Football Vols to honor Black trailblazers with statues

Betty BeanKnox Scene

Fourteen years ago, I wrote a story about Jackie Walker. It began like this:

October 16, 1971

Legion Field

Birmingham, Alabama

It was the third Saturday in October, and the Tennessee Volunteers came rolling into town on a four-game winning streak over Alabama’s Crimson Tide. Bear Bryant awaited, intent on reversing his fortunes with a new wishbone offense, a retooled team, and a plan so brutally simple that it could be summed up in three words:

Stop Jackie Walker.

Jackie Walker in a posed photo from UT sports information

The Tide was gunning for Tennessee’s senior captain, an outside linebacker whose fearless play had gotten him named an All-American as a junior, despite his slender physique. As a sophomore – freshmen didn’t play varsity in those days – Walker and his teammates Lester McClain and Andy Bennett had become the first Blacks to play against Alabama on Legion Field, and Walker had returned a bobbled pass for a touchdown. He’d pretty much owned the Tide in the teams’ last two meetings, but this game, he would receive the full attention of Alabama’s massive offensive line, which was anchored by 265-pound guard John Hannah. who later became a 10-time Pro Bowler in the National Football League and was named “Best Offensive Lineman of All Time” by Sports Illustrated.

Jackie’s brother Marshall helped me research this story, and we worked for months – reading, seeking out contacts, interviewing Jackie’s old friends, teammates and coaches. It would turn out to be perhaps the most impactful thing I would ever write, in terms of making things happen.

The Jackie Walker story was picked up nationally. His life and accomplishments were discussed on local and national talk shows, and he was named to the Knoxville and the Tennessee halls of fame.

Marshall and I stayed in touch over the years, so I called him after I started hearing rumors like this one: “Come and witness the unveiling of Jackie Walker body-length statue in front of Neyland Stadium/Gate 21 on September 2, 2021, 10 a.m.”

I called Marshall, and he confirmed the rumor, and said that three other pioneering Black players would be honored – Jackie, Lester McClain, Condredge Holloway and Tee Martin. He said that this project started with McClain, the first Black football player at the University of Tennessee. He was a year ahead of Jackie. Holloway was the first Black quarterback. Martin quarterbacked the 1998 Vols to a national championship.

McClain, a wide receiver, enrolled at UT in 1967, and played his first varsity game in 1968. When I called McClain, he was cordial, but hesitant to talk about the statues because he’d been given the impression that nothing has been publicly announced about the project.

Jackie Walker (left) with his mother, Violet, and his brother, Marshall.

Marshall Walker was a year older than Jackie, and they both played their high school football at Fulton, where their father, Norman, was the head custodian. This was during the early days of school desegregation in Knoxville, and the Walker boys were both pioneers – it took a lawsuit to get Marshall enrolled at Fulton, and Jackie came the next year. They were both outstanding athletes. Jackie also excelled in chorus, and is remembered as a friendly, funny, talented kid. Nobody knew that he was also gay.

Jackie Walker died of AIDS in 2002. Marshall, a retired social worker and football coach who has dedicated the last 15 years of his life to preserving his late brother’s legacy, endured years of Jackie being ignored when honors and accolades were being handed out to great Volunteers of the past.

Now, he is gratified that Jackie and the other Black all-stars are being memorialized this way.

“I got the impression that they are trying to improve what’s been going on at UT, and that they noticed that people like (these Black athletes who played significant roles in Volunteer history) were not being honored, and Lester said they couldn’t recognize any former athlete until they talked about Jackie Walker.”

So – watch for this significant addition to the campus to be announced. There will be pride and gratitude and not a few tears.

“It is something I never dreamed would happen,” Marshall Walker said.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for

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