Monday, October 20, 2014

The Johnny Bright Incident—A Brutal and Indelible Stain on College Football

Drake star Half Back/Quarter Back Johnny Bright in 1951,

It was the most brutal and flagrant on-field racist attack in NCAA college football history.  The irrefutable evidence was splashed on front pages across the country.  The leading contender for the 1951 Heisman Trophy was severely injured and knocked out of a game causing his undefeated team to lose its only game of the season.  Yet no action was taken against the player who assaulted Johnny Bright, the coach who ordered the hit and drilled the assault in practice, or the administration which apparently approved, defended, and covered up the attack.  In fact for decade after decade the University denied any wrong doing and refused to apologize to the wounded player or the team they cheated.  It was not until September 28, 2005 that an Oklahoma State University President acknowledged wrong doing in a letter to the President Drake University.  The apology came almost 54 years after the assault and 22 years after the victim’s death.
Johnny Bright was born to a working class African American family on June 11, 1930 in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  He was raised with three brothers and a sister by a single mother.  At the city’s Central High School he was an excellent student and lettered in football, basketball, and track and field, leading his football team to a city title in 1945, and helped the basketball team to two state tournament Final Four appearances.  He also played local league softball and was a successful amateur boxer.
Bright was one of the most heavily recruited high school athletes in the nation when he graduated in 1947.  He accepted a scholarship at Big Ten powerhouse Michigan State University.  It was not a good fit.  As a freshman he was unhappy with the direction of the football program and disappointed that coaches seemed to actively discourage “wasting time” on academics instead of concentrating on football. 
Bright dropped out of MSU and accepted a track and field scholarship at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa a smaller but prestigious university.  Bright’s scholarship allowed him to try out for the football and basketball squads, but because he was a transfer he was redshirted for football in his freshman year.  During his college career he lettered in all three sports.
Drake competed in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), then considered a second tier college conference.  Within the conference Drake was a traditional powerhouse.  Once he became eligible for varsity play in his sophomore year, Bright quickly helped the program step up to a whole new level.  In 1949, his sophomore year he rushed for 975 yards and threw for another 975 to lead the nation in total offense.   The Drake Bulldogs finished their season at 6–2–1.  In Bright’s junior year as a halfback/quarterback he rushed for 1,232 yards and passed for 1,168 yards, setting an NCAA record of 2,400 yards total offense and again led the team to a 6–2–1 record.
Early in his freshman year Bright became the first Black player to compete against MVC rival Oklahoma A&M at Lewis Field in Stillwater.  A&M, which would later become Oklahoma State University, had just, extremely reluctantly, become officially integrated that year.   Bright, then unknown, had competed without incident or controversy and led his team to a victory over the Aggies.  In his sophomore year Drake hosted the contest between the two teams and once again Bright had romped over the Oklahoma team.
Before the beginning of the 1951 season and Bright’s senior year, he had become a genuine national star.  He was rated by sports writers as the hands down favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.  As his team began to roll up victory after victory, Bright became an open target at A&M.  The student newspaper, The Daily O’Collegian, and the Stillwater News Press, reported that Bright was a marked man, and several A&M students were openly bragging that Bright “would not be around at the end of the game.”  A&M Coach Jennings B. Whitworth, an Arkansas native, exhorted his team repeatedly during practices to “get that Nigger!”  He ran special drills featuring his toughest defenseman, tackle Wilbanks Smith practicing how to do just that.

The Pulitzer Prize winning photo that captured the elbow to the face that shattered Johnny Brigh's Jaw.

