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August 30, 2013

Must-see documentary tells story of Ala. sports in Civil Rights era

If your interests lean toward American history and college sports, a recently released documentary about the Civil Rights era in Alabama and the vaunted Crimson Tide football program is a must-see.

Paul Finebaum, the noted Southern author and sports commentator, had this to say about “Three Days at Foster,” a reference to the name of an auditorium on the Alabama campus.

“Simply an unforgettable film . . . (writer-director) Keith Dunnavant has taken one of the seminal moments in the Civil Rights movement and peeled off a new layer that is both haunting and gut-wrenching,” the new ESPN sports figure wrote.

There are many levels to the piece, but in the end it tells the story of the clash between Gov. George Wallace’s segregationist beliefs, ones shared by many in the Deep South, and sweeping changes affecting college football and Alabama’s love for the Crimson Tide. The passions of race and rivalries were on a collision course where there would be no easy resolution to an accepted way of life in the Heart of Dixie.

Football teams across the land had begun recruiting black athletes to their teams, but in Wallace’s state, the governor was hard at work keeping black students out of classrooms on the Tuscaloosa campus. The showdown came on June 11, 1963, when Wallace blocked two black students from enrolling for classes at Foster Auditorium until federal troops cleared a way to a registration table inside the gym.

That historical event also turned out to be a triggering moment for the integration of the University of Alabama sports programs and furthered a change in the land’s social, political and cultural fabric that to this day is both amazing as well as revolutionary.

Much of Dunnavant’s work deals with legendary Alabama coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant and the earliest black players, many of whom were mere footnotes in history, and how they came to join the once all-white team. They weren’t the famous All-Americans that would wear the crimson jersey in years to come, but guys who liked the game and didn’t see why the color of their skin should disqualify them. There was Dock Rone and Andrew Pernell and Arthur Dunning -- maybe not huge physical specimens by today’s standards, but gritty athletes who could play.

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