can be reached at Brandon@wtvy.com.