The civil rights movement is often told in terms of court decisions, bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, freedom riders, brutal beatings and racist demagogues. It’s rarely told from the point of view of children, who suffered in ways that left physical and emotional scars.
As hundreds of thousands of spectators convene in Williamsport, Pennsylvania to watch the Little League World Series – and millions watch the games on ESPN – few will know the story of the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars, an all-black team that was denied the chance to compete.
When I was a journalism professor at the College of Charleston, I first learned about this story – how the presence of a single black all-star team was enough to cause one of the biggest crises in Little League history. The white teams in South Carolina refused to play against them. Hundreds of Southern white teams left Little League Baseball in protest and joined a segregated youth baseball organization, Little Boys Baseball, Inc., which became Dixie Youth Baseball.
More than 60 years later, to many former Cannon Street players, the lost opportunity still stings.
A four-team black league is born
In 1953, Robert Morrison, president of the Cannon Street YMCA, petitioned Little League Baseball to create a league for black teams, and Little League Baseball granted the charter. A year later, dozens of 11- and 12-year-old boys were selected for the four-team league.
They played on a field of grass and gravel at Harmon Field in Charleston, a city with a long history of racial strife. In 1861, the Civil War began in Charleston harbor, where hundreds of thousands of slaves had been brought to the United States from the 1600s to the 1800s. The field also wasn’t far from Emanuel AME church, where nine blacks were murdered during a prayer meeting in 2015.
At some point in the season, the best players were selected for the league’s all-star team. Cannon Street YMCA officials then registered the all-star team for the Charleston city tournament, which included the all-star teams for the all-white leagues in the city.
The team’s coaches told the players that they would keep playing as long as they kept winning – all the way to the Little League World Series, which is held every year in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. They had no reason to think otherwise: The coaches knew that the Little League Baseball prohibited racial discrimination.
Dixie fights back
1954 was also the year that the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, which forever changed the dynamic of racial discrimination in the United States.
No state resisted integration more than South Carolina, and no politician fought harder against racial equality than the state’s junior U.S. senator, Strom Thurmond, who, while governor, ran for president as a segregationist Dixiecrat in 1948.
So when the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars registered for the city’s Little League tournament in July 1955, all the white teams withdrew. The Cannon Street team won by forfeit and advanced to the state tournament.
Danny Jones, the state’s director of Little League Baseball, petitioned the organization to create a segregated state tournament. Peter McGovern, executive director of Little League Baseball, refused Jones’ request because Little League Baseball prohibited racial segregation. He said that any team that refused to play the Cannon Street team would be banned from the organization.
Thurmond let it be known to Jones that an integrated tournament could not be permitted. In the end, Jones urged all the white teams to withdraw from the state tournament. He then resigned from Little League Baseball, created the Little Boys League, and wrote the league’s charter, which prohibited blacks.
The Little Boys League – which was rebranded as Dixie League Baseball – soon replaced Little League in other southern states; within six years, there would be 390 such leagues spanning most of the former Confederacy. It would be decades before Little League Baseball returned to South Carolina; last year, the Northwood team of Taylors, South Carolina, became the first team from the state to play in the Little League World Series since 1950.
Having won the South Carolina tournament by forfeit, the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars prepared for the regional tournament in Rome, Georgia, where the state’s governor, Marvin Griffin, objected to an integrated tournament. If youth baseball could be integrated, so, too, could schools, swimming pools and municipal parks, he said.
“One break in the dike,” Griffin said, “and the relentless sea will rush in and destroy us.”
Let them play!
At the time, Little League rules said that teams could only advance by playing and winning, so the Cannon Street’s state championship was ruled invalid because it had come by forfeit.
Despite the unfair circumstances, Little League executive director Peter McGovern decided against making an exception for the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars.
He did, however, invite the team to be the guests of Little League Baseball at the World Series. They arrived by bus the night before the championship game on August 26, 1955, which was between teams from Morrisville, Pennsylvania, and Merchantville, New Jersey, an integrated team.
The Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars and their coaches were introduced before the game, and the players remember hearing a loud voice from the bleachers.
“Let them play!” it boomed.
Others in the crowd joined in.
Let them play! Let them play!
John Rivers, who played second base for the team, told me he can still “hear it now.”
After being introduced to the crowd, the Cannon Street All-Stars returned to their seats and watched other boys live out their dreams. A photograph from the day reveals the disappointment on their faces.
On the following day – August 28, 1955 – the team got back on its bus to return to Charleston. It was the same day that Emmett Till, not much older than the players on the team, was brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi, for reportedly whistling at a white woman.
The boys and girls who play in this year’s tournament will forever remember the experience. The surviving members of the Cannon Street All-Stars, who are in their mid-70s, never forgot what they were denied.
Rivers, who went on to become a successful architect, says this lesson is no less relevant today.
“It’s part of American history,” he said. “It’s part of the civil rights movement. You strip away the baseball and it’s about the 1950s movement.”