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In 1970s, Oklahoman Ken Zacher pushed tiny town hard for racial change
“Right away, both of us were in shock,” Coley said. “We were stunned. I felt like I knew nothing of the world, and it was just not OK. And there was this spirit of these people who would walk over the railroad tracks to school … and they would go to school with these people who didn’t even like them everyday. And it was not OK. It was not OK to me, and it was not OK to Ken.
“But it was like he was going to change it. He would just bring up whatever it was, and he would bring it out right in the open.”
Indeed, one of Zacher’s first rules was that his team would have one captain. Before Zacher, there were two captains, Caliman said. If one was black, the white co-captain always escorted the queen to basketball homecoming, a tradition played out in small towns across the Midwest.
“It was not out of the ordinary. I didn’t have feelings about it one way or another, and years before that I can remember very good players, black players, who may have been co-captains but never singular captains, doing things like opening car doors for the queen’s entourage and carrying the stage out for the queen to be crowned.”
Just before the start of the 1971-72 school year, Zacher made plans to attend a weekend teaching session at the University of Oklahoma’s “Consultive Center for School Desegregation,” one of about a dozen such facilities across the country funded by the federal government that was intended to help local schools ease the transition to full integration.
The clinics were housed on university campuses and mostly offered lectures to elementary and high school teachers. The training wasn’t mandatory, so those most in need of it were free to refuse. But after Zacher heard about the clinic, he quickly signed up.
When Zacher returned to Nowata, he walked into the superintendent’s office and complained about the lack of black captains and cheerleaders. Worried about the town’s reaction to “black captains and white queens,” the superintendent, Glenn Moore, called a meeting of the school’s head coaches a few days later and proposed to let the homecoming queen pick which team captain would escort her to the dance. Zacher threatened to quit. They left the question unsettled.
By 1970, there were 3,379 people in Nowata, according to U.S. Census figures, and 268 of them were black. There were five black players on Zacher’s 1971-72 squad. One was a skinny senior named Dale Martin.
He wasn’t a star, not like Warren Dennis, another black player who was fast developing into a major college recruit and one of the top talents in Oklahoma. Well liked by teammates, Martin served on the student council and made honor roll. He was the son of the school custodian. During summer breaks, he helped his father clean the empty hallways and classrooms.
He was an unlikely pick for captain heading into the school year. Only seniors were eligible, and Dennis was still a junior. Next to Dennis, the team’s only returning varsity player was Rick Reid, who was white. But Reid, the popular son of the town doctor, broke his arm during the second game of the football season. While he hoped to play and remained on the team, doctors weren’t hopeful.
One day in late November, the team gathered in the locker room and, one by one, players privately scrawled their choices on bits of paper and tossed them into a hat. Alone in his office, Zacher tallied the vote.
By a 15-7 vote, on a team with five blacks and 17 whites, Martin had won.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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