by PETE JANNY, Asst. Sports Editor
Every February we hold a heightened sense of appreciation for all the influential contributions of African Americans to society. This month long meditation on the invaluable impact of African Americans past and present is formally known as “Black History Month.” We exhibit tremendous gratitude for the efforts of these men and women for their unrelenting commitment to fostering a more just and humane society. At Manhattan College, this fight for racial justice was manifested by those who laid the foundation for this college’s long-lived prosperity. Looking back, it’s safe to say that Manhattan’s intolerance for hatred and discrimination was never more evident than during the lead up to the 1948 NAIB Men’s Division 1 Basketball Tournament.
There’s very little debate as for whether or not the 1947-1948 Manhattan College Men’s basketball team was one of the program’s all-time great teams. The Kelly Green and White won 21 out of their 26 non-tournament games in a season that saw the Jaspers eclipse a number of program records. Furthermore, the team’s 20 regular season wins represented a program best just ahead of the previous high of 18 set by the 1948 squad. Despite this wealth of success, the 1948 team will be most remembered for something far more important than any basketball game.
On February 27th, 1948, Manhattan College received a telegram from organizers of the NAIB tournament offering an invitation to the school’s basketball team to compete in the organization’s annual tournament held in Kansas City, Missouri. Grateful for the invitation, Manhattan hastily accepted the honor to attend. The biggest attraction of the tournament and the presumptive reason for Manhattan’s quick response was the pathway it provided the victor to qualify for the Olympic trials. There was only one complication: African Americans were barred from participation in the tournament. Little did anyone that the aftermath of Manhattan’s initial agreement would ignite an unforeseen stalemate between the school and the organizers of the tournament.
Upon careful perusal of the tournament’s guidelines, Manhattan became aware of the tournament’s controversial prohibition of African American participation. Instinctively, the school decided they needed to reconsider whether or not they should carry on with their initial intentions to participate in the tournament. According to Manhattan President Brother Thomas, the school had no knowledge of this rule before agreeing to attend the tournament.
“The presentation to the Administration for approval did not include any mention of this rule,” said Brother Thomas in a letter to the rest of Manhattan’s administration explaining the situation.
Brother Thomas’s main objective of consulting the entire administration was to solicit their thoughts on whether or not Manhattan would be violating school norms by taking part in the tournament.
“I would like to discuss and hear the opinion of C.C. members as whether Manhattan College would be inconsistent regarding our policy of toleration and respect for the rights of minority groups – racially colored people – by accepting an invitation to this tournament,” said Brother Thomas.
Upon careful consideration from the school’s administration, Manhattan decided to withdraw its name from the field of participants.
In a letter penned to the secretary-treasure of the tournament, Manhattan President Brother Thomas confirmed the team’s withdrawal saying, “I regret very much that considered opinion of the Manhattan College Administration had to rule that we will not participate in your tournament, due to the “rule” providing that “Colored players are not eligible” – unless you see fit to eliminating this ruling.”
Following Manhattan’s publicized decision to withdraw, one Quadrangle article read, “When the story first broke, to the average student it smelled suspiciously of another economy measure on the part of the administration.” It continued, “But as further developments appeared and the facts of the case became known, student sympathy swung unanimously in favor of the school authorities, as they stood firm on their stand of refusing to allow the basketball team to take part in a racially-prejudiced tournament.”
Manhattan’s decision had a significant bearing on the way other schools perceived this discriminatory policy.
According to that same Quadrangle article, “Manhattan, which had already gained a moral victory, suddenly found itself supported by staunch supporter Siena College and Long Island University, who also refused Kansas City bids.” It continued, “Then the United States Committee struck the vital blow: the NAIB tournament was threatened with disqualification from the Olympic trials if the tournament committee did not rescind the Negro ban.”
This overwhelming amount of support for Manhattan’s bold action ultimately forced the NAIB Tournament to lift the ban on African American participation. Upon receiving a second invitation from tournament officials, the school happily accepted the offer. After wins over Arkansas State and Southern Illinois, Manhattan lost in the quarterfinals to Hamline University by a score of 60-51. Although they may have lost, the Quadrangle pointed out the significance of the team’s presence in the tournament saying, “before the team had taken the floor in tournament play, a great victory had been won.”
The most meaningful part of Manhattan’s decision to protest the tournament was the fact that the team itself featured no African American players. Despite the ban having nothing to do with the school’s team, Manhattan’s honorable actions symbolized the school’s genuine appreciation for the human dignity of every person, regardless of a person’s race.
“For many years Manhattan has been promoting the idea of Interracial Justice, and has practiced it,” said Brother Thomas in the first letter he sent to tournament officials. “Especially in the matter of colored students we have made an effort not to discriminate because of race or color.”
With Black History Month winding down, we especially remember the heroes of Manhattan College whose intervention in the 1948 NAIB tournament reminded the entire nation of the equality and sacredness of all human races..