The personal rejections — “You can’t eat here.” “You and your wife can’t live here.” — based on nothing but the color of his skin happened more than 50 years ago, but those sorts of wounds never age, never fully heal.
It’s how Homer Floyd, the best football player at Kansas University when Wilt Chamberlain was the best basketball player, used those emotional wounds to make the world a better place and turned him into an iconic civil rights figure.
Honored this past fall by his alma mater’s Black Alumni Chapter’s African-American Leaders and Innovators Project, Floyd retired in Jan. 2011 after 41 years as director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
“There were three theaters in town,” Floyd, 77, said of Lawrence in the mid-to-late 1950s. “Two had balconies and one didn’t. African-Americans had to sit in the balcony.”
KU chancellor Franklin D. Murphy, Floyd said, didn’t like that. So he did something about it.
“He sent out an edict that if the theaters didn’t eliminate that segregation practice he would declare the theaters off-limits to all students, and he would rent movies and show them on campus for free,” said Floyd, who lives near Harrisburg, Pa. “That was one of the things that ended segregation in Lawrence.”
There were still a few restaurants practicing segregation, Floyd said. He credited “Wilt’s presence” as a factor in them integrating.
“I could walk in a restaurant and nobody knew me,” said Floyd, who led KU in rushing three times (1956-58) and tackles “two or three seasons,” as a safety, his anonymity preserved by a helmet and the fact he wasn’t a 7-footer. “Wilt walked in a restaurant and you can’t miss him. You going to tell him he couldn’t come in here? There were a couple of instances he did have to report to Phog (Allen) and Phog’s son (Mitt.)”
Floyd remembered having to stay in a different hotel from white teammates in Fort Worth, Texas, where the Jayhawks played TCU. After he was cut by the Cleveland Browns, who already had Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell carrying the football, and returned to Kansas City to find housing with his wife, Mattie, whom he wed as a senior in high school, a much deeper wound was split open.
“We had to stay at a hotel for two and a half, three weeks before we could find a place that would rent to us,” Floyd said. “Those experiences put me in a position to want to do more than just talk about the problems.”
Consequently, Floyd left $2,000 on the table in choosing a job with the Kansas Civil Rights Commission over one promoting beer for a brewing company.
“It hurt even more so with the kids, trying to explain to kids why they can’t go in a restaurant or can’t have access to this park or swimming pool, those kinds of things, it hurts,” Floyd said. “Part of what I was looking at was not so much trying to get back at anybody, but to try to create a fair environment so everyone can prosper.”
During his time with the Kansas Civil Rights Commission, Floyd shared a stage with Martin Luther King in the civil rights leader’s final speaking engagement at a university campus, Jan. 19, 1968, at Kansas State. King wrote the names of those he acknowledged on a piece of paper that was found in the jacket he wore when assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis. Among the names on the note: Homer C. Floyd.
During his 41 years in Pennsylvania, Floyd worked under six different governors from both political parties.
“A sense of fairness and justice,” Floyd said. “That was largely what I was hoping for in trying to build an agency, build an organization, to make sure everybody had an equal chance. And in a democracy, that’s what it promises.”
Floyd expressed pride in the role the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission played in pushing for fair housing, fair pay for women in the workplace and equal opportunities for the disabled. He also worked on behalf of those unfairly treated based on age.
In many cases, Floyd said, Pennsylvania passed legislation on fairness issues well in an advance of the federal government.
KU ‘terrific’ experience
Floyd said that aside from isolated, hurtful incidents, none of which occurred within the football team, his experience as a student-athlete was “terrific. Absolutely.”
Teammates voted him a co-captain, making him the first African-American in KU football history to earn such an honor.
“To me, there were no color lines,” teammate Dale Remsberg remembered. “It was whoever played the best. So when I was voting for captain, I voted for who would be the best leader and the best player. I think that attitude permeated our team.”
Monte Johnson, a teammate of Chamberlain’s on the basketball team and his alma mater’s athletic director later in life, said of Floyd’s role as co-captain: “At that time, I thought was the greatest compliment to him and his team. He was a leader not only statistically, but he was a leader with his teammates.”
