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Sat Jan 10, 2015, 12:37 PM


Tense Scene on Basketball Court 50 Years Ago Recalls Catholic Role in Civil Rights

A Groundbreaking Game Remembered

JAN. 9, 2015

NASHVILLE — In the locker room beneath the packed bleachers of the Municipal Auditorium here, Bill Derrick gathered the basketball players he coached at Father Ryan High School. They recited “The Lord’s Prayer” and said a “Hail Mary,” as they always did before tipoff. Then, with unusual emphasis, Mr. Derrick intoned two or three times, “Lady of victory, pray for us.”

On that night, Jan. 4, 1965, he was seeking intercession for more than one kind of triumph. In a racially polarized city, Father Ryan was fielding an integrated team. And in this particular game, his team was playing one from Pearl High School, which because of segregation was entirely black.

Nearly 9,000 spectators filled the arena to watch the first two high school teams to breach the color line in Nashville. They wondered which of these basketball powerhouses would win. They wondered, too, if the violence that had been rumored would erupt, especially as the two teams were in a tight game in the final seconds.

Fifty years and one night later, Mr. Derrick, 85, rose gingerly from his seat in the first row of the auditorium. Near center court stood the graying, stocky men who had been lithe athletes back then: Wallace, Dempsey, McClain, Forte, nearly 15 in all. Mr. Derrick took short, shaky steps across the hardwood, clasping the arm of Carolyn Ridley, the widow of Cornelius Ridley, Pearl’s coach in the famous game, until he joined them under the lights.


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