A Courageous Stand: The Story of the Syracuse 8

Beginnings of the Boycott

Starting in the fall of 1968, Black football players at Syracuse University expressed concerns about racial discrimination within the football program. They cited instances of unfair treatment, ranging from differences in disciplinary action to the coaching staff’s intolerance of their civil rights activism elsewhere on campus. The student-athletes also repeatedly requested that head football coach Ben Schwartzwalder hire a Black assistant coach, with whom they felt they could talk more easily about problems relating to race. Despite promising to do so, Schwartzwalder failed to follow through. In the spring of 1970, he arranged for former Syracuse football great Floyd Little ‘67 to help with spring practice under the guise of an assistant football coach, but the Black athletes were upset to learn it was just for a few days.

The Student-Athletes

The University Archives holds very few original photographs of the Black student-athletes and their boycott of the football program in 1970. Their activism mainly took the form of their absence from the football team and in their written words to University administration. It is difficult to document in photographs all the private meetings with administrators, coaches, and among the athletes themselves. However, there were student demonstrations in support of the boycott, and members of the Syracuse 8 did appear at student rallies, but the few images of these events primarily appear in the Daily Orange. On the other hand, the University Archives holds many photographs of the May 1970 Student Strike, where (mostly white) students shut down campus in protest of the Kent State shootings and the United States’ invasion of Cambodia. Those images were taken by University staff and even local newspapers. While the Student Strike was a larger occurrence, the lack of photographs of Syracuse 8 protests may speak to institutional racism inherent on campus and beyond at the time.
1969 photograph of [standing left to right] Tom Smith (not part of Syracuse 8), Duane Walker, A. Alif Muhammad, Clarence “Bucky” McGill; [kneeling left to right] John Lobon, Dana “D.J.” Harrell, Greg Allen, John Godbolt. Syracuse 8 Collection, University Archives. Gift of John Lobon.

Photograph of [left to right] Greg Allen, A. Alif Muhammad, and John Godbolt, circa 1969. Syracuse 8 Collection, University Archives. Gift of Greg Allen.

Photograph of members of the Syracuse 8, [left to right] Clarence “Bucky” McGill, Richard Bulls, Dana “D.J.” Harrell, John Lobon, circa 1970. The Syracuse Football Story, Ken Rappoport (1975). Syracuse University Football Collection, University Archives.

Yearbook photograph of Ron Womack, 1971. Syracuse University Yearbook Collection, University Archives.
Though he was not on the team roster due to an injury, Ron Womack supported the boycott by the Syracuse 8, and he was such a strong part of the group that he has been considered the ninth member. In 1968, after Womack met with Coach Schwartzwalder to ask why he wasn’t getting more playing time than a less talented white teammate who shared his position, coaching staff labeled him a troublemaker. At the beginning of practice that following spring, Womack was suddenly declared ineligible to play due to a long-term medical condition that Schwartzwalder knew about when he recruited the athlete.

Leading to the Boycott

On April 17, 1970, Black members of the football team sent Chancellor John Corbally a letter asking that he address their grievances within two days. When their request was not met, Greg Allen, Richard Bulls, John Godbolt, Robin Griffin (who only boycotted in the spring), Dana “D.J.” Harrell, John Lobon, Clarence “Bucky” McGill, A. Alif Muhammad (then known as Al Newton), and Duane Walker began their boycott of spring football practice. Ron Womack had been removed from the roster due to an injury, a coaching decision he and his Black teammates viewed with suspicion, but he supported them through the whole boycott and is counted with them. The student-athletes stated they would not return until the University hired a Black coach and addressed racial discrimination in starting assignments, the use of racist language by the coaching staff, racial disparities in disciplinary action, lack of academic support, and substandard medical care for all players. They boycotted knowing that their actions threatened their scholarships as well as potential careers in professional football.

Corbally and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Jim Carleton met with the boycotting players that spring and committed to hiring a Black assistant football coach before fall practice. But because that promise already had been made and broken repeatedly, the student-athletes decided to not return to practice and instead hold their own practice for the time being.

Memorandum from Jim Carleton, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, to Vice Chancellor and Provost Frank Piskor, March 20, 1969. Syracuse University Academic Affairs Melvin A. Eggers Files, University Archives.

Before the summer of 1970, Coach Schwartzwalder agreed – but failed – to hire a Black assistant coach more than once. He would then later imply he was joking or being sarcastic at the time these promises were made.

Photograph of 1969 Syracuse University football team. Syracuse University Photo & Imaging Collection, University Archives.

On the right side of the photograph are several Black team members who boycotted the football program the following spring.

Memorandum from The Black Athletes of S.U. to Chancellor Corbally, received by the Chancellor’s Office April 17, 1970. Chancellor John Corbally Records, University Archives.

The Black student-athletes first sent their grievances to Coach Schwartzwalder, though that document does not exist in the University Archives. They then approached the Office of the Chancellor.