Playing for Chuck Mather
Floyd, from Massillon, Ohio, estimated he received scholarship offers from 50 schools. Chuck Mather, who left Massillon, where he had a dynasty, for KU before Floyd’s senior season, did not coach at any of those other 49 schools, which made Floyd’s decision easier. Ohio State’s Woody Hayes had invited Floyd to sit on the sideline for many Buckeyes games, but according to Floyd, “he wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about me getting married because he had to make different (housing) arrangements. Purdue, it was no problem for them, and it was no problem for KU.”
Homer and Mattie, who died in 2007, were married 52 years, so giving up a Buckeyes helmet was the best trade Floyd ever made. He and Mattie had three children: J.C., Cheryl and Damon.
Floyd never played for a college coaching legend but did play for a high school coaching legend in both high school and college. Mather spent four seasons at Kansas and posted an 11-26-3 record.
“I always felt Mather was a really great coach and ahead of his time,” Floyd said. “He was doing things with grading players and using different techniques to know how to score than some of the other coaches. I believe that he did not have the best assistant coaches.”
Big hurdles remain
Floyd long ago gave up football — although he said he regularly watches KU on TV — and although retired still keeps a close eye on what he calls the “isms,” such as racism, ageism, sexism.
Where, he was asked, does society stand when it comes to racism?
“First of all, we’ve made great progress, there is no question about that,” Floyd said. “You see it all over. But I think that you take giant steps forward, but you also sometimes take steps backward. The civil rights laws we got passed in the 50s, 60s, early 70s, wouldn’t pass today.”
“The ‘isms’ get caught up in politics so much so that whole parties have to take a disposition, and as a result, when you try to look at what’s the middle of the road, it’s a negative now,” he said. “That’s the kind of compromising that created the civil rights laws. I think the negative and the hostile atmosphere that’s created (by not compromising), you can say negative things about anybody now and it doesn’t have to be true. You don’t have to prove it. You just say it and it’ll go out over the waves, the airwaves, the Internet and so forth.”
Floyd cited the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American at the hand of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted a year-and-a-half later.
“We are socialized along racial lines,” Floyd said “White folks talk to white folks. Black folks talk to back folks. And our experiences are totally different. And so when you come to a controversial issue, people take sides quickly. If I take your side, I’m known as a traitor. If you take my side, you’re known as a traitor. To get things moving and to solve the problem becomes more difficult. I think that what we’re looking at is the polarization has created a perception gap that exists between the races and politics as well.”
Floyd explained how he believes minds too often are made up ahead of examining facts.
“If you look at it in the sense that you can have the same set of facts on an issue, but how you are socialized, you will view those facts differently,” he said. “That’s what happened with Trayvon Martin to some extent. A high percentage of certain groups viewed the incident as somebody perpetrating something on a kid who wasn’t doing anything. On the other hand, there’s another perception, ‘Well, he was lurking around. He could have been up to something.’ And you justify it. So both sides justify their position, and that’s a perception gap.”
Tackling it isn’t as easy as it was for Floyd to tackle receivers and running backs.
“Part of our challenge to some extent is narrow that gap by recognizing there is diversity and we have to have experiences across racial and ethnic lines in order to understand,” he said. “It takes courage because there is a negative, hostile climate we’re trying to do it in, and politicians really set the tone for what happens in the community and that tone is not always good.”
Floyd’s experiences as a young man, good ones and hurtful ones, led to shaping his character. Throughout his career, the one word so many used about his work could be summed up in one word: Fair.
Perhaps the roots of that trait can be traced to well before his arrival in Kansas.
As the story was told to Floyd, one influential member of the family wanted him to be named Homer Floyd. Another strong family force preferred Calvin Floyd. He was given the name Homer Calvin Floyd. With that spirit of compromise hard-wired in his DNA, maybe Floyd was destined to become a difference maker capable of drawing harmony out of discord.