It’s finally football season! Though football’s been on in my house for like a month already, this week is the start of the regular NFL season. Nobody would call me a die-hard sports fan, but the story of the 1965 Shrine Bowl and the player at the center of the controversy – Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick – touches on so many threads of the history of our city and of the South as a whole. It’s the story of integration, civil rights leaders in Charlotte, racial violence, and later, the deep wells of pain that exist as the legacy of slavery in Charlotte. Keep reading to put it all together.
In 1965, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick was a senior at the newly integrated Myers Park High School and was a star running back who helped lead the team to an undefeated season. He was also the only Black person on the team. Four of the Myers Park Mustangs, including Jimmie, were nominated for the Shrine Bowl, an annual all-star football game pitting North Carolina’s best high school seniors against South Carolina’s best high school seniors. Only two players could be chosen – Jimmie wasn’t one of them. The decision stirred up a storm of debate – Jimmie was the best running back in the entire state, why wouldn’t he be chosen to play?
The 1965-1966 Myers Park High School Mustangs featured in the school’s yearbook. Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick is in the front row of the team photo, third from the left. Thanks to senior transfers Jimmie Kirkpatrick and Mack Tharpe and returning quarterback Neb Hayden, the Mustangs were undefeated that season. The yearbook doesn’t mention the Shrine Bowl controversy.
Julius Chambers had just started his law practice in Charlotte in 1964, after working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund under Thurgood Marshall. By 1965, he had begun litigating Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which aimed to use busing to integrate schools in the county. Watching the fervor over the Shrine Bowl selections, Chambers saw the decision to exclude Jimmie Kirkpatrick as an injustice and filed an order to stop the Shrine Bowl for racial discrimination. The game was played as usual that year, but the judge ordered the Shriners to integrate the game – or else it would be done for them. Two days after the ruling, on November 22, 1965, bombs were thrown into the homes of Chambers and three other civil rights leaders who were involved in both the Shrine Bowl case and the Swann case.
FBI agents inspect the home of Fred Alexander, North Carolina NAACP president, whose home was bombed on the same night as Julius Chambers’ home. Photo: J. Murrey Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte.
Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick graduated from Myers Park that spring and went to Purdue University on a football scholarship. In 2013, Observer reporter Gary Schwab chronicled Jimmie’s story, along with the rest of the Myers Park team, and how he reflected on his past. One of Jimmie’s white classmates, De Kirkpatrick, read Jimmie’s story and made plans to catch up. During those conversations, Jimmie shared the stunning discovery he had made uncovering his genealogy – Jimmie’s great-great-great grandfather had been owned by De’s great-great grandfather.
That conversation sparked a new journey for the two men. Their story will be chronicled in a feature documentary that explores the legacy of slavery, present-day racial divisions, and the hope that we can heal the deep wounds that many of us have never faced. The Museum was honored to host Jimmie & De in February 2020 for a conversation about their efforts to reckon with their shared past. You can learn more about the documentary and their story here.
In one of the last public events hosted by the Museum before the pandemic, Jimmie and De shared the sizzle reel for their upcoming documentary, discussed their efforts to reckon with their shared past, and answered audience questions. Charlotte Museum of History photo.
Have a great weekend and go Panthers!
Charlotte Museum of History
If you want to learn more about the Shrine Bowl and Jimmie & De’s story, I highly recommend reading The Charlotte Observer’s series by Gary Schwab (subscription required):
NAACP Legal Defense Fund bio of Julius Chambers
About The Charlotte Museum of History
The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass