This chapter begins with a most controversial word: “nigger” and how common a part of everyday language it is in Odessa. The people don’t believe that saying the word means they are racist or that they dislike blacks. Instead, they believe that there are two races of black people - the ones who are easy to get along with and are hard-working and the loud ones, the lazy ones, the ones who steal or live off welfare. To the whites of Odessa, they don’t deserve to be called black or to have respect. One of the only whites in Odessa who finds the term “nigger” offensive is Lanita Akins who no one takes very seriously except when she exclaims her passionate devotion to Permian football. However, she is very aware that Odessa has its own version of the Berlin Wall, which is the railroad tracks that run through the heart of town. The tracks are the symbol of the barrier that still stands between the two races and the attitude that goes along with that.
Lanita is especially perplexed by the attitude which proclaims that it’s wrong to say such phrases as “Goddamn Jesus Christ,” but it is fully acceptable to say “nigger.” There is further evidence of racism in the white attitude towards Hispanics. Many people in Odessa believe that the influx of Mexican-Americans, which helped bring about desegregation years after the government ordered it, irrevocably changed the character of Permian football. Lanita is further amazed at how any attempt for blacks to become involved in the politics of Odessa leads to an immediate backlash from the white community and the continuation of the attitude of fatalism within the black community. This can be seen in the experience of Willie Hammond, Jr. who after becoming the first black city councilman in the history of Odessa. He was eventually arrested for arson conspiracy and perjury, charges he insisted were the result of a political set-up. The same thing happened to Laurence Hurd, the Church of Christ minister, whose criminal past was used to discredit him. To Lanita, these events are symptomatic of the larger problem.
Odessa is locked in time and had been even during and after the Civil Rights Movement progressed to make changes throughout the country. The town has never been ready for desegregation and has always resisted the government’s attempt to implement it. At the time it was finally put into place, there were three high schools in the town: Ector, which was 90% minority, Odessa High, which was 93% white, and Permian, which was 99% white. The obvious way to achieve desegregation was to shift students among these three schools. But the resistance was based on something more frightening than racism. It would have destroyed the football program. So ten years after the courts ordered it implemented, Odessa is still a segregated town, solely upon the strength of the desire to remain a football powerhouse.
The irony of the desegregation movement was the realization by men like Laurence Hurd that the minorities were as against it as greatly as the whites. Not because they didn’t believe in it, but because the school board planned to close their high school, Ector, if forced to implement the concept. And this time, they weren’t willing to just fall in line. A futher irony was that an important meeting took place at Ector High School during which black parents showed up to tell the board that they were not to be feared, that they were actually very much like the white parents of the own. However, this important meeting was totally overshadowed by Permian’s third State Championship win in 1980, a team which represented all the values of the white working class. The football team wasn’t just a team, but a sacrosanct white institution.
It was only when people began to realize that with the closing of Ector High School, great black athletes would be enrolling in Odessa and Permian, that resistance to desegregation began to wane. Then, the influence of the powerful whites in the Permian district created a zigzag line through the Southside to favor Permian. “It was gerrymandering over football.” No one wanted to hurt the dynasty that was being crafted and fulfilled at Permian.
Because there was little or no chance for any black man or woman to become a member of the political machine in Odessa, the Wall of Fame in the field house became the claim to fame for blacks in the newly desegregated Odessa. However, the enrollment of black students into Permian High School had not significantly altered the essential character of the football program: it is still a white institution. Even so, the black athletes dominated the football team because of their shear ability to play the game better than many of the traditionally white athletes. As a result, the stadium becomes the place where whites in the community interact at all with black people. To Laurence Hurd, it is just a move from the cotton fields to the sports arena, because at the end of it all, after the black community and its athletes have poured all their hopes and dreams into it, all they will have left will be a few memories of athletic stardom and a still inadequate education.
This chapter is probably one of the ones that made this book so controversial in Odessa when it was first published. The author tells it like it was and leaves no comments out about the realities of life for both whites and blacks in the town. Racism is alive and well in Odessa, Texas.