Woog's World / Being uncivil to protect civil rights
Published 4:16 pm, Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Westport's history, we are often reminded, is intertwined with that of the civil rights movement. The selection of Tracy Sugarman as grand marshal of this year's Memorial Day parade focused attention on his long activism in the cause, from his work in the Mississippi Summers of 1964 and '65 to his friendship (and hosting at his Owenoke home) of leaders like Andrew Young and Fannie Lou Hamer.
More recently, speakers at Bea Milwe's memorial service recalled that she used her home as collateral when several Black Panthers were arrested in New Haven.
One of the lesser-known stories from that time involves a Norwalk football player named Jerry Fishman. He was well known to Westporters: He helped beat Staples regularly, almost single-handedly.
Tom Allen -- who played at Staples a few years later -- recalls going to games with his father just to watch "that crazy guy Fishman" play. "
As it turns out, Fishman was not as crazy as he seemed. The other day, Allen sent me a story he found on AOL News. It details Fishman's role as "the personal protector, and later lifelong friend" of the first black football player in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
A running back at Norwalk, Fishman became a linebacker for the University of Maryland. In 1963 and '64 -- his junior and senior years -- he was a teammate of that pioneering African American athlete, Darryl Hill. "For every story of an indignity served upon Hill as he integrated one of the two major southern conferences at the height of the civil rights movement," AOL wrote, "there was a story of Fishman lashing out at Hill's tormentors, whether on another team, in a hostile stadium or, in one well-known instance, in a dining hall."
That much-discussed incident occurred before a game against Wake Forest. A restaurant told Hill, "We don't serve Negroes here."
"No problem," Fishman responded. "We don't have a taste for Negroes today. But can we have some milkshakes?" Managers threatened to call the police. The Terrapin team walked out. On his way to the door, Fishman swept all the food and dishes onto the floor.
He acted similarly when an off-campus bar denied entry to Hill; when he set a Confederate flag on fire during a Civil War parade in Richmond, and when he told opposing players -- as loudly as possible -- to stop slurring his teammate.
At South Carolina, as he headed to the locker room for halftime, fans threw food at Hill, and taunted him. Fishman bashed one of those fans with his helmet.
Fishman understood what Hill was going through. He was Hill's roommate -- and the only Jewish player at Maryland. "You could name every Jewish football player in the world on one hand at the time," he told AOL.
Hill laughed when he described himself to AOL as "a frail kind of speed merchant, an intellectual kid who was black," while Fishman was "this big, aggressive, ferocious middle linebacker who was Jewish. Most of the time, it's the other way around."
But often, Hill was not laughing. Out of 35,000 students at Maryland, he was one of 32 blacks. Fishman, meanwhile, had to resort to fisticuffs when his religion was insulted.
Fishman graduated in 1965. He earned a law degree, and practiced for 30 years in Annapolis. He retired in 2002.
Working in Annapolis may have struck some people as odd. For Fishman is known less for his friendship with Hill than for an incident in 1964,during a game between Maryland and the United States Naval Academy. He gave the finger -- "a one-digit salute to the corps of Midshipmen," AOL calls it -- and the result was a four-decade interruption in the long in-state rivalry between the two teams. It resumed only in 2005.
That action was more in keeping with the Jerry Fishman that Tom Allen and many other Westporters remember.
When he saw the AOL story on Fishman and Hill, Allen sent it to his classmate Scot Bossert. Bossert passed it along to his brother Tod, who played against Fishman.
Tod remembers Fishman well. There were only two times at Staples, he said, when he hit a runner straight on, yet missed the tackles.
Both times, Fishman had the ball.