Clarence McGill (Photo by Jay Paul)
Clarence “Bucky” McGill is a big man. At 6 foot 4 inches and 290 pounds, you don’t miss him in a crowd. He is also loud, imposing and opinionated.
As a recurring guest on WCLM’s Tanya Free radio show, McGill is an ace at pushing people to their limits and holding them accountable for their statements. During the Oct. 26 broadcast of the show, he was the lone voice insisting that Donald Trump would be elected president “whether we liked it or not.” The phone lines lit up with listeners who disagreed. Instead of forecasting doom, McGill immediately began offering suggestions on how America can better govern itself by working together and challenging our youth.
A week later, McGill served on a panel at Richmond Public Library about the school-to-prison pipeline. After other panelists offered answers based on academics, McGill, who recently retired from the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, thundered that the problem was too many “well-meaning, do-gooder folks who are not doing anybody any good.” Some cheered while some eyes widened in response to the indictment. Yet within moments, a serious conversation began on how the community could realistically help the schools in the city.
McGill is known for this kind of hardball, then soft-gloves approach. It is this push-and-pull tactic that has not only made him a sought-after coach and mentor to three generations of young people, but also to his own peers. Nearly 50 years ago, he and eight other players on the Syracuse University football team boycotted spring practice as a way to bring light to racism within the athletics department. The act torpedoed their sports dreams while placing the men in an unofficial draft pool of unsung heroes of the civil rights movement.
Spring 1969, Back row: Tom Smith (not a Syracuse Eight member), Duane Walker, Alif Muhammad and Clarence McGill; Front row: John Lobon, Dana Harrell, Greg Allen and John Godbolt; Not pictured: Richard Bulls and Ron Womack (Photo courtesy Clarence McGill)
THE BIG ORANGE
In 1967, when McGill accepted a football scholarship to Syracuse University, he soon learned that leadership is assumed, not bestowed.
McGill, who was pegged as a future NFL standout, and eight black teammates decided to take a stand against the racial injustice that had existed for a century at Syracuse. (The local press incorrectly called them the Syracuse Eight, and the label stuck.) They refused to participate in spring 1970 practices, with the hope that their concerns — an all-white coaching staff since 1898, inadequate health care for team members, field positions based on race and not ability, and lack of academic support (players funneled into general education degrees instead of being encouraged to pursue more challenging courses of study) — would be addressed. Syracuse suspended the men from the team, and most did not play the rest of their college careers. After spiraling into severe clinical depression, one teammate became estranged from family and friends until his death in 2012.
During the fall of 1970, a committee established by Syracuse’s chancellor and another by the New York State Human Rights Commission investigated the claims. “Both reports concluded that [our] concerns were justified — the SU football program reflected institutional racism. ... The university promised to address their issues going forward,” McGill says.
The university did not address all the issues, however, and McGill would never play football for Syracuse University again. He says, “The great Jim Brown, a former SU football player, warned us at that time of the possible sacrifice of our professional football careers if we continued to boycott.”
The boycott was finally commemorated on campus in 2006 and later through a Syracuse Press book. That same year, the men received the Chancellor’s Medal for Extraordinary Courage, their letterman jackets and an apology from the university. The book, “Leveling the Playing Field: The Story of the Syracuse Eight,” written by David Marc, came out in 2015, and proceeds from its sale help to fund a Syracuse Eight scholarship for an African-American or Latino first-year student who exhibits leadership skills and is focused on community service.
The book also captures what Brown, a 1957 Syracuse graduate and one of the country’s best college and NFL athletes, told the 2006 crowd at the ceremony honoring the players. “You see these guys,” said Brown, motioning to the Syracuse Eight, “they demanded change — change for themselves and change for those who would follow them. Now let me ask you something: In the past 30 years or so, we’ve had all these NFL and NBA multimillionaires strutting around on TV and showing off their houses and their cars and their jewelry and everything else they’ve got. Tell me something: Can anyone in this room name a single one of them who has had the courage to stand up for what’s right? To take a risk and do what these men did when they were just students in college?” Deafening silence answered him.
To understand the weight of the decision of McGill and the others to stay off the field, consider the times. McGill was the son of a single mother, Hattie Jones, who had only recently been granted the right to vote. She was old enough to remember a very different America. McGill grew up in an era when African-American males dominated in sports arenas and in the burgeoning Black Power movement.
“From Jesse Owens to Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali and Wilt Chamberlain and, of course, Jim Brown, black athletes were not only athletes,” says McGill. “They were role models that represented us to the whole world. That is a lot for a young person to carry. I mean, everybody remembers Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the 1968 Olympics for the world to see. That was their platform. Their moment. This was mine.”
‘A STRAIGHT SHOOTER’
McGill is a civil rights leader who holds the colorblind vision of equality and justice for all. As a member of the Richmond Chapter of Coming to the Table, a national nonprofit dedicated to racial healing and conciliation, McGill often shares his views as a Northerner who moved to Richmond in 1991.
“There was no real systematic, institutional or anecdotal racism,” he says about growing up in Binghamton, New York. “We were normal. In the winter, we would ice skate, play basketball. In the summer, we would play baseball, swam and fished. And, of course, football. We all played together. And my family is interracial — black, white, mixed. That was my childhood, and that’s how my family looks today.” While he tries to understand the paradox of race relations in Richmond, “it’s a struggle for me,” McGill says.
Robert Churchwell III, head basketball coach for Benedictine College Preparatory, was a kid when he first met McGill, and has recruited him as an assistant coach for the current season. “He’s a straight shooter all the time,” says Churchwell of McGill. “Bucky is good at the tough conversations [with parents]. No matter what, he comes up with the right thing to say. He genuinely cares about the boys and does not hesitate to break it down for a parent … whatever needs to be done to ensure that player’s success. Smiling but always leading with the hard truth.”
