THE MINGLED SMELL OF STALE popcorn, beer and tobacco clung to the octagon–shaped interior. The 4,500-seat barn-like Sportatorium, south of downtown Dallas, was a beloved venue for wrestling shows and country music programs and, tonight, a one-of-a-kind boxing match.
For the last few years this was the site of the weekly Big D Jamboree, a Saturday night country music radio show broadcast across the country by KRLD over the CBS network. Established and rising stars from the Grand Ole Opry like Hank Williams, Sonny James and Johnny Cash would take the stage that sat at the center of the arena.
The Sportatorium had seen audiences even bigger than the nearly 2,400 gathered here on February 24, 1955, but maybe never one so rapt.
And the Sportatorium had never seated such a large audience of so evenly distributed black and white spectators, although, this being Dallas, in 1955, blacks and whites didn’t sit together. They were segregated by alternating sections steeply rising towards the crisscrossing rafters. Tonight’s crowd had sat through four preliminary matches and now, peering through the haze of cigarette and cigar smoke curling into the glow of the lights, looked upon a sight never witnessed in a Texas boxing ring.
The two men below mirrored the crowd. In one corner was a white boxer, in the other a black one. The first was the young boxer with four professional fights, the other the veteran pugilist with a losing record in seventeen professional fights.
During introductions, Reagan “Buddy” Turman, the young and promising white boxer, drew the louder applause. He was a familiar face who’d fought two weeks earlier in the Sportatorium. But the applause for I. H. “Sporty” Harvey, veteran, journeyman boxer, was generous, recognizing his long and incredible fight to enter that ring. It was an outpouring.
Late in the third round, Turman slammed an anvil disguised as a left hook into the right side of Harvey’s face, dropping him to the canvas and sending the crowd to its feet, some with cheers, others with hearts dropping as hard as Harvey had.
The referee’s voice cut through the roar and groans.
This was the end that had been predicted, even preordained. Turman was more skilled and powerful than Harvey.
In a story running that day in newspapers across the country, a UPI sportswriter, previewing this fight, noted Harvey’s battles to make the fight happen. But tonight, at least, he may wish he had never launched his campaign. For the 20-year-old Turman is expected to make short work of the veteran Harvey.
Searching for clarity and his legs, Harvey struggled to get off the canvas. Short work of the veteran, indeed it seemed. Watching, holding their breath, and trying to will him to his feet were entire sections of black people not ready to give up a dream.
Harvey wasn’t the first black Texas boxer to imagine himself having a chance to fight for the title of champion. But he was the only one who imagined it so strongly to the point of forcing that image into existence.
The bell ending the round could give him another chance if he could get up. Few thought he had fight left in him. Their mistake.
TWO YEARS BEFORE, during the 1953 session of the Texas Legislature, a young, white civil rights attorney and state representative from San Antonio named Maury Maverick Jr. introduced a bill he knew wouldn’t pass.
A 32-year-old who’d served in the Marines during World War II, Maverick, in his second term in the legislature, was already one of the leading liberals in that chamber and in the state. It was a position he came by through intellect, convictions and heritage. Crusty and gruff even as a young man, the sad eyes on his oval-shaped face were offset by the wry remark that always seemed ready to spring from a mouth pulled back just shy of a smile.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, Maverick Jr. was giving John F. Kennedy a tour of the Alamo when Kennedy, late for another appointment, asked him to lead him out the back door.
“There is no back door,” said Maverick. “That’s why there were so many heroes.”
“Maverick” had come to apply to anyone independent and willing to think in unconventional ways because of Maverick’s great-grandfather, Samuel Augustus Maverick. A signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence and a wealthy landowner, he didn’t brand his Longhorns, a strange choice at the time. When one of his animals strayed from the herd it was called a “maverick” by cowboys.
Maury Maverick would always remember being 18 and hiding with his parents and sister with family friends after their home was surrounded by an angry mob wanting to lynch his father. Maverick’s father, a two-term New Deal U.S. Congressman and San Antonio Mayor, had allowed a Communist Party rally to be held in the city’s Municipal Auditorium in 1939. That memory seemed to strengthen Maverick’s resolve to follow his father’s advice: “When you’ve got a famous name, you’ve got to use it to speak up for people who can’t speak up for themselves.”
