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This article will focus on the Black American distance runners who competed for San Jose State College (SJSC) during the early 1960s. In the fall of 1962, James Meridith grabbed national attention while attempting to transfer from the all-Black Jackson State College to the all-white University of Mississippi. A federal district court ordered Ole Miss to admit Meridith on September 3, 1962. Later that month, President John F. Kennedy ordered several hundred U.S. Marshals to escort Meridith to his classes.
Meanwhile, SJSC’s Ron Davis, Ben Tucker and Horace Whitehead quietly fought another battle in California. The emergence of East African runners from Ethiopia and Kenya in major road races, the World Championships, and the Olympic Games during the 1960s has long overshadowed the accomplishments of this group of Black American distance runners.
In 1962, Davis, Tucker, and Whitehead competed on the Spartans’ National Collegiate Athletic Association Cross Country Championship team, which also featured Brazilian Jose Azevedo, and Americans Jeff Fishback and Danny Murphy. (Following Davis and Whitehead’s departure in ’62, Tucker, too, competed on the Spartans’ 1963 NCAA championship squad.)
Davis, Tucker, and Whitehead’s effort was significant in that American Blacks during that era were considered great sprinters – not distance runners. From Jesse Owens in 1936 to Wilma Rudolph in 1960, Blacks had established themselves as sprinters on the world’s stage.
The trio trained to compete under harsh conditions. Though the City of San Jose is not located in the Southern region of the United States, the racial climate, at times, was just as hostile. According to Tucker, people would shout racial epithets from their windows, and cars would swerve around, narrowly missing them while they took their training runs. Still others would hurl bottles at them as they ran through the streets and hills of San Jose. When lining up at competitions, other athletes would often ask, “Are you sure you are at the right event?”
“The level of racism was blatant,” Tucker said. “We lived (in San Jose) and we trained there, but we were not of the community.”
As a result of the racial hostilities they encountered, Davis, Tucker and Whitehead formed a pact. “We realized we were considered an oddity,” said Tucker, who also was successful on the track during the spring, placing third in the mile run at the 1963 NCAA championships, and fourth in the 1,500 meters at the NCAA meet in 1964.
“Dean Miller was the key,” said Davis of the Spartan distance coach. Davis, who recently was hired as an assistant coach at Ohio State University, had coached under SJS Olympic gold medalist Lee Evans. “He arrived and motivated us. Before he got there, it was just (the SJS sprint squad known as) Speed City and a bunch of cross-country runners . . .”
But once the trio became recognized nationally, other runners took note, inquiring, “Oh, you guys must be from Africa. What African country are you from?” Tucker said. “I told them San Francisco.”
But in 1962, SJSC’s five-man team shattered the NCAA team record by 39 seconds. In capturing the national title in East Lansing, Michigan, Davis, Tucker and Whitehead placed fifth, fourteenth and twenty-fourth, respectively. Teammates Danny Murphy and Jeff Fishback finished third and thirteenth, respectively. The Spartans defeated Villanova 58-69.