On the day of the game, Bright led a 5-0 team and was the nation’s leading collegiate scorer.  But in the first ten minutes of the A&M game bright was knocked unconscious three times by Smith.  The third time, after Bright had handed the ball off to Drake fullback Gene Macomber, and well behind the play, Smith smashed into his face with his elbow, breaking Bright’s jaw.  Despite the pain, Bright was able to stay in the game long enough to complete a 61-yard touchdown pass to Drake halfback Jim Pilkington a few plays later.  But he was unable to play after the first quarter.  For the first time in his college career Bright had less than 100 yards total offense.  Without their star player, the Bulldogs fell to the Aggies 27-10.
No penalty was called on Smith for the flagrantly late hit.  After the brouhaha over the attack reached national proportions the MVC refused to take any action.  A&M President Oliver Willham denied anything happened even after evidence of the incident was published nationwide.  Drake withdrew from the Conference in protest.
The evidence that caught the nation’s attention was a series of photographs taken by Des Moines Register cameramen John Robinson and Don Ultang.  They had picked up on rumors sweeping the stadium that day that Bright would be targeted.  They set up their cameras specifically to follow him in play.  They captured in six shots the whole sequence of the play from Bright’s hand-off to Smith’s elbow smashing into his face which ran on the front page of the next day’s paper.  The photos were so dramatic that they then ended up on the cover of Life magazine.  Robinson and Ultang won the Pulitzer Prize for their effort.
The Register followed up with an in depth investigation by reporter Bob Spiegel who interviewed many spectators at the game who confirmed the threats circulating and quoting comments from a A&M player on the bench which confirmed that the attack had been planned and drilled.
The NCAA investigated the incident but took no action against Smith or A&M, much to Drake’s outrage.  They did tweak rules about late hits and illegal blocking and established a new rule requiring ball handling players wear helmets with face guards.

After the game Bright’s jaw was wired shut.  He most likely also suffered a concussion, although those kinds of head injuries were not well understood at the time.  He was only able to see limited action in the team’s remaining three games but he earned 70 percent of the yards Drake gained and scored 70 percent of the Bulldogs’ points over the whole season anyway.  The limited action in the last games probably cost Bright the Heisman.  He finished fifth in voting anyway.
Bright was taken fifth in the NFL Draft, picked by the Philadelphia Eagles.  Bright would have been the first Black on the team.  He was concerned that he would not be well received by the many Southerners on the team.  He was not eager, he told people later, to be “football’s Jackie Robinson.” 
Instead after playing in the post-season East-West Shrine Game and the Hula Bowl, Bright unexpectedly accepted an offer from the Calgary Stampeders of the Western Interprovincial Football Union, the precursor to the West Division of the Canadian Football League,  leading the Stampeders and the WIFU in rushing with 815 yards his rookie season.  In his third season in Canada, Bright was traded to the Edmonton Eskimos.  He would go on to win three Gray’s Cup Championships  with the team, be elected CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 1959, and establish numerous offensive records in a 13 year long pro career.  When he retired in 1964 he was the League’s all-time leading rusher with, had five consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, and led the CFL in rushing four times.  He is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame, the Missouri Valley Conference Hall of Fame, the Edmonton Eskimos Wall of Honour, the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, and the Des Moines Register Iowa Sports Hall of Fame.
But the football honors were only part of the remarkable legacy of Johnny Bright.
Like most Canadian football players of the era, Bright held down a full time off-season job.  Using his Drake Bachelor of Science degree, Bright became an Edmonton school teacher.  Over the years he turned down several offers from the NFL because it would have meant giving up teaching.  Bright eventually became principal of D.S. Mackenzie and Hillcrest Junior High Schools in Edmonton.  In profound gratitude for the opportunities Canada provided him, Bright became a citizen in 1962.
Bright was frequently asked about what had become known as the Johnny Bright Incident.  He expressed surprisingly little bitterness toward Wilbanks Smith.  While acknowledging that there was “no way it couldn’t have been racially motivated…What I like about the whole deal now, and what I'm smug enough to say, is that getting a broken jaw has somehow made college athletics better. It made the NCAA take a hard look and clean up some things that were bad.”
Bright died of a massive heart attack on December 14, 1983 at the age of only 53, at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, while undergoing surgery to correct a knee injury suffered during his football career. He was survived by his wife and four children.
In 2006, the football field at Drake Stadium, in Des Moines was named in Bright’s honor.  Four years later his second career was recognized with the opening of Johnny Bright School, a kindergarten through grade 9 facility in Edmonton.
And what of the villains?  There seems to be some kind of karma and rough justice in the case of Coach Whitworth.  He left Oklahoma A&M after four years as head coach in 1954 with a losing 22–27–1 record. Then he went on to coach his alma mater, the University of Alabama from 1955 to 1957where he posted miserable a 4–24–2 record that included a 14-game losing streak from 1955 to 1956.  He was fired and replaced by the legendary Bear Bryant.  Whitworth could only get an assistant job a Georgia, where he worked for one year.  He died in 1960 at the age of 52.
Wilbanks Smith was said to have had a successful career in engineering and to have been devoted to community service.  He was said to have taken “personal responsibility for the incident” mainly to deflect criticism of his coach, team, and the University but he never expressed any regret at injuring Bright or made any attempt to contact him or make amends.  With typical grace, Bright shrugged it off, saying he felt “null and void” about Smith, but adding “The thing has been a great influence on my life. My total philosophy of life now is that, whatever a person’s bias and limitation, they deserve respect. Everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs.”