Maverick’s proposed bill of 1953 would repeal the ban on interracial boxing and wrestling matches, declaring, “it is discrimination and unfair to deny a boxer or wrestler the right to make a living by reason of his race, color or creed.”
The two-decades old ban also wasn’t popular with the boxing and wrestling communities. After Maverick’s bill was filed, the Austin-American Statesman’s Buster Haas wrote, “We have talked to every leading boxer in the state, in addition to all fight mangers, and have heard no dissenting vote against allowing Negro and white fighters to box…In fact, most boxers and managers, in addition to promoters who predict an upswing in boxing popularity if the bill passes, say that ‘mixed’ bouts are the only salvation for boxing in Texas.”
The pre-history of Maverick’s bill went back to February 25, 1901 in Galveston’s Harmony Hall, when a white veteran fighter from California named Joe Choynski slammed a right hand into the face of a young black Galveston fighter in the third round. Knocked cold, the young fighter fell into the arms of Choynski before hitting the floor. The young fighter was Jack Johnson, who in seven years would become boxing’s first black heavyweight champion of the world and one of the sport’s most gifted fighters in its history.
Texas Rangers arrested Choynski and Johnson for fighting not because theirs was an interracial prize fight but because it was a prize fight with money on the line, which was illegal in Texas. The two men were jailed for three weeks and sparred every day in prison, often before an audience, with Johnson playing student to Choynski’s teacher. Upon their release, they left Galveston.
In 1933, the Texas Legislature banned boxing matches between white fighters and black fighters. Historian Dr. Francine Romero explores the motives for the ban in “There Are Only White Champions,” an essay on segregated boxing in Texas. “The significant legislation that appeared in 1933 in this regard was not the segregation of the sport, but approval of the resumption of legally sanctioned boxing in the state after a thirty-eight-year absence… it is this reauthorization that prompted legislative debate and public scrutiny, not the limit on mixed matches quietly attached to it.”
The institution of segregated matches was a natural consequence of the era’s raw and unapologetic racism and segregation. No matter how talented or bursting with promise, a black fighter could never be champion of any boxing division in the state of Texas. He could, like Johnson, become champion of the world by taking a detour out of Texas but the road to being recognized as the best in his state would always be blocked.
The same legislation banning mixed-race matches repealed the ban on all forms of boxing in the state, which through licenses and permit fees alone would deprive the state coffers of $30,000 annually, a value equivalent to over half-a-million dollars today.
That was twenty years before Maury Maverick’s attempt to change or challenge the ban. A realist, he had an idea of how it would play out.
“My bill was sent to the State Affairs Committee which meant from the start that the Speaker wanted it killed,” Maverick recalled, years later.
He got a hearing but was stung by the “good old boy humor” that led to the bill being killed. He knew that the bill would probably die, he just didn’t expect it to die as quickly as it did. Recounting the experience in a letter, Maverick wrote, “It made me feel sore.” He needed to find another way to win.
That summer, Maverick was in his law office on the seventh floor of the Maverick Building in downtown San Antonio when a muscular, well-dressed black man walked in who would change everything.
“I’m Sporty Harvey,” said the man, introducing himself. “I could be champ of Texas in the heavyweight division but they won’t let me box.”
He caught Maverick off guard.
“I was bewildered at first,” he’d recall. “I didn’t quite know what to make of him.”
“I want to file a lawsuit with you,” Harvey explained. “I want to talk to you about dignity for my people.”
HARVEY WAS BORN on July 21, 1925 in Hallettsville, TX about a hundred miles east of San Antonio. He was the firstborn of Charlie and Rosella’s six children and was named I. H. That’s his name in the Lavaca County birth registry and would be his name on his headstone. What the initials stood for, if anything, has been lost to history, even to his family.
“(I) never knew,” his son, Lymont Harvey, says when asked why. “His mother just gave him that name. I guess it was the thing to do.”
As a child, Harvey chopped wood and picked cotton. His formal education stopped after sixth grade. In 1937, he moved with his family to San Antonio.
