BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s was a place of civil unrest and the start of a movement that helped push both the state and the country forward.
Within the movement would be the match of an unlikely pair, creating a bond that would last a lifetime.
“I’ve told people before, I played for the right person,” said Wendell Hudson.
In 1969, C.M. Newton was just getting warmed up as the head basketball coach for the Alabama Crimson Tide. Newton had already proven himself in college basketball, having won a national championship as a player under Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky, turning around a Transylvania team to the cusp of greatness.
But it’s what Newton did in his first years at Alabama that helped cement his legacy.
“He was the right person to do this, he was the right person to bring in the first African American to play any sport on scholarship at Alabama,” Hudson said. “He was that person.”
Just down the road, Hudson was lighting up the scoreboard as a standout at A.H. Parker High School in Birmingham, where he helped lead the team to the first ever all-Black championship game in Alabama high school basketball history. Hudson soon caught the eye of Newton.
One day in April 1969, C.M. Newton sat in Hudson’s home and asked him to become a part of the Crimson Tide basketball squad, making him the first ever Black scholarship athlete for Alabama basketball.
“When he came into my home to talk to me and my mother, she was nervous as she could be, worried about me talking about me going to the University of Alabama and she said, ‘Well, how is this going to be for my son going to the University of Alabama?’ and his answer was, ‘I don’t know.’”
“Didn’t make up a story and said everything was going to be lovely and rosy and all that stuff. He said ‘I don’t know. I’m not Black and I’m not going to be the first Black athlete to go there and I’m not going to be on campus,’” Hudson said. “He said, ‘What I would tell you is I am going to do everything I possibly can to make sure he is treated right and treated fairly and taken care of.’ That’s an honest answer.”
For many, Hudson’s recruitment by Newton meant changing times in an era already plagued with violence and inequality. For those who knew C.M., it meant he was doing what he always did, recruiting the best talent and even better people.
“Recruiting Wendell really there was no thought process in to we’re going to break the color barrier at the University of Alabama,” said Martin Hudson, Newton’s son. “It was how do we get the best players and hopefully the homegrown players to come to the University of Alabama to build a successful basketball program.”
“Even as an administrator, when he goes home to his Alma mater Kentucky, he’s going to bring on the first African-American basketball coach there with Tubby Smith,” said Barry McNealy, a tour guide at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
“He’s also going to bring the first African American female basketball coach with Bernadette Maddox. There are a lot of firsts here that allow people to get beyond the idea of race and just see them as people that can do things that we all look up to,” McNealy said. “It shows a level of courage, and it shows a level of empathy that had to be displayed. When we look at the things that C.M. Newton did and the choices that he made, he furthered the progress of race relations in this country in so many ways.”
For those who knew him, Newton’s legacy won’t be measured in wins and losses. It will be measured by lives he impacted, the players he mentored, and the pivotal role he played in a city, state, and nation moving forward as one.
“When we’re talking about role models you can either be a part of the problem or you can be a part of the solution. People like C.M. Newton and people like Wendell Hudson were willing to sacrifice and do what it took to be a part of the solution and that solution is ongoing in part because of the things that they were able to do,” McNealy added.
“He was a man that always looked to try to do the right things. He used to say you know ‘there’s never a wrong time to do the right thing,’ added Newton. “I just want people to remember that that he was a man that cared. He cared deeply about people.”
“When people look at CM Newton, it’s easy to look at the stats and the books and talking about his coaching and winning the SEC three years in a row. I think what C.M. would want people to know is that he impacted the game of basketball. And he impacted young people’s lives in a positive way. He changed basketball,” Hudson said.
The C.M. Newton Classic brings more than some of the best on the court together. It brings together history, legends, and the remembrance of those who stood up and chose progress as a way to move us forward.
“I hope this puts some light on what can be accomplished when your motives are pure. Doing things and making decisions because it’s the right thing to do and not necessarily the popular thing to do,” said Joe McGee, CEO of Legacy Credit Union.
“I hope through having C.M. Newton Classic that people can look at Alabama and look at the transformation role that this state has played in race relations,” said McNealy. “The C.M. Newton Classic is just a prime opportunity for us to not only focus on the greatness of the University of Alabama but also focus on the progress that has been made throughout this state and throughout this nation and sports has a lot to do with that.”
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” Newton said. “I mean, there’s still a lot of civil unrest and I think we’ve got to take this time to educate ourselves to learn to listen to one another, to love each other quite frankly.”
The C.M. Newton Classic tips off at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, where the Tide will face off against the Davidson Wildcats.
For tickets, click here.