On Wednesday at 5 p.m., students and adults alike swayed into a dimly lit Devlin lecture hall to watch the Boston College debut of Professors Susan and John Michalczyk’s latest documentary, Lou Montgomery: A Legacy Restored. Lou Montgomery was BC’s first black football player, and perhaps its most slighted legend, though it’s a rather unsavory superlative to have.
The adults greeted one another with a chorus of “Good to see you’s” as abundant in affection as they were in frequency. Students in Professor Juan Concepcion’s Race, Law, and Resistance class chattered cheerfully with one another and their professor, and filed into their own distinct rows.
The room was remarkably more diverse than the campus outside, in both years and in colors.
During the question and answer session that would follow the film, one student would ask, “People who come to these events are predominately people of color; how do we move people who are supposed to be allies yet aren’t at these events?” Susan Michalczyk’s answer: Expose them to film.
The documentary opened with a majestic overfly of BC’s campus—a Sean Casey special that was something out of a BC promotional video with a title like “Spring,” or “Love Actually is All Around.” This video would be more a dose of tough love.
In the next take, cheerleaders flip across Alumni Stadium, and a fan is tossed into the air by football fans in the bleachers. A voiceover encapsulates the moment: “It’s BC football. It’s tradition.”
The first few interviewees, many of whom are BC alumni and current faculty, begin the film by speaking to their immense love of BC.
Later in the Q and A, Professor Concepcion, one of the featured interviewees, would say, “There is a thing called blind love, and I’ve never been comfortable with that. I’d rather love something for knowing what it is than because people have told me what it is.” Coming to know the Lou Montgomery story, it turns out, was a critical part of knowing and loving a deeply imperfect BC for Concepcion, Michalczyk and the film’s other contributors.
Montgomery’s history at BC was an episode of discrimination and of compromising human dignity for money and athletic prestige. “While the fathers here were certainty praying the rosary, they were looking at the balance sheet as well,” said Richard Johnson, Curator of the New England Sports Museum, in one the film’s few humorous moments.
In 1939, BC wanted to play in the big leagues, to win games against southern teams, and to do so it had to bench arguably its best player—because he was black.
When BC played in the South, benching Montgomery was the law. When those same teams came north to play, however, it was not. Still, Montgomery sat aside. “I think we could have stood taller on that point,” said Wayne Budd, a BC alum who was one of only three black students during his undergraduate years here. “We didn’t.”
What began as a very positive moment—BC opening its gilded gates to its first black student athlete—became a less than triumphant story. Montgomery was excluded from the biggest games of the 1939, 1941 seasons, the Cotton Bowl, and the Sugar Bowl, and he wasn’t played in the lead-up to the games either.
When BC won the Sugar Bowl against Tennessee, Montgomery’s name wasn’t even included in the program. It skipped over Montgomery’s #21, stepping inconspicuously from 20 to 22. “He’s left out completely like he didn’t exist,” says an interviewee with a copy of the program.
In an audio clip from an interview with Montgomery in his post-graduate years, the interviewer asks, “Are you glad you decided to go to BC?” Montgomery responds, “I’m glad I went to school.”
For supporters of BC, or simply believers in human rights, this story is a sad one. And it is unchangeable. “When we look at history … we have to look at it the way it is,” said Concepcion in the film. All we can do is “look into the future with the hope that we will take the right action.”
The Eagles' redemption and Montgomery's recognition began when BC retired his #21 jersey at a football game in 2012. This is an honor only accorded to ten BC athletes thus far, and Montgomery is the only black one.
Mark Dullea, author of the website Lou Montgomery Legacy, leads an initiative to rename Alumni Stadium, ‘Lou Montgomery Stadium.’ So far, it hasn’t taken off due to a lack of interest or leadership on the part of the University, he said in the Q and A.
In an effort to get another commemorative project in motion, Joanne Montgomery, Lou’s daughter, wrote to Fr. Leahy expressing a desire for there to be a scholarship program in her father’s name. “So far that has not been replied to,” said Dullea, “and that’s unfortunate.”
While plans for physically commemorating Montgomery’s experience at BC remain uncertain, retellings of his story are proliferating more so than ever before, as are discussions of race and expressions of discontentment with the status quo on BC’s campus.
“Symbolism is fantastic and I commend all the people who worked to have that symbolism placed at the epicenter of the University,” said Concepcion of retiring Montgomery’s jersey, in the film, “but [symbols] will mean nothing at all unless we continue the story.”
As told by the Michalczyks’ film, the story was one of injustice, of course, but it was also one of self-sacrifice and the brotherhood Montgomery shared with his teammates. “He was not angry about it. He was not hateful about it,” said Joanne Montgomery in one of the film’s most poignant moments, speaking in front of the backdrop of a BC jersey.
And for the night, it felt like the audience in Devlin set aside hatefulness, too. For Lou.
What dominated the event was appreciation for all Montgomery endured; BC hall of famer Malcolm Huckabee expressed his own appreciation for Montgomery’s precedent. “There’s no way any student athlete of color shouldn’t know about Lou Montgomery,” he said. “What he went through, I can’t imagine going through that.”
But even more so, there was a profound understanding of the fact that things must change.
“We as educators have to respond when our students ask about these things,” said Susan Michalczyk in a concluding speech. “I couldn’t un-know what I knew and I had an obligation to finish what was not an easy task.”
The BC community has a difficult task of its own to face. A documentary and a retired jersey are just the beginning.