Somewhere between Hallettsville and San Antonio, he began to box. His nickname, “Sporty,” unlike those of Louis’ “Brown Bomber” or Dempsey’s “Manassa Mauler” came not from any fighting technique but from his well-groomed style and sartorial taste outside the ring. “I.H. ‘Sporty’ Harvey was invariably a colorful lad,” wrote Mark Batterson, an Austin-American Statesman sports columnist, in 1953. “He affected bright, bright ring garments which established a trademark for him.”
If the nearly four decade ban on prizefighting had tamped down enthusiasm for the sport in Texas, nationally it was popular with major fights broadcast live over radio, seen in movie reels and covered in newspapers. The heavyweight championship of the world was the most coveted and recognized title in sports and whoever was the champ was one of the most famous men in the country.
Joe Louis won the title shortly before Harvey’s 12th birthday. Louis’ reign lasted a dozen years, extending into the first two years of Harvey’s professional career. The second black man to win the heavyweight title, after Harvey’s fellow Texan Jack Johnson, Louis was the dominant fighter of Harvey’s youth and a man who carried the hopes of blacks each time he entered the ring.
If Louis could do that for black people across the country, why couldn’t Sporty Harvey do it for black people throughout the state of Texas?
For one thing, Harvey was the ultimate underdog. Starting off as a light-heavyweight, he was knocked out in Pittsburgh, in 1947, in his first professional fight. It didn’t get better. Harvey was knocked out in his first four professional fights and lost his first eight, six by KO and two by TKO. His first win came in San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium against a fighter making his pro debut who quit between rounds.
We will never know Harvey’s actual record as a professional fighter and he probably didn’t know. BoxRec, Boxing’s Official Record Keeper, lists his record as 10-23-2. They also list him as J. D. Harvey, an alias Sporty appears to have used to score more fights.
That record doesn’t include some of his fights in San Antonio East Side out-of-the-way venues like The Ritz, a former movie theater, or at Fort Sam Houston, a military base. Nor does it include his fights in Mexico where he’d challenge Mexican and white boxers. Whatever the number of fights on his record, it was probably a losing record.
He was an everyman, not a superman. But by all accounts he was a popular and entertaining fighter who, years before Muhammad Ali, did windmill windups before throwing a punch.
Mark Batterson recalled at the time: “I. H. ‘Sporty’ Harvey used to come to Austin to engage in his profession. Just what this profession was sometimes wasn’t clear. On at least two occasions, he definitely appeared to be a boxer. On another he seemed to be an entertainer, an imitator, sort of, who was giving his comic impressions of a boxer… A more memorable trademark in this case, however, was the way he jutted out before and aft when he scampered into battle. At times this style made him look more like a Studebaker than a boxer.”
There were more talented black fighters in Texas than Harvey but because of the ban against matches between blacks and whites they were no closer than he was to winning a championship or maximizing earning potential.
Neither talent nor the guts to take physical punishment from another man in the ring would be enough to change the law. Such change demanded a different type of courage, the courage to challenge an entire state’s legal system and way of life and risk all the forms of punishment the state could inflict.
ON THAT JULY DAY in 1953, Maury Maverick listened to his unexpected visitor tell his story in a drawl not so different from his own.
Harvey had read about Maverick’s attempt to change the laws prohibiting black boxers from fighting white boxers, which is what brought him into the office. He quickly convinced the lawyer he should represent him in his cause. Harvey couldn’t afford an attorney. Maverick wouldn’t have charged him anyway.
Change was in the air. Just a few weeks earlier, a bus boycott by blacks in Baton Rouge, Louisiana had won concessions from that city. The slavery era and Jim Crow dictums of blacks “knowing their place” was challenged with greater frequency and variety as “their place” became any place where they’d be afforded the same rights and opportunities and as whites; those places included schools, public accommodations, voting booths and, just maybe, boxing rings.
Maverick hatched a plan. He asked his new client to write a letter to M.B. Morgan, the state’s Labor Commissioner whose office governed professional boxing, asking for permission to fight a white boxer. When the request predictably was denied within a week, Maverick prepared to sue.
In deploying the legal system, often used against blacks, to assert his right to professionally fight white men in his home state, Harvey was treading uncharted and dangerous territory, inviting the threats and assaults often attending black men and women refusing to stay in their place. Physical harm always loomed but more common, even likely, was the economic retaliation of losing jobs and being denied credit in stores.
