On point: U-M Law grad helped to integrate college athletics

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By Brian Cox
Legal News

The U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan’s Diversity Committee recently invited Godfrey Dillard to speak at the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse.

The Detroit attorney shared his pioneering experience from more than 50 years ago of helping to integrate college athletics in the South. It is a compelling story of idealism, naiveté, courage, determination, resilience and redemption.

The roots of Dillard’s long and accomplished legal career in civil rights extend from his turbulent experience as one of two black basketball players bound to integrate the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference when they were recruited to play for the Vanderbilt Commodores in 1966. It was an experience that fundamentally altered his worldview and inspired his legal career.

A Detroit native who grew up in the civil rights era in the integrated neighborhood of Boston-Edison, Dillard attended Visitation High School, a predominately white Catholic school where race neither limited his ambitions nor impeded his success. Popular and politically active, he was elected the school’s first black class president his sophomore year and in his senior year became the first black president of the student council. Athletically gifted, he was All-State in football and basketball and also played baseball and hockey. If the school had had a pool, he probably would have been on the swim team as well; after all, he had been a champion butterfly swimmer in the fourth grade.

An altar boy for 10 years, Dillard credits his Catholic faith for teaching him the importance of service and sacrifice.

He graduated high school in the midst of great civil rights agitation. Only two years earlier, President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The following year, the president issued Executive Order 11246, initiating affirmative action for the first time (an issue, coincidentally, that Dillard would decades later defend as a civil rights attorney). The South was a racial battleground and the integration of collegiate athletics, particularly in the SEC, was a hotbed of controversy. In Mississippi, opposition to integration was so vehement that the state legislature issued an edict prohibiting its collegiate teams from competing against black players.

So when Vanderbilt’s coach, Roy Skinner, was looking to be the first integrated team in the SEC and approached Dillard about playing for the Commodores alongside Nashville native Perry Wallace, Dillard was anxious to do his part to break down racial barriers in the segregated South.

A high-profile student in high school, imbued with confidence in his abilities and blessed with leadership traits, he was primed and prepared for the historic opportunity. Or so he thought. He sees now, after years of reflection, that he did not fully comprehend what he was getting into as an impressionable young man. “I was naive,” he admits.

Most of his friends and family thought he was out of his mind for heading south, but Dillard saw it differently. “I thought it was a great honor and something I could be proud of for helping to integrate collegiate athletics,” he says.

He was one of a handful of black students on campus, and the only northerner. He learned quickly that his presence was unwelcome. Death threats were common and during away games his freshman year he was assaulted with epithets, slurs, and hurled soft drinks from hostile, hateful fans.

Dillard’s bold and brash personality did not always blend well with the racist culture. He was an aggressive, angry, and intimidating player on the basketball court and politically active on campus, editing the school’s first black newspaper and serving as president of the newly formed Afro-American Association.

But his attitude on the court and his political efforts on campus carried consequences. Dillard believes school administrators saw him as a disruptive influence. A radical. “I think its fair to say there may have been some people who saw Godfrey as more assertive than they were accustomed to in a black man,” recalls Wallace, who is now a law professor at American University Washington College of Law. “Stepping across the racial divide is complex. Godfrey had crossed the racial divide growing up. He grew up with whites. He may have had an intellectual understanding of segregation, but he had never experienced it.”

Wallace, on the other hand, had grown up in the segregated South and knew better how to deal with racist attitudes and agendas. He wasn’t as aggressive or confrontational the way Dillard could be.

“Perry knew how to navigate the environment,” says Dillard. “I did not know how to navigate it.”

He now sees his role at Vanderbilt as providing a contrast to Wallace, with whom Dillard roomed and became good friends and remains in touch. Dillard provided the student body and school officials a stark choice: the more reserved Wallace or an outspoken Dillard. “If you have a choice, its more difficult to reject the one you’re more comfortable with,” Dillard says.

Despite a volatile freshman year, Dillard was committed to completing his mission to help integrate the SEC. He returned as a sophomore ready to play basketball and aiming to possibly make the varsity squad as sixth man. His goal was shattered, however, when on Halloween night during a team workout he injured his knee, requiring surgery and ending his season.

That year, as president of the fledgling Afro-American Association, Dillard supported inviting activist Stokely Carmichael to speak on campus. Carmichael’s controversial visit heightened concerns across Nashville over the threatening tone the push for civil rights was adopting.

Dillard, who had just experienced the Detroit riots of 1967, may not have fully appreciated the disquieting effect the social upheaval was having in the South.

“The environment that was created was you were beginning to have all these racial movements and some of it was getting rather aggressive,” recalls Wallace. “I don’t think Godfrey understood how much Nat Turner fear and anger was around in the South and extending into campus.”

Some of that fear and distrust, according to Wallace, could be found in active university alumni and supporters who carried a good deal of influence over the athletic department.“They’re the ones who had the power, the least amount of knowledge, and the most amount of fear,” says Wallace.

Dillard came to believe his political activism drew disapproval from those influential forces and that he suffered the consequences.

