By Rubin E. Grant
Artist and author Steve Skipper wasn’t planning to do a book about the integration of the University of Alabama football team.
But while doing research for a commemorative painting honoring John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson, the first two black players for the Crimson Tide, it turned into more than just a piece of art. It became a book, titled “9780 Paul Bryant Drive: The Integration of the Football Team at the University of Alabama.”
In describing the recently released book, Skipper said, “It is a compelling and epic story and account by players, coaches and administrators who witnessed and were affected by the culture-changing integration of the Alabama football team.”
“It started out with me doing a commemorative painting for the Bryant Museum, celebrating the integration of football at Alabama,” said Skipper, who grew up in the Rosedale community and played football at Homewood High School. “You hear a lot of talking about it and mostly it’s just myths behind it, like it happened after the game against USC (in 1970).”
USC started an all-black backfield, featuring Sam “Bam” Cunningham, who rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Trojans to a 42-21 season-opening victory against the Tide at Legion Field.
Cunningham and the Trojans were inaccurately credited with persuading Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to integrate his team. But Jackson, a halfback, had already signed with the Tide. Since freshmen were ineligible under NCAA rules to play for the varsity at the time, Jackson watched the game from the student section.
The next season, Jackson and Mitchell, a defensive end and junior college transfer, became the first black players in Alabama football history and helped the Tide open the 1971 season with a 17-10 victory against USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“Some of the things said about the integration of the Alabama football team weren’t true,” Skipper said. “I decided to tell the story and tell it accurately and it snowballed into a book.”
The book includes accounts by players who were affected by integration, such as 1980s Alabama star linebacker Cornelius Bennett. Skipper also includes the role played by former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who once famously said in a speech, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
“Gov. Wallace deserves credit for how he changed his mind and his life his,” Skipper said. “I focus on the change because he repented and admitted he was wrong. I experienced the grace of God in my life so I can’t deny God doing the same thing with him.”
Skipper also pays tribute to Jackson and Mitchell.
“I thank God for these two men, as every player that came to the University of Alabama with and after them, black and white, needs to look back and say thank you because the great legacy of Alabama football was richly enhanced by them and their footprints are still all over the Capstone and forever will be,” Skipper said.
The coffee table-style book with a full-color jacket was published by Skipper’s Anointed Homes Art LLC. It is available online at steveskipperstudio.com in a standard edition for $69 and a limited edition for $170 individually signed by Skipper, Mitchell and Jackson. Pricing includes shipping within the continental United States.
Skipper’s commemorative painting called “9780 Paul Bryant Drive” was unveiled last year at the Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa and at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in Birmingham.