Today’s guest blogger is Evin Demirel, author of African American Athletes in Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour, Black Razorbacks, and Other Forgotten Stories, published in July, 2017. Today’s post delves into the early history of Arkansas star athlete, NBA and NCAA All-Star Sidney Moncrief, and National High School Sports Hall of Fame coach Oliver Elders.
Demirel will present a Spotlight Panel Discussion at Crystal Bridges on February 28, accompanied by Moncrief and Elders.
In the 1960s, racial tensions permeated the southwest Little Rock neighborhood where Sidney Moncrief spent some of his childhood. In his memoir, he recalled a particular group of white children who lived on a nearby street. “They’d call us niggers and we’d call them peckerwoods. We didn’t even know each other but we had heard others called that. We tossed the word nigger around a lot in the black community—calling each other that without thinking of the ramifications, without thinking what it meant.”
Fifteen years later, few white children were disparaging Moncrief. Instead, blacks and whites alike adored him. Moncrief had helped lift the Razorbacks to their first Final Four in the modern era and become the UA’s first African American All-American in a team sport. Then, in the early 1980s, he developed into the NBA’s best all-around shooting guard.
As the most beloved Razorback of his era, Moncrief played a pivotal, if understated, role in race relations in Arkansas. He is as important on a local level as Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, and Muhammad Ali are on a national level. But Moncrief might never have reached such heights without the guidance of his high school coach, Oliver Elders. Elders, who won four state titles at Hall High, is the first head basketball coach hired by an integrated Little Rock school.
The two legends grew up in different parts of the Arkansas.
Born in 1932, Elders grew up near the Delta farm community of DeWitt in Arkansas County. “The main thing I wanted to do was get out of that particular area,” he told the Arkansas Democrat in 1990. “I knew I didn’t want to pick cotton or work in the rice mills or on a farm for the rest of my life.”
His family moved to Pine Bluff, where he starred in basketball at J.C. Corbin High School, an all-black high school on the campus of what’s now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He then played college ball for the Golden Lions and ultimately began his coaching career at Immanuel High, a now-closed black school in Almyra, Arkansas County.
An opening at Little Rock Mann High School, then an all-black school, gave Elders the exit he wanted. As he began coaching there in September, 1957, Moncrief was born and the Little Rock Central High Desegregation Crisis was playing out. That crisis led to a “Lost Year” in 1958-1959 in which Elders attended a school without students. But after that hiccup, he became one of the state’s most successful coaches with a 230-123 win-loss record at Mann.
Mann began competing against previously all-white teams in 1966-67. “It was a big change for both me as a coach and the players,” Elders told the Arkansas Gazette in 1971. “We had to change our style… It was a long, hard adjustment for us.” But Elders learned, and finished the ’70-’71 season with a 30-2 record.
That offseason Elders was offered the head coaching position at Hall, then a majority white school. He didn’t hesitate to take it. Elders’s even keel and steady personality made him well-suited to succeed as a racial pioneer, especially in such socially volatile era, as sportswriter Wadie Moore later noted in Untold Stories: Black Sports Heroes Before Integration. Elders’s wife, Dr. Jocelyn Elders, had experienced a similar dynamic at UAMS in the early 1960s, when she became a pediatric chief resident over a group of all-white residents and interns. She later became the United States’ first African American female surgeon general. (Dr. Elders is herself the subject of a 2015 documentary film, Courageous Journey. you can learn more about it here. –Ed.)
While Oliver Elders learned how to compete with whites, Moncrief spent a few years essentially segregated. His single mother moved Moncrief and his six siblings to Little Rock’s East End Housing Project, where Moncrief saw whites only on rare trips downtown, he recalled in Moncrief: My Journey to the NBA. He lived in a kind of socioeconomic bubble, though his understanding of America at large was expanded by reading black authors Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
In the early 1970s, Moncrief began attending Hall High. He found integration challenging. “Growing up in a separate world, I had always felt like a normal kid. Once I started attending school with whites and saw they had better clothes, more money, nicer cars, and in many cases, a stronger educational background, it was hard not to develop feelings of inferiority.”
“I saw that black kids used to making straight A’s were no longer making A’s. Some of them were so devastated by that they retreated into a shell. But then I saw how many of the black kids saw being in a harder school as a challenge and rose to the occasion.”
Thanks to the help of Elders and Elders’s assistant, Charles Ripley, Moncrief was one of those kids. Ripley, a white man who later coached Parkview High School to state titles, opened the horizons of Moncrief and his teammates by taking them to see professional and college games out of state. On one such trip to Memphis, for instance, Moncrief recalled how inspiring it was to see Julius Erving play in person.
To even play major college ball, though, Moncrief had first to improve his grades. Until his senior year, he’d coasted through classes and paid for it with a 1.85 GPA. Elders made sure he earned the 2.0 GPA he needed for college, stressing he had to devote himself to his studies as much as he had to his sport. “His influence on us was powerful: he wanted us to excel in the classroom as well as on the court,” Moncrief recalled in his memoir. “He also emphasized the importance of respecting other people.”
The two men have stayed close in the decades since then. Last fall, Moncrief held a gala fundraiser in Little Rock for his 60th birthday. He used the opportunity to honor the legacies of four prep coaches, including Charles Ripley and, of course, Oliver Elders.