When Dillard returned his junior year, poised to make a major contribution to the varsity team, he took a spirit-crushing blow when he was cut and demoted to the B team, which only played in scrimmages and practices. Coach Skinner always insisted the knee injury and the year Dillard missed playing as a sophomore were to blame, but Dillard was convinced the decision had nothing to do with his skills on the basketball court.

As far as he was concerned, he was shunted aside because of who he was. Because of how he was.

“It was like I disappeared and that was their intention,” he says.

He was prepared to handle the curses, the slurs, the death threats, and the constant scrutiny. He did not know how to deal with being made to feel invisible, as if he were a non-entity.

“(Dillard) was more insistent that his humanity be respected and acknowledged,” says Wallace.

How Dillard perceived the world abruptly shifted.

“I realized the world was hostile,” he says. “I realized that I was a black man in a hostile world.”

He remembers clearly sitting in his dorm room when he made the decision to leave Vanderbilt. He had determined that if the school did not want him to play basketball, he would not stay to suffer the humiliation. He called Wallace and the other black students to inform them of his decision.

Bitter, resentful and angry, Dillard returned north to Michigan a changed young man. He enrolled at Eastern Michigan University where he played basketball for a year. But the game had lost its appeal.“I had lost my zeal for sports,” Dillard says.

Looking back, he believes now he was suffering from depression and would have benefited from seeking help.

When he graduated in 1970 with a degree in philosophy, he decided to get a law degree as a way to combat what he now saw as a hostile world. Though again, he could have attended law school almost anywhere in the country, this time he chose to stay close to home and enrolled in the University of Michigan Law School. He wasn’t ready to leave the state again just yet, he says. He needed more time to heal.
Still, his years at Vanderbilt shadowed his experience at law school, where he didn’t forge many friendships and mistrusted the professors, believing they would not give him a fair shot. “I still had a protective shell around me,” he says.

It took him years to overcome the bitterness, anger, and resentment. His former teammate can sympathize. It took Wallace years to reconcile his treatment at Vanderbilt as well. “It was a powerful, powerful experience,” says Wallace, “and we were the focus of it. To fight it out takes a while. You’re trying to grow and heal.”

An important step toward Dillard resolving his rage and defining the arc of his legal career was his meeting Milton Henry, a former Tuskegee Airman who had established himself as a civil rights attorney in Detroit. Dillard, who had lost his father to a heart attack when he was 4, says Henry became a mentor.

“Milton had no son and I had no father,” says Dillard. “He immediately took me under his wing. He taught me how to make a living. How to be self-sufficient and be involved in the community.”

By the end of the decade, Dillard was ready to journey from home again. He earned a masters degree from George Washington University School of International Affairs and joined the U.S. State Department. He sought an assignment to the Congo where he lived with his family for nearly two years. The experience was transformative.

“I had a chance to see a dictatorship and a military dictatorship, and this was black people doing it to black people,” Dillard recalls. “It was a cathartic experience. I came back cleansed. I resolved my anger against whites. I came back a mature man.”

When Dillard returned home, he went to work with his mentor, Milton Henry, at one of the city’s top small firms, Evans & Luptak. It was a partnership that would transfigure the civil rights landscape not just in Michigan, but across the nation.

In 1983, Dillard and Henry sued the University of Detroit Mercy, claiming its law school discriminated against black students. Dismissed in circuit court and reinstated by the Court of Appeals, Dillard and Henry ultimately won a consent decree before the Michigan Supreme Court. More than 10 years later, the pair would unite again to take on pro bono a hallmark, controversial case that drew nationwide attention as it wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

When two white students were rejected for undergraduate admission at the University of Michigan and a third white student was denied admission to U-M’s law school, the Center for Individual Rights took up their cause in an effort to overturn affirmative-action policies.

Dillard served as lead counsel for a group of minority students and civil rights organizations that wanted to present a case in support of the university’s admission policies.

“For that to happen to me, to be a part of that was unbelievable,” says Dillard. “I jumped at the opportunity. I was so passionate in the case because I had gone to the university. My advocacy, I believe, was heightened because of my experiences.”

While Dillard was ultimately denied an opportunity to argue his case before the Supreme Court, the Court did uphold the use of race as a factor in the admissions process, concluding that employing racial preferences does not violate the constitutional rights of other applicants.

“I believe my role in the affirmative action case will be my legacy,” Dillard says.

More recently, he won a significant case representing Wayne County Third Circuit Court, arguing that the county was underfunding the courts.

Dillard is at ease now with the past. Recently he has received more recognition for his contribution to integrating the SEC, but for decades he was only an asterisk in the school’s history.

Wallace says he has on occasion recited to his friend a closing line from Othello when Othello says, “I have done the state some service and they know it.”

In 2016, Andrew Maraniss wrote a New York Times best seller, “Strong Inside,” which chronicled the contributions of Wallace and Dillard to college sports in the South.

In December 2017, Vanderbilt  presenting the pair with the Michael L. Slive Award at the SEC Championship game.

Dillard is content to know he did what he believed right and is comfortable with the consequences. Gone is the anger of a young man, replaced by the reflective understanding of a man who has passed through the fire of challenging, changing times and emerged stronger and wiser. “I’m more concerned about the present now,” he says. “I’m sure there will be some other battles in the future and I’m ready and prepared for them.”

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