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Peter Max—Psychedelic Poster Boy and Art Mogul

If you are a certain age and you put on some vintage vinyl and close your eyes to try an visualize the Sixties it is highly likely that the image that will pop into your head like an acid flashback is a Peter Max poster with all of its vivid colors, bold lines, celestial imagery, and general  wistfulness.  Even if you know better, you can help yourself.  No artist of the era—not even the relentlessly self-promoting Andy Warhol—was more ubiquitous and iconic.
Yet despite enormous technical mastery and inventiveness, Max is an artist many love to hate—even when they can’t get his images out of their heads.  Likely because he became a brand and an empire, supposedly whoring himself to capitalism and advertising while also merchandising his images in posters, books, coffee mugs, clothing and textiles, wallpaper, and almost every conceivable consumer product.  In the process, which continues to this day, Max may have become the richest artist who ever lived—a single-handed Wal-Mart colossus of art.
That is so far in conflict with the peace/love/joy message of his Sixties art work that it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance that we can hardly deal with.
Peter Max Finkelstein was born on October 19, 1937 to an artistic and secular Jewish family in Berlin, Germany.  It was a notably inconvenient time to be Jewish in Germany.  When Peter was less than a year old the family managed to flee the country, somehow finding themselves in Shanghai, China where they lived for the next ten years through the Japanese occupation and World War II. 
The family seemed to live a charmed life in a pagoda style house sandwiched in between Buddhist monastery and a Sikh temple.  On the streets outside he could watch colorful Chinese New Year and other parades with their dancing dragons and lions.  His mother, a former fashion designer, littered the house with art supplies of all types and encouraged her son to create whatever inspired him promising to clean up any mess he made.  Or so the story goes.
By the time the war ended and Peter was old enough, he haunted the markets of the town for American comic books, listened to jazz on the radio, and took in the latest Hollywood movies at a cinema operated by a family friend.   
In 1948 the family immigrated to Israel where they settled in Haifa just in time for another war.  A war from which the family, once again emerged unscathed.  There he took his first art lessons from an Austrian expressionist, Professor Honik who introduced the boy to Fauvism and the paintings and drawings of Henri Matisse, Maurice Vlaminck, Max Beckmann, and Alexi Jawlensky.  After visiting the observatory on Mt. Carmel, Peter also took an interest in astronomy and even enrolled in night classes to study the stars at Technion Institute
In the early Fifties the family moved again to Paris where they lived for nearly a year.  He the teenager was exposed to and fell under the thrall of Classical and realist art he discovered at the Louvre.  He even enrolled in classes at the museum school.
But before he could settle down in France, the family migrated for a final time to the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York in 1953.  The-re he enrolled  at Lafayette High School.  The bustling City of New York itself with its teeming streets, towering art deco skyscrapers, chic fashion, sleek automobiles, movie palaces, and art everywhere was an even more important education.
After high school Peter began his formal art education at the Art Students League in Manhattan under the tutelage of noted realist Frank Reilly.  He was exceptionally diligent in mastering all of the techniques of representational drawing and painting.  In addition to his lessons he spent hour every weekend in museums carefully studying the work and technique of the masters.
Upon graduation Peter Finkelstein was using the name Peter Max as he attempted to start a career as a fine artist.  His devotion to realism and representational art, however, made it difficult to make headway in the city that was replacing Paris as the center of the art world on the strength of the abstract expressionist and other non-representational forms of modern art.  He was struggling to find a gallery that would even show his work until he had a chance encounter with an art director for a record company who commissioned him to create a cover for an album by bluesman Meade Lux Lewis.  The moody and evocative cover painting ended up winning the annual Society of Illustrators award. 
Max had stumbled from the world fine art to commercial art.  He was soon very successful in his new endeavor.  In 1962, Max and Tom Daly started The Daly & Max Studio, a small commercial arts studio known and were later joined by friend and mentor Don Rubbo.  The trio  collaborated on book design and advertising.  They specialized in a form of collage that blended vintage photographic images with painted elements.  Awards and commissions began to roll in as the three worked as a group on books and advertising for which they received industry recognition.  Much of their work incorporated antique photographic images as elements of collage.

