The New York Times bestselling book Strong Inside is the untold story of Perry Wallace, who in 1966 enrolled at Vanderbilt University and became the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. Strong Inside is not just the story of a trailblazing athlete, but of civil rights, race in America, a campus in transition during the tumultuous 1960s, the mental toll of pioneering, decades of ostracism, and eventual reconciliation and healing.
Wallace entered kindergarten the year that Brown v. Board of Education upended “separate but equal.” As a 12-year old, he snuck downtown to watch the sit-ins at Nashville’s lunch counters. In 1963, he entered high school a week after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. While in high school, he saw the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, and his Pearl High basketball team won Tennessee’s first integrated state tournament. The world seemed to be opening 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, 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.”
Strong Inside was the recipient of the 2015 Lillian Smith Book Award and the lone Special Recognition honor at the 2015 RFK Book Awards.
Image courtesy of author website.