On this day (October 20), 1951, the Johnny Bright Incident occurred. If you aren’t familiar with this event, it was deemed as a racially motivated attack that took place during a collegiate football game. Johnny Bright, being both black and a talented athlete, pissed off most opponents, especially the players and coaches at Oklahoma A&M. Bright, a remarkable competitor who represented Drake University, was so talented that in the previous year (his junior year), he led the NCAA in total offensive yards. He was a great tailback, possessing both the ability to pass and run with the ball. In his junior year he passed for 1,168 yards and ran for 1,232 yards. At the start of his senior year, he was on the shortlist of players that were Heisman Trophy candidates.
Wilbanks Smith, a Oklahoma A&M defensive tackle, would spend the entire game with one goal; the objective was simple, “Get that nigger!” It was no secret, student of Oklahoma A&M openly talked about how the coaches and players commonly tossed around phrases like the one above in reference to Johnny Bright. As the game started, Smith quickly laid Bright out. In fact, before the first seven minutes, Smith would have tackled Bright continually, knocking him unconscious three times. The last of these would be forever known as the Johnny Bright Incident. With the final blow, Smith broke Bright’s jaw.
Now football injuries occur all the time, and in this time period, the equipment wasn’t all that great. So why the big deal? Instead of telling you, let me just show you–because a picture is worth 1,000 words. Johnny Bright is number 43.
As you can see, the hit was very late. It occurred long after the ball had been handed off.
Bright believes that the hit, as were all the hits before this, was because he was black. In an interview twenty-nine years later, he said, “There’s no way it couldn’t have been racially motivated.” Smith, however, says that the hits were not racially motivated. There is a great interview at The Daily O’Colley, entitled Without Rules: The Untold Story Of The Johnny Bright Incident. It is lengthy, but if you have twenty minutes, it is worth checking out.
Whether the Johnny Bright Incident was due to racial hatred or not, this incident would change football for the better. Because of Bright’s injuries, the NCAA changed the rules regarding illegal blocks and mandated the use of protective helmets with face guards.
Racism was still at large in 1951, so why was this such a big deal? The two photographers at the game from the Des Moines Register took these great pictures that spread through the media like wildfire, and eventually made the cover of Life Magazine.The photo sequence was so impressive, that photographers John Robinson and Don Ultang were given the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1952.
And for Johhny Bright? Bright continued playing football, but he did so in Canada. He shattered many records and still to this day hold many. In an interview he told as to why he turned down his first round draft pick into the NFL.
There was a tremendous influx of Southern players into the NFL at that time, and I didn’t know what kind of treatment I could expect.