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Strong Inside

Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South

Andrew Maraniss


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Other Editions of This Title:
Paperback (8/1/2016)


New York Times Best Seller
2015 RFK Book Awards Special Recognition
2015 Lillian Smith Book Award
2015 AAUP Books Committee "Outstanding" Title

Based on more than eighty interviews, this fast-paced, richly detailed biography of Perry Wallace, the first African American basketball player in the SEC, digs deep beneath the surface to reveal a more complicated and profound story of sports pioneering than we've come to expect from the genre. Perry Wallace's unusually insightful and honest introspection reveals his inner thoughts throughout his journey.

Wallace entered kindergarten the year that Brown v. Board of Education upended "separate but equal." As a 12-year-old, he sneaked downtown to watch the sit-ins at Nashville's lunch counters. A week after Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Wallace entered high school, and later saw the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. On March 16, 1966, his Pearl High School basketball team won Tennessee's first integrated state tournament--the same day Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky Wildcats lost to the all-black Texas Western Miners in an iconic NCAA title game.

The world seemed to be opening up at just the right time, and when Vanderbilt recruited him, Wallace courageously accepted the assignment to desegregate the SEC. His experiences on campus and in the hostile gymnasiums of the Deep South turned out to be nothing like he ever imagined.

On campus, he encountered the leading civil rights figures of the day, including Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Robert Kennedy--and he led Vanderbilt's small group of black students to a meeting with the university chancellor to push for better treatment.

On the basketball court, he experienced an Ole Miss boycott and the rabid hate of the Mississippi State fans in Starkville. Following his freshman year, the NCAA instituted "the Lew Alcindor rule," which deprived Wallace of his signature move, the slam dunk.

Despite this attempt to limit the influence of a rising tide of black stars, the final basket of Wallace's college career was a cathartic and defiant dunk, and the story Wallace told to the Vanderbilt Human Relations Committee and later The Tennessean was not the simple story of a triumphant trailblazer that many people wanted to hear. Yes, he had gone from hearing racial epithets when he appeared in his dormitory to being voted as the university's most popular student, but, at the risk of being labeled "ungrateful," he spoke truth to power in describing the daily slights and abuses he had overcome and what Martin Luther King had called "the agonizing loneliness of a pioneer.

Vanderbilt University Press, 9780826520234, 480pp.

Publication Date: December 1, 2014

Conversation Starters from

The book’s epigraph, taken from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” makes note of the “agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.” In what specific ways did loneliness agonize Perry? In what ways did he respond to it?

Maraniss doesn’t begin the book with the history or action or drama that categorizes the rest of the book. He begins it at its end, with one of Perry’s former teammates asking his forgiveness. Why do you think the author frames the book in this way? What is gained in the use of this technique? How does it ready your mind for what comes later in Perry’s story?

In the second chapter, Wallace recalls what his father taught him about “what it takes to make it in America.” What childhood lessons does Perry employ most during his time at Vanderbilt?

Put yourself in Wallace’s shoes during his time at Vanderbilt, considering especially those “hellish” road trips that he had to endure. Might you have reacted differently than Wallace? How might you characterize Wallace’s reaction?

Strong Inside is a sports book, but it isn’t a necessarily book about sports. Basketball gave Perry the opportunity to break down the barriers that he did, but is that where the importance of sport ends in Perry’s narrative? In what other ways does the lens of athletics contribute to the history of the South in the 1960s?

In the final chapter, Perry responds to a teammate’s request for forgiveness: “Don’t think another thing of it. We were all just kids.” What do you make of Wallace’s mercy, his sense of peace? Do you find that it responds appropriately to the racism in the South in the 1960s?

Unique to Perry’s story is that he didn’t go to Vanderbilt embracing the idea of being a pioneer, focusing instead on the school’s academics. How does his reluctance to play the role of pioneer devolve in his time there? What is your definition of a pioneer?

Why do you think Wallace’s experience has flown under the radar of civil rights history? 

What do you make of Wallace’s decision to do the tell-all interview with The Tennessean?

a. How did it strengthen or weaken his cause as a pioneer?

b. Specifically discuss the ironic relationship between Wallace’s isolation and his fame at the time of the interview.

Does Wallace’s story change your perspective on the United States in the 1960s? How?

If you had the opportunity to sit down with Perry Wallace, what would you say to him? What would you ask him?

Coverage from NPR