​October 20, 1951: The Johnny Bright Incident Occurs In Stillwater, Oklahoma

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The Johnny Bright Incident was a violent on-field assault against African-American player Johnny Bright by a white player named Wilbanks Smith during a college football game held on October 20, 1951 in Stillwater, Oklahoma. 

The game was significant in itself as it marked the 1st time that an African-American athlete with a national profile and of critical importance to the success of his Drake University team had played against Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) on their home field. 

Bright’s injury also highlighted the racial tensions of the times and assumed notoriety when it was captured in what was later to become both a widely disseminated and eventually Pulitzer Prize winning photo sequence. 

The event later came to be known as the “Johnny Bright Incident”.

THE ASSAULT: Johnny Bright’s participation as a halfback/quarterback in the collegiate football game between the Drake Bulldogs and Oklahoma A&M Aggies on October 20, 1951 at Lewis Field was controversial even before it began. Bright had been the 1st African-American football player to play at Lewis Field two years prior (without incident). 

In 1951, Bright was a pre-season Heisman Trophy candidate from Drake, and led the nation in total offense. Bright had never played for a losing team in his college career. Coming into the contest, Drake carried a five-game winning streak, owing much to Bright’s rushing and passing abilities.

During the first 7 minutes of the game, Bright was knocked unconscious 3 times by blows from Oklahoma A&M defensive tackle Wilbanks Smith. While Smith’s final elbow blow broke Bright’s jaw, he was still able to complete a 61-yard touchdown pass to Drake halfback Jim Pilkington a few plays later.

Soon afterward, the injury finally forced him to leave the game. Bright finished the game with less than 100 yards, the first time in his three-year collegiate career at Drake. Oklahoma A&M eventually won 27–14.

Bob Spiegel, a reporter with the Des Moines Register, interviewed several spectators after the game, eventually publishing a report on the incident in the October 30, 1951 issue of the newspaper.

According to Spiegel’s report, several of the Oklahoma A&M students he interviewed overheard an Oklahoma A&M coach repeatedly say “Get that nigger” whenever the A&M practice squad ran Drake plays against the Oklahoma A&M starting defense, prior to the October 20 game.

Spiegel also recounted the experiences of a businessman and his wife, who were seated behind a group of Oklahoma A&M practice squad players. At the beginning of the game, one of the players turned around said, “We’re gonna get that nigger.”

After the first blow to Bright was delivered by Smith, the same player again turned around and told the businessman, “See that knot on my jaw? That same guy [Smith] gave me that the very same way in practice.”

Read about the aftermath and legacy of this assault at: Daily Black History Facts


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