Saturday, October 6, 2012

Pulitzer Prize for Photography, 1952

Continuing a look at the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Photography (started in 1942) and the World Press Photograph of the Year (started in 1955). 

Sometimes the photographs are spectacular, sometimes the circumstances in which the photographs were taken are significant and sometimes the photographs are ar reflection of a moment or period of historical significance. 




Pulitzer Prize for Photography


John Robinson and Don Ultrang 

A series of 6 photographs taken during the Drake University – Oklahoma A & M game of player Johnny Bright’s jaw being deliberately broken. 


At first look the 6 photographs referred to above appear unremarkable, sports photographs of an incident (generally referred to as “The Johnny Bright incident”) in which a player’s jaw was broken during an American football game. By today’s photographic techniques and technology they are ordinary, probably making you wonder (as did I, on first viewing) why they were considered worthy of a Pulitzer. 

Knowing the background and circumstances of the photographs will revise that opinion. It is my belief that the award was not only for the photographs as photographs but also for the circumstances in which they were taken and for the willingness of the photographers (and others) to make an issue of the incident. 

You see, Johnny Bright was black. 

Pre-civil rights America was quite different from America today. Anyone who has seen movies such as The Help, The Long Walk Home and Remember the Titans will have an inkling of attitudes and injustices in the US in 1951. 

Playing college football for Drake University, a small college playing in the top college division, Bright was a prominent and remarkable athlete. A halfback/quarterback, he was a candidate for ability awards, led the nation in total defense and was a key factor in Drake’s 5 game winning streak going into the Oklahoma game It was the first time that an African American athlete with a national profile had played against Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) on their home field. The coming game, and Bright’s participation, were controversial even before the game began. Bright received threats before the game but played anyway. 

During the first seven minutes of the game, Bright was knocked unconscious three times by blows from Oklahoma A&M defensive tackle Wilbanks Smith, a white player. 

Still in the first quarter, Bright passed the ball to fullback Gene Macomber. Well after having passed the ball and behind the play, Wilbanks Smith attacked Bright striking him to the face with his forearm, his elbow breaking Bright’s jaw. 

Bright stayed in the game, despite his shattered jaw, and completed a 61 yard pass to Drake halfback Jim Pilkington a few plays later but soon afterward his injury and another hit upon him finally forced him to leave the game. Bright finished the game with less than 100 yards, the first time in his three year collegiate career at Drake. Oklahoma A&M eventually won the game 27–14. 

Bright’s jaw had to be wired and a tooth had to be extracted so that he could drink through a straw. 

Bob Spiegel, a reporter with the Des Moines Register, interviewed several spectators after the game, eventually publishing a report on the incident in the October 30, 1951 issue of the newspaper. According to Spiegel's report, several of the Oklahoma A&M students he interviewed overheard an Oklahoma A&M coach repeatedly say "Get that nigger" whenever the A&M practice squad ran Drake plays against the Oklahoma A&M starting defense, prior to the October 20 game. 

Spiegel also recounted the experiences of a businessman and his wife who were seated behind a group of Oklahoma A&M practice squad players. At the beginning of the game, one of the players turned around said, "We're gonna get that nigger." After the first blow to Bright was delivered by Smith, the same player again turned around and told the businessman, "See that knot on my jaw? That same guy [Smith] gave me that the very same way in practice." 

Dan Ultang and John Robinson were photographers assigned to cover the game by the Des Moines Register, Ultang using a still camera and Robinson a sequence camera. They were there because of the threats that had been made and because of rumours that Bright would receive special attention. Their photographs clearly show that the attack upon Bright happened well after he had passed the ball and behind the play. The photographs were published the next day on the front page of the Des Moine Register. In a 1999 interview for an oral history project conducted by the University of Iowa journalism school, Ultang said his photograph of the play was identical to the final shot of Robinson’s sequence. Robinson died in 1972 

Ultang and Robinson subsequently shared the 1952 Pulitzer. 

J.B. Whitworth, the A&M coach, initially denied there had been any illegality, claiming that Bright’s injury had come in the course of normal play. Faced with the photographic evidence to the contrary, which was also published in Life magazine, Whitworth declared that he was ashamed at what had happened, despite rumours that Whitworth had ordered his players to attack Bright. 

The aftermath

Drake University and fellow Bradley University withdrew in protest for several years because of the Bright incident and because there was no disciplinary action taken against Wilbanks Smith. 


New rules were introduced requiring facemasks and requiring any player throwing punches in a game to be ejected. 


Bright recovered to play one more game that season. He moved to Canada, thinking he’d get better treatment playing in the Canadian Football League and went on to become the greatest running back in CFL history — 10,909 yards rushing, three Grey Cup titles, a Most Outstanding Player award, the single-season rushing record, and a still-standing record for most consecutive games played. CFL players didn’t make enough money to make ends meet, so he got a side job as a teacher. When his football career ended, he became a junior high principal in Edmonton, coaching the neighborhood high school to provincial championships on the side. He died of a heart attack in 1983. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame the next year. 


Recalling the incident without apparent bitterness in a 1980 Des Moines Register interview three years before his death, Bright commented: "There's no way it couldn't have been racially motivated." Bright went on to add: "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." 


When asked about Smith, whom he had not seen since the incident, Bright said he felt "null and void" about Smith, but added: "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." 


A webpage for Smith's hometown of Mangum, Oklahoma lists him as a "noted notable", praising Smith as "an outstanding football player and wrestler," while noting that "In football, he earned notoriety as the perpetrator of the 'Johnny Bright Incident.' The city's webpage goes on to claim that Smith's "actions were, presumably, directed by the coaching staff, but Wilbanks Smith courageously accepted full responsibility. After graduation, he embarked upon a successful career in engineering and community service." 


When the Des Moines Register published its photos of the attack back in 1951, sports editor Sec Taylor wrote an angry column saying Smith’s jersey should be retired, fumigated, and displayed somewhere as a symbol of “things college football does not stand for.” But nowhere in the piece did Taylor mention Wilbanks Smith by name. He simply referred to him by his jersey number. In the caption under a photo of Smith, all the paper said was “Number 72.” “I won’t sully our clean journal by the use of his name,” Taylor wrote. 


On September 28, 2005, Oklahoma State University formally apologised to Drake University and to Bright for the incident in a letter from Oklahoma State University President David J Schmidly to Drake President David Maxwell. 

The apology came twenty-two years after Bright's death.


1 comment:

  1. Hello. I used your text about "The Johnny Bright Incident" as the basis for my text on my blog. I hope you're not angry. I found it polite and elegant to communicate to you. I do not speak English very well, so I used Google Translator. Cheers. My blog:


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.