During a basketball practice I attend at Benedictine, halfway through the players’ drills, McGill blows the whistle, calling the young men off the court and requiring all 16 to shake my hand and introduce themselves.
“Not just athletes — cultivating gentlemen and scholars. Leaders,” McGill says. Then, with another whistle, the team is back on the court. I hear the voices of all the coaches yelling, “Stay on your feet. Move! Get ready, be ready.” I watch McGill moving alongside the boys, giving guidance. Loud. Fast. Constantly changing direction. Looking for allies and keeping an eye on the opposition. There are college recruiters here from Hampden-Sydney, and McGill recalls himself at this age, wanting to make sure these young guys get their chance. This is their moment.
BEARING THE WEIGHT
McGill believes that whether a teen comes from privilege or poverty, pitfalls await those who are not prepared.
McGill spent most of his life surrounded by those who cultivated his potential. That would include a litany of teachers and coaches, but his mother is at the top of the list. His mother, now 97 and living in Arlington, still drives herself to her part-time job at the Army-Navy Country Club. Raised in South Carolina, she taught McGill and his four siblings to “work hard, don’t quit and don’t die.” Grinning, he says he doesn’t want to be outdone by her.
Evelyn, McGill’s wife of 27 years and mother of two, is executive director of Virginia Workers' Compensation, a position she worked hard to achieve, but she credits her husband with her success. “Bucky supported and guided me through every important career decision I ever made. I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for him. I have watched him get up early every day supporting the dreams of others, including me.”
The two met in the 1980s while building public service careers. She reminisces over their courtship — slow and steady — and their marriage. Of her husband’s past, she says, “In all the time that I’d known Bucky, he never fully sat me down and explained to me what had happened to him during his college years. Yes, I knew he was a football player, [an] exceptional athlete who was well-loved at home and could have gone pro. But never the gravity of what happened on that team.”
She finally understood the weight of it during a Syracuse alumni gathering. “Everyone was recounting happy times. Joking and laughing. I sat with some guys from the team who were having a great time until I told them I was married to Clarence ‘Bucky’ McGill. There was dead silence, and all laughter stopped. The guys’ faces got solemn and everything changed. It was not until that moment that I realized what that boycott had meant to others and how heavy a cross Bucky and the others had to bear for all those years.”
As she flips through photographs of her younger self and a chiseled Clarence, she adds, “He rarely talked about it. He would sometimes mention his old roommate, John Godbolt, who suffered the most under the strain, but Bucky never complained or voiced regrets. He simply got to work.”
The boycott did not make McGill and the others heroes in 1970. To their coach, Ben Schwartzwalder, and the white Syracuse players, they were considered traitors to their team and school, McGill says. Now, more than 40 years later, even McGill still struggles with the tragic learning curve they encountered at such an early age. He often thinks of his old roommate. Godbolt was from Bridgeport, Connecticut, and grew up in one of the most crime-ridden, poverty-stricken public housing projects in the nation. When Godbolt arrived at Syracuse, he was already the patriarch of his family, with two children of his own and siblings who depended on him for everything; he came from a struggling community that saw him as a way out for all of them.
“That’s a lot of pressure for a young man, but that was also common during that time,” says McGill. “Athletics was the golden ticket out of whatever bad situation you were in. John was arguably the most talented player on our team and no doubt destined for the NFL.”
“John had one plan, and that was to play football, and when that was destroyed, he never recovered.” McGill, who graduated in 1971 with a history degree, still replays these memories, recalling his roommate’s withdrawal from campus life and camaraderie with friends. “We didn’t know anything about clinical depression back then, especially in people that young. It’s one of the few things I regret [not recognizing].”
MEANING THROUGH MENTORING
During his career with the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, one of McGill’s proudest accomplishments was the establishment of workforce development programs through the department and the Richmond City Jail.
McGill recruited Franklin Harvey of Harvey’s Barbershop, a long-standing family business in Richmond, to create a training and certification program. Their goal was to provide young men with a marketable skill. The program has been a great success, with 57 barbers licensed to date, but Harvey and McGill didn’t stop there. They helped each newly certified barber find employment, prepared them for job interviews and, when necessary, accompanied them to court, helping them to get a fresh start. “He is a finisher,” Harvey says of McGill. “Clarence has even helped and supported me in my own pursuits in film and TV ministry. He gives 110 percent.”
In October, McGill and the five surviving members of the Syracuse Eight were honored at St. Christopher’s School and asked to share their vision of leadership in tandem with the school’s: “It is always better to choose the hard right over the easy wrong.”
Clarence McGill with St. Christopher senior Jalen Maurice (Photo by Jay Paul)
In January, McGill was invited back to St. Christopher’s as the school’s speaker for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the campus chapel, McGill again told the story of the Syracuse Eight and how it changed his life, and he incorporated the 2015 University of Missouri’s football team boycott, which prompted the resignation of the university’s president and chancellor. He told the students that, even at their young age, they are servant leaders with the power to make great change in the world. Wearing tennis shoes with a suit, he delivered his message using the full width of the stage, never stopping, careful to make eye contact with students, invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s drum major message:
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace, I was a drum major for righteousness, and all the other shallow things will not matter.”
This was a much more personal address than the one delivered in the fall. It sounded like a conversation between the larger-than-life Clarence McGill who stood before the students and the impressionable young man who came to Syracuse in the fall of 1967.
On that chapel stage, McGill was again on the field, passing along life lessons, hoping a student or two would catch one.