How a fiery Oklahoma basketball coach and a brilliant Chicago lawyer fought racism — and lost everything
Bob Ming was an aging, black civil rights lawyer, and Ken Zacher was a young, white high school basketball coach. They met each other for the first and last time on a Detroit stage in 1972 at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They didn't know it at the time, but each of them, for similar reasons, was about to lose everything.
A dozen years earlier, Ming had solidified his reputation as one of the country's top legal minds. He kept Martin Luther King Jr. out of prison before an all white, all male Alabama jury — a stunning outcome, King later said, because "defeat seemed certain, and we in the freedom struggle braced ourselves for the inevitable."
He helped prepare, brief or argue many of the NAACP's most important Supreme Court cases, including Brown v. Board of Education. But after his convictions on a misdemeanor tax charge in 1970 — political payback from the Nixon administration, supporters said — Ming was fighting to keep his law license and preparing to report to federal prison.
Bob Ming | (Courtesy Latterly)
Zacher, meanwhile, had come to talk to the NAACP because he wanted to tell a story: He worked in a plains city in northeastern Oklahoma, where in five seasons his teams won 91 out of 137 games. By age 31, his colleagues elected him head of the state coaches' association.
And yet, at his best, the school fired him.
It fired him because, until Zacher arrived in tiny Nowata, team captains and homecoming queens were always white. Zacher's team captain was black.
If you saw them together on that afternoon on July 7, 1972, inside Detroit's Cobo Center, if you even noticed them, you'd figure they had nothing in common. But actually they weren't so different. They had conviction in common. Maybe stubbornness, too. They shared a certainty of purpose that stirred others to the detriment of themselves, leading both men, soon before their lives would suddenly end, to a stage one day in Detroit.
Even in death, people were expected to keep their place in Nowata.
It was a mostly white Southern city of 4,000 in 1963 when George Washington Hubbard, a maintenance man for the town bank, died at 74. His son, Army Lt. Col. Paul W. Hubbard, tried to bury him in the municipal cemetery. But the town refused because the graveyard was for whites. In frustration, he wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Even the Justice Department couldn't help. City politicians, including one who was black, refused to desegregate the cemetery. The Hubbards gave up and buried their father in Kansas. "We didn't want a long legal fight," Hubbard told a reporter. "I'm going to leave that to posterity."
Four years later, posterity arrived in an unlikely form: Ken Zacher, a youthful and deeply superstitious basketball coach from western Oklahoma.
He'd never played with or coached blacks. He grew up where there just weren't many around, and if there were, they were encouraged to move along.
"Once he was in Nowata and realized — we just had never seen segregation before. Right away, both of us were in shock. We were stunned," said Lynda Coley, who was Zacher's wife at the time. "And it was not OK. It was not OK to me, and it was not OK to Ken."
Soon after Zacher started coaching in 1967, he insisted black and white players room together on road trips and sit next to each other on bus rides. He commissioned a mural of a black arm and white arm joined in a high handshake painted atop the entrance to the team locker room, and players slapped it each time they came and went. Zacher even joined the Tulsa branch of the NAACP.
He invited black players and their families into his home, offering them his car when they needed it.
After schools integrated in the early 1960s, Nowata's sports teams had two captains. One was always white to escort the white homecoming queen. Zacher eliminated the second captain.
Zacher's rules, hardly noticed by the players, led to uncomfortable discussions about race in homes.
Ken Zacher with player Dale Martin | (Nowata High School yearbook photo/Courtesy Latterly)
One player, Robert Sprague, returned from an overnight trip to a tournament in Oklahoma City to find his mother waiting for him with questions. Sprague, who would go on to become one of the most successful high school coaches in the state, had roomed with a black player named Kerry Caliman, a future Nowata valedictorian and Naval Academy graduate.
"That was no big deal to me," Sprague recalled. "My mom starts asking me a bunch of questions and proceeds to tell me I'm not going to room with Kerry." Sprague talked back to his mother. "I was a good kid, but I said, ‘No, you're wrong. There's not one thing wrong with Kerry.'"
The easy explanation for Zacher's ambition is that he cared about his players, black and white. But Zacher also had never witnessed the sharp disparities of life between white and black neighborhoods. He'd never had to see racism day after day until it became invisible — a fact — like it was for Nowata.
"He was going to change it," Coley said.
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