Jewish World Review May 10, 2001 / 17 Iyar, 5761

Who’s the Real Gentleman?

By Robert Leiter -- THE notion of a “gentleman’s agreement” in college sports began as far back as the late 19th century, when Southern schools began playing their counterparts in the Northeast. The agreement went as follows: If one team objected to black athletes participating in a game, the opposing team would bench the black players out of deference. It wasn’t until after World War II that universities, reacting to pressure from students, would abandon the practice.

But there was a time in March 1941 when a group of students at New York University got wind of the fact that their black football star, Leonard Bates, was going to be kept out of a game at the University of Missouri — and they decided to do something about it. They organized a protest, insisting that Bates had to be allowed to play; seven of them were eventually suspended for three months.

The university never made any sort of amends for punishing these students — until earlier this month. According to a front-page article in the May 4 New York Times, NYU planned at last to honor the group, known as “the Bates Seven,” at an annual campus dinner for student athletes.

No formal apology, however, would be forthcoming.

It’s not surprising to learn from Edward Wong’s article that a number of the seven suspended students are Jewish, and that in several cases they haven’t had much to do with their alma mater over the last 60 years, but were planning to attend the Sunday dinner.

Evelyn Maisel Witkin said she has stewed over the pain NYU caused her in her senior year, that she’s written letters to administrators and avoided reunions.

It was Witkin, a biology major, along with six others who led thousands of their classmates in the protest. They began by circulating petitions, wearing buttons and picketing administration buildings.

The university ignored the protesters’ demands and left Bates at home. The school finally suspended the seven students when they continued to protest decisions to leave a basketball player and track stars behind as well.

Wong notes that most of the seven graduated, and “went on to become novelists, scientists and teachers.” Some of the bitterness, he writes, also seems to be ebbing once recognition seemed possible.

“I was very surprised because I had given up expecting anything to happen,” said Witkin, 80, a professor emerita of genetics at Rutgers University. “Sixty years is a long time. But it’s nice to know they’re going to do something. It was something that meant a lot to us at the time.”

It doesn’t take much courage 60 years down the road to finally recognize and “embrace these members of our community and hold them up as models of people who fight for an important cause,” as John Beckman, an NYU spokesman, told the Times. And it remains rather spineless of the administration to withhold an apology.

But what about an apology for poor Leonard Bates? Guys, wake up, he’s the offended person here.

He’s now listed on the alumni database as deceased, but more than a decade ago, a historian contacted him because he wondered if Bates could help him find the seven protesters. Bates had worked as a guidance counselor in the New York public schools all his life and he told the historian, “If whenever you do find them, tell them, ‘Thank you.’ ”

JWR contributor Robert Leiter is Literary Editor at the Jewish Exponent. Comment on this article by clicking here.


© 2001 Robert Leiter