One Small Act Against Jim Crow Still Ripples Today

How can a quiet act against racism performed a century ago still affect us today?

Let me tell you a story about a college football team and its black quarterback to answer that question.

Washington and Jefferson is a small college near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They had an outstanding football team in the 1920s (they played in the 1922 Rose Bowl, sending only 11 men to California by train and fighting Berkeley to a 0-0 tie, but that’s a story for another time).

Their quarterback was a black man named Charles “Pruner” West.

During the 1923 season, Washington and Jefferson was scheduled to play a segregated team from Virginia. Like many southern colleges, it relied on a “courtesy” where northern schools would agree not to field their black players.  

When the Virginia team asked Washington and Jefferson to sit out Pruner, their Athletic Director, Robert Murphy, sent a message that read, “W&J does not play without Pruner West.” The Virginia team refused to play the game, and by the rules of the time, W&J had to pay them their portion of the expected gate receipts. Murphy stood by his player despite the cost.  

The courage of this act is hard to appreciate in our current times and modern sensibilities, but in rural Pennsylvania in the 1920s, there was no outrage at the request to bench black players. Segregation was a reality embedded in daily life. Murphy’s decision was the exception, not the rule.  

This is an inspiring story, but there’s a kicker.  

No one knew at the time, but Pruner West was injured and could not have played in the game. Murphy could have easily sidestepped the issue by agreeing to bench West, but he didn’t.  

Why not? Because Murphy’s decision was not about whether one man would play in the game but whether his beliefs were worth taking a public stand to defend. He refused to humiliate one of his players under an unfair set of rules.

Stop for a moment and reflect: How do you feel when you hear this story?  

Do you feel proud of Robert Murphy’s actions? Would you want your child to be coached and mentored by such a person? Would you like to work for such a leader? Of course, the answer to these questions is a resounding “Yes.” We feel inspired when someone takes a stand like Robert Murphy because we recognize the quality of integrity.

At the time, it was a small act, perhaps unnoticed by anyone outside the team, which makes it all the more inspiring. Murphy chose to follow his conscience “when no one was looking.”

How do I know this story?  

My father went to Washington and Jefferson in the 1950s. The college kept this story alive. My father told me. And now I am telling you.

It was a small act performed for its own sake because it nudged life to the good. Murphy’s quiet act is still at work today, rippling out a century later, affecting you and anyone you share it with.  

Small acts accumulate. Their power grows.

Here’s an invitation:  what small act can you do today to nudge life to the good?

Photo, Washington and Jefferson Sports Archive

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