He was a player with Jackie Robinson-like potential—a halfback with lightning feet who played a prominent role in carrying Boston College football to two consecutive bowl games in 1939 and 1940. The team never lost a game when he took the field, yet he was benched for the Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl—both of which BC lost.
His name was Lou Montgomery, and he was BC’s first black football player (and second black student). He is not immortalized in a statue, nor can his picture be found in the vestibule of the Yawkey Athletics Center like the larger-than-life portraits of Luke Kuechly and Matt Ryan. In many ways, Montgomery is forgotten.
Incrementally, BC has recognized his story. His retired jersey hangs alongside that of Doug Flutie, and a plaque dedicated to him hangs on the wall in Conte Forum. Still, BC Professor Susan Michalczyk insists that Montgomery’s epic deserves more than a plaque.
In her recently released documentary “Lou Montgomery: A Legacy Restored” Michalczyk (with the partnership of her husband, John Michalczyk, Director of Film Studies at BC) brings to light a shameful episode in BC’s history, as well as Montgomery’s heroism and tragic patience in the face of discrimination.
The film debuted at the Museum of Fine Arts on Saturday, February 27 to a packed audience which included interviewees in the documentary, BC administrators like the Learning to Learn office’s Dan Bunch—a man whose purpose at BC is to support and advocate for first generation and minority students—and members of the current BC football squad, most of whom had never heard the name ‘Lou Montgomery.’
The film’s reception was phenomenal; still, Michalczyk says critics are never entirely pleased with the stories her documentaries tell. Those hoping for a past wrong to be vindicated typically don’t think she has been scalding enough. Those who defend the institution being criticized feel she’s been too aggressive.
Michalczyk’s interpretation is, “If each one feels you didn’t do enough for their side, that shows you came down right in the middle.”
In this film, and so many others that she has worked on with her husband, Michalczyk consistently aims to extract sensationalism from the topics so as to give the audience a chance to reflect on what happened, how it occurred, and most importantly, what can be done to right any wrongs.
“You [the filmmaker] have an obligation not to distort minds, but to open them,” she says. “Not to demand they follow orders, but to challenge them to do it even better than you, yourself could have done.”
The Lou Montgomery story is undeniably one of racism, of institutional decisions that preferred money and prestige over a human being because of the color of his skin. Its retelling in Michalczyk’s documentary, however, is not propaganda, nor is it an action plan. It’s merely a “prick of the conscience,” as she calls it.
The story speaks for itself; the conscience takes over from there.
1939 and 1940 were dream-like years for BC football and its ‘Team of Destiny.’ It was the kind of team that Coach Frank Leahy knew would come to him only once in his lifetime.
They were also years when Jim Crow ruled below the Mason-Dixon line. In the North, collegiate athletic teams were gradually integrating players of color, which presented a distinct problem when they were scheduled to battle southern teams.
The so-called ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ the coaches settled determined that when northern teams came South, they would bench their players of color. It was a physical, binding document, and one that opened up another equally insulting dilemma: Would BC choose to play the prestigious southern teams at the expense of Montgomery, or would they abstain from those match-ups like Harvard chose to do?
“Leahy knew he would never have this opportunity again,” says Michalczyk. “He used his players to win games, and that meant sacrificing Lou so that he would win the championship.” BC did not win the championship either year, and when it was all said and done, Leahy got a coaching job at Notre Dame and never looked back.
The decision was a win-win for the University and for Leahy. Coach got the promotion, and the University … well, it made a lot of money.
It was Montgomery’s teammates who most ardently challenged the decision to compromise their beloved friend. Yet Montgomery stilled their cries of injustice: “He told his teammates, ‘Don’t damage yourselves, it’s ok,’” Michalczyk says. “He was willing to take a hit for the team.”
He endured being transferred from the team car to a separate, colored car when the train crossed the Mason-Dixon, traveling south for games. He endured being placed in separate accommodations and not being allowed to train with the team before their Sugar Bowl contest. “Can you imagine how demeaning that is?” says Michalczyk. “On so many levels it’s offensive.”
Had he chosen to go to UCLA, or another progressive, Western university, Montgomery might have rocketed into the pros. Instead, he graduated from BC and left the University alone with its rather unsavory history. BC would not accept another black football player until the 1970s.
Now, 75 years later, black students represent 4% of the entire undergraduate student body.
“We don’t have great diversity,” says Michalczyk matter-of-factly. “The shift, then, is to see these issues of race surface. We’re naïve to believe there are no issues on campus.”
On the part of the entire BC community, this shift requires a willingness to engage in conversation about how it can become more welcoming to students of color, of varying faiths, of non-upper class backgrounds, and with disabilities.
Being inclusive takes work. And on the part of the University administrators, it will require money, because it costs money to recruit students that wouldn’t normally apply to a school like BC, and still more money to keep them.
“It saddens me because I think we could do more,” says Michalczyk, “and the reason we don’t do more is not based in racism and bigotry, but in fear of not knowing the right thing to say or do, fear of looking bad, fear of being criticized, and having to spend money.”
BC was unwilling to sacrifice dollars when it came to Montgomery’s college football career. Will it place its balance sheets in the background and make sacrifices now, for its current black student body, and for the school’s future students of color?
That question rests unclear, but to Michalczyk the necessary starting place is evident: It is acknowledging the hypocrisy of the past and learning a lesson collectively as members of the BC community. It is educating ourselves on yesterday’s mistakes in the hopes of being better than we used to be.
And mostly, it is daring to engage in honest conversation—even when it’s intimidating. “If we don’t dare to talk about these things at a university, at a liberal arts university, at a Jesuit liberal arts university,” asks Michalczyk, “where can you talk about them?”
If anything, to Michalczyk and to those who are interviewed in the documentary, Montgomery’s legacy is a resounding, “We can do better.”