Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Celebrating a Racial Pioneer

Biographer Andrew Maraniss gets a surprise phone call from Ethel Kennedy

Andrew Maraniss has spent most of his adult life working to ensure that Perry Wallace finds his rightful place in history. Wallace was a pioneer, the first African-American basketball player in the SEC. During the late sixties, he endured both verbal and physical abuse—on the court and off—as a starting player for the Vanderbilt University Commodores.

Some two decades later, Andrew Maraniss entered Vanderbilt as the undergraduate recipient of a sportswriting scholarship and contacted Wallace for a research paper he was writing. That first interview became the start of a long friendship—and a research project that culminated last year in the publication of Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South, a biography of Wallace.

Eight years in the writing, the book has certainly borne out Maraniss’s belief in the power of the story he was telling, earning accolades from some of the most powerful arbiters of literary worth: Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post, and NPR, among others.

Along the way, Strong Inside became the first book published by Vanderbilt University Press ever to make The New York Times bestseller list.

Now the judges of the Robert F. Kennedy Book and Journalism Awards have singled out Strong Inside for special recognition:

Andrew Maraniss’s Strong Inside tells the courageous story of Perry Wallace, who joined Vanderbilt’s basketball team in 1966, making him the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. As Maraniss recounts in powerful detail, Wallace became both an icon of the civil rights movement—meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Robert Kennedy, among other leaders—and the target of fierce hostility from segregationists.

As he reported in a post on Facebook, Maraniss was startled by the news:

I was walking back to work from Jack’s BBQ yesterday when I checked a voicemail from a Florida number I didn’t recognize. It was Ethel Kennedy asking me to call her back.

“Kennedy residence,” a woman answered.

“Yes, I’m returning Mrs. Kennedy’s call,” I said, as if the two of us play phone tag all the time. I was patched through, and RFK’s widow informed me that Strong Inside will receive an RFK Book Award next week! I thanked her profusely and said my only regret was that Mr. John Seigenthaler, who had been so supportive of the book and had chaired the RFK Awards, was not around to know this had happened.

“Oh, he knows,” she said. The inaugural John Seigenthaler Award for Courage in Journalism will also be presented at the ceremony.

To read an essay by Perry Wallace for Chapter 16, click here. To read Clay Risen’s review of Strong Inside for Chapter 16, click here.