Mike Justice didn’t know he was helping to make Mississippi history at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton half a century ago in the fall of 1967. All Justice wanted to do was win football games.
And if new friends, such as Roy Lee Crayton, Hank Stone and Glen Clifton could help win, that was all the better. Never mind that Crayton, Stone and Clifton were African American – and Itawamba AHS football teams had always been all-white.
“Besides Coach (Ben) Jones said those guys were going to be part of the team, and what Coach Jones said back then was law,” Justice says. “You gotta understand, nobody questioned Ben Jones.”
Until 1967, white and black Mississippians played football – as they did most activities – separately. Most Mississippi high schools did not integrate until 1969. Itawamba AHS, commonly known as Fulton, was among the first.
Justice, who now lives in Madison, would become one of Mississippi’s all-time winning-est high school coaches, using many of the lessons he learned from Jones. That included Jones’ “fairness principle” – which simply was that the best players at every position will start, regardless of race or class or anything else.
Jones was one of the leaders who believed Fulton schools should not put off integration as many Mississippi school systems would. He wanted to embrace what he knew was the law of the land. Those who know him say he learned his own lessons about race from chopping cotton with black kids in Monroe County as a youth – and from his grandfather who counted an ex-slave among his best friends.
Until 1967, all white kids in Fulton went to Itawamba AHS. The blacks went to East High, a much smaller school that didn’t even play football.
Jones, then-Fulton mayor H.D. McGee, IAHS principal Wayne Wood (a former sheriff), East High principal T.Y. Trice, newspaper publisher Delmus Harden and Itawamba Junior College president John Crubaugh were all forward-thinking men, who believed the sooner, the better where integration was concerned. For his part, Trice supported the instant integration, even though his job of East High principal would no longer exist.
To say that not all Fulton residents agreed would be an all-time understatement. There was resistance and plenty of it, especially when they learned that the football team, the pride of Fulton, would be integrated as well. A group of white parents went as a group to voice their protest to Wood, who said he was sticking by his coach. Jones and Wood, meanwhile, met with black parents, urging them to let their children play football, despite the fact they had never played organized football before.
“To be honest, some of the black guys didn’t know how to play,” Justice remembers. “But they were great athletes and they learned fast.”
One of the new IAHS players was 10th grader Roy Lee Crayton, a 6-foot, 6-inch, 290-pound manchild, by far the largest player on the team. Jones often ended his practice with what he called “a victory lap.” All the players would take a lap all the way around the field. Crayton didn’t make it the first day.
“Halfway around the field, Roy Lee just fell out,” Justice says. “I mean, he fell out like he was dead.”
Jones tried to coax Crayton to get up and finish the lap. He didn’t. Roy Lee stayed down until all the other players left the field.
The same thing happened the next day and the next. Finally, Jones came equipped with a baby bottle filled with milk. When Crayton fell out during the lap, Jones blew his whistle, approached the fallen player and said, “Roy Lee, you know what I’m going to do to you?”
Crayton opened an eye and replied, “You gonna yell at me and treat me real bad?”
Jones said, “No Roy Lee, I got something for you,” and handed him the baby bottle, hoping to shame him into completing his lap.
Crayton just unscrewed the bottle, put it to his mouth and chugged the milk. “Thanks, Coach, you got any more?” he said, smiling.
The entire team erupted in laughter. Ben Jones always believed that was the moment his players, black and white, begin to come together as a team. The community didn’t come together quite so quickly.
As the Sept. 8 opener of the 1967 season against bitter rival Baldwyn approached, threats were made against Jones.
He didn’t flinch.
In fact, on the night of the first game, he called his players to attention before the game. He implored them to stick together. Furthermore, before the national anthem, he had them all remove their helmets and walk completely around the field. This wasn’t a victory lap; no, it was a unity lap.
“I want everybody here to see what color you all are, black and white,” Jones told them. “Don’t anybody be ashamed of what color you are because I’m not.”
Future Fulton and Jackson State star Dale Stone, whose older brother Hank played on the team, was there that night and remembers.
“Coach Jones was an unusual man for those times,” Dale Stone says. “He didn’t discriminate whatsoever. He made it clear the best players were going to play, no matter what.”
Robert Clay, then a ninth grader, was there as well. Four years later, he would be the first black to start at quarterback in the Tombigbee Conference.
“Coach Jones didn’t see color,” says Clay, now a preacher in Atlanta. “He treated everybody the same and he motivated everybody. You wanted to do well for him. I know, for my part, he saw something in me I didn’t see in myself.”
The Baldwyn-Fulton rivalry was a rugged one, and Baldwyn wanted badly to spoil that historic 1967 season opener for Fulton. Baldwyn led 7-6 in the third quarter, and Jones still hadn’t played one of his black players.
With Baldwyn facing an obvious passing down, Jones sent Crayton into the game. The Baldwyn quarterback went back to pass, Crayton raised his arms as he had been taught. He deflected the pass into the hands of teammate Chuck Carpenter, who raced 35 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Roy Lee Crayton was suddenly a hero. When Hank Stone entered the game a few minutes later, he did so to cheers.
Minutes later, Justice, a fullback, broke a long touchdown run. Fulton was on its way to a 28-7 victory – and, more importantly, a successful integration of its school.
Crayton would go on to play for Itawamba Junior College, Southwest Missouri and in professional football before an injury ended his career. Justice would become one of Mississippi’s most successful high school coaches. He says he counted Hank Stone and Roy Lee Crayton, who both have since died, as close friends.
Ben Justice, Mike’s son and a football coach himself, is named for Ben Jones. Both Mike Justice and Robert Clay spoke at Ben Jones’ funeral two months ago.
Fifty years ago Friday night, the Itawamba AHS Indians made Mississippi history, doing for the first time what we now take for granted.