Psychedelic poster art.

By the mid-sixties in response to the psychedelic movement, Max was using kaleidoscopic techniques with his collages and was adding bolder color.  He also returned to his old interest in astronomy and began to incorporate stars, moons, and planets in his designs to lend them an other-worldly quality.  This celestial period is what Max is still best known for and which he continued to mine well into the ‘70’s
Advertisers loved it illustrations for 7Up’s Un-cola campaign were a huge hit and caused sales of the soft drink to jump dramatically.  Many others scrambled to commission Max to work on their own campaigns.  Max soon became aware that his commercial images were being pinned to the walls of college dormitories and hippy crash pads.  That led Max to designing decorative posters for just that market.
Previously artists made fine art lithographic prints in limited editions which were signed and numbered and sold at galleries for hefty prices.  Max did some of that.  But he was really intrigued by the high quality that could be achieved on the new high speed four color web offset presses.  He borrowed and a technique of using a split fountain that enabled him to blend colors as they were going through the ink rollers that had been pioneered in San Francisco Oracle and in West Coast concert posters.  He described the process of playing a printing press to playing electric piano.
Max’s posters registered with the zeitgeist.  In 9 months of 1968 several million of his posters were sold, mostly for less than $5 each.  He became not only a celebrity, but a household name.  That with his long black hair, drooping mustache, and colorful hippy togs—shirts made from fabric he designed he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, chatted with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, and was featured in a cover story in Life magazine. 
The counter culture was going mainstream fast.  The success of the Peter Max brand led to more and more advertising and merchandising deals.  By 1970 Max licensed images to 72 corporations from General Electric clocks to Burlington Mills socks. Within a three year period, the line of products had generated more than $1 billion in retail sales.  And Max got a cut off the top of each sale.  No artist in history had ever made money this fast or easily. 
Max was so influential that he often got credit for work he didn’t do.  Most people think he designed the images for The Beatles’s Yellow Submarine animated film.  Although the work was obviously inspired by Max, the producers always denied he was involved.  In recent years however, Max has told interviewers that he was close friend with the Beatles and they solicited him for ideas for the movie that were used.  But they wanted him to personally do the animation, which would have required seventeen months of continuous labor in Europe.  Instead Heinz Edelmann, who advertised himself as the German Peter Max, was officially commissioned to do the design work.  

Dale Earnhardt race car

The Sixties may have been the acme of Max’s fame, but he has been consistently busy with original work and commissions ever since.  He has done a US Postage Stamp honoring Expo ‘74 World,s Fair in Spokane, Washington; a Statue of Liberty Series to raise money for the monument’s restoration; a Bi-Centennial book, Peter Max Paints America commissioned by a Swedish electrical conglomerate; done posters, programs, and other art for major events including  the World Cup, the Grammy Awards, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Super Bowl, and World Series;  painted Dale Earnhardt’s Winston All-Atar Race car; a Continental Air Line plane; and a Norwegian Cruise Line ship.
He began painting portraits of American Presidents Gerald Ford, moving to multiple images beginning with 100 Clintons.  He most recently exhibited 44 Obamas.
In 2007 Abrams Books published The World of Peter Max one of the bestselling coffee table art books of all time and in 2013 Harper Collins issued Max’s memoirs, The Universe of Peter Max.
At age 78 Max remains an active artist now considers his social media presence as a work of art.  He lives in New York with his longtime wife Mary Max.  And he is rich.  Very, very rich.