Leland Mitchell, who defied racism on basketball court, dies at 72

Leland Mitchell (44) and all-white Mississippi State took on a Loyola team in 1963 with four black starters. Loyola won.
Leland Mitchell (44) and all-white Mississippi State took on a Loyola team in 1963 with four black starters. Loyola won.
Mississippi State University

NEW YORK — In 1963, Leland Mitchell and his Mississippi State teammates had to sneak out of their state to compete in the NCAA basketball tournament. Governor Ross Barnett and other hard-core segregationists were worried that their all-white team might compete against blacks, a step the governor said he feared “might lead to integration across the land.”

In a tense if peculiar moment in the civil rights movement, a state court had enjoined Mississippi State University from going to Michigan to play Loyola University of Chicago in the Midwest Regional of the prestigious tournament. Mississippi State had won the right to advance to national play by winning the championship of the Southeastern Conference. It was the fourth time in five years that the university earned a berth but seemingly would again be unable to play.

But the team did play. The game between Mississippi State and Loyola on March 15, 1963, contested at the height of the civil rights struggle, is widely seen as the beginning of the end of segregation in college sports. In explaining his opposition to integrated sports in 1960, Barnett had said: “If there were a half-dozen Negroes on the team, where are they going to eat? Are they going to want to go to the dance later and want to dance with our girls?”

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But by the spring of 1963, pride in Mississippi State’s superb basketball team was challenging old racial attitudes, which were already starting to soften. Reacting to pressure from students and the public, the university president and the board governing state universities agreed to let the team compete. The governor and a handful of state legislators fumed but realized that they had no legal power to stop the team.

Then a chancery court judge stepped in and issued an injunction to keep the university from violating “the public policies of the state of Mississippi.”

Mr. Mitchell, a star and team leader who died at age 72 last Saturday at his home in Starkville, Miss., had an immediate and sharp reaction.

“We need to head out tonight,” he said. “Who all else has a car?”

The escape was more complicated. The school president decided the officials named in the injunction should get out of town. He left for a speaking engagement in Atlanta. The coach, Babe McCarthy, with the athletic director and his assistant, drove on back roads to Memphis and flew to Nashville. The next morning, the team’s second-stringers were sent to the local airport in Starkville.

They encountered no interference, so the rest of the team was summoned to the airport. The players all flew to Nashville, where they joined McCarthy for a chartered flight to East Lansing, Mich., the site of the regional.

“It was cloak-and-dagger stuff,” Mr. Mitchell once said. “It was almost like cops and robbers.”

In the game, all-white Mississippi State took on a Loyola team with four black starters. The Mississippi team was named the Maroons, an old Southern term for runaway slaves, which eventually gave way to Bulldogs.

In the first five minutes the Maroons took a 7-0 lead and could have had 11 points if they hadn’t missed four free throws. Loyola ultimately won, 61-51, and play was gentlemanly.

“There wasn’t one incident,” Mr. Mitchell said, “and not because we weren’t trying or trying to be nice.”

As for playing an integrated team, Mr. Mitchell saw no difference: “They just seem harder to keep up with.”

But he acknowledged that his team “didn’t know the significance of what we did.”

“It didn’t hit us until later,” he said in an interview with Newsday in 1996.

Mr. Mitchell had 14 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out with more than six minutes left. The Chicago Tribune attributed Loyola’s victory to his absence, calling him “a great performer and the only Southerner who could rebound” against Loyola.

The game was played five months after James Meredith became the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, amid rioting in which two people were shot and killed. Two years later, Richard Holmes was peacefully admitted as the first black student at Mississippi State.

Leland Noyal Mitchell was born on Feb. 22, 1941, in Kiln, Miss., one of 10 children of a carpenter. He lied about his age to get a job at a shrimp stand as an eighth-grader and was painting radio towers by his senior year of high school. He made the all-state basketball team and was one of an outstanding group of freshman players admitted to Mississippi State in 1959.

Mr. Mitchell was 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds and played both guard and forward. He was chosen by the St. Louis Hawks in the second round of the 1963 NBA draft but was cut. He played for the New Orleans Buccaneers of the American Basketball Association, coached by McCarthy in the 1967-68 season.

He later worked in real estate until suffering a severe spinal cord injury in 2001. His daughter, Melanie Sparrow, who confirmed his death, did not specify a cause.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Mitchell leaves his wife, Mary Carolyn Tranum; three sons, Leland Jr., David, and Michael; a sister, Muriel Necaise; two brothers, Russell and Melvin; and three grandchildren.