Harvey’s quixotic lawsuit was supported by his family, but not without reservations. “We were kind of afraid for a while but we were with him all the way,” his sister, Lottie, told a reporter years later.
Potential harm to the family appears to have spurred Harvey to move his family out of state. “From what I remember my mom telling me,” Lymont Harvey says, “I think he moved us to California before the fight because of fear for the family.”
To help fund the case, Maverick reached out to the state NAACP that, at its state convention in San Antonio, voted to underwrite $500 of court costs. He also assembled a diverse dream team of legal talent hailing from San Antonio in Bexar County. They included Harry Bellinger, a scion of one of San Antonio’s most powerful black families; Albert Pena Jr., future Bexar County Commissioners’ Court judge; future Bexar County Judge Charles Lieck, future Bexar County District Attorney Charles Grace and, most notably, Carlos Cadena, a legal scholar and future chief justice of the Fourth Court of Appeals.
On August 13, Maverick filed a lawsuit in the 126th District Court in Austin challenging the legality of banning professional boxing matches between white and black boxers, calling it, “wholly unjust, arbitrary and capricious.” The suit claimed that the law denied Harvey rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution as well as the Federal Civil Rights Act.
Maverick’s decision to file the suit in state court instead of federal court met opposition from civil rights advocates, like the NAACP, and even by his own colleague, Cadena. All believed, with history as their guide, that minority plaintiffs had greater success at the federal level than in state courts, especially Southern state courts.
But Maverick’s devotion to justice and Constitutional principles was only a little stronger than his love of his state. He wanted to show that Texas could do the right thing.
“We have a great Bill of Rights in the Texas Constitution of 1876 and no one has ever paid any attention to it,” he wrote in some notes. “I do believe in State’s Rights, but to have those you have to have State’s Duties. Blacks, browns, poor whites in state courts always got the short end of the stick, historically, and that’s why everybody went to the federal courts. But, hell, I love Texas. Why not have good Texas courts?”
AS HARVEY NAVIGATED the maze of the legal system, a world of opportunity was open for white boxers with similar ambitions, with fellow-Texan Reagan “Buddy” Turman a prime example. Born in the East Texas hamlet of Noonday in 1933, the same year of the birth of segregated boxing in Texas, Turman was a 6’1” young heavyweight with great promise.
He began chopping wood on the family farm when he was six, and not long after his family gathered around the radio to listen to the fights of one of their favorite boxers, black phenom Joe Louis.
After a stint in the Navy, Turman came home, worked the oil fields and began his amateur boxing career. While building a record of 20-5-1, he developed what would be his most dangerous punch: the left hook.
Turman became Texas’ amateur light-heavyweight champion. He had one goal, just like Sporty Harvey, and he wouldn’t let anyone stand in his way to reach it: world heavyweight champion.
ON JANUARY 26, 1954, Maverick, Harvey and team walked into Judge Jack Roberts’ 126th District Court seeking an order directing M. B. Morgan, the State Boxing Commissioner, to allow Harvey to fight any professional fighter, no matter his ethnicity. They also sought a ruling on the constitutionality of the segregated boxing law.
Testifying for the state, Morgan, 63, argued that banning the professional boxing contests between blacks and whites prevented hostility and race riots and that the law should stand as a bulwark against those threats.
Morgan claimed “the people of Texas, from the conversation I have had with folks, are of the opinion that the customs and habits and traditions of the citizens of Texas are satisfied with our present law and think it would be best to keep the law on our books.”
Contradicting Morgan’s position, Maverick’s witnesses included longtime Texas sportswriters who had attended countless mixed-race sporting events, including amateur boxing matches, without observing racial tension, much less violence, rising from the competition.
Then came the star of the proceeding. Wearing a dark, double-breasted suit and thick black-rimmed eyeglasses, Harvey said he would never have the chance in Texas to win a championship because of his race.
“The guys I want to fight I can’t fight because I’m a Negro,” Harvey testified, even though he worked out with white boxers and had never had any problems because of his race. He was treated well by the boxing community in San Antonio but had to drive a truck and handle freight to support his family. Harvey’s household included his wife Hazel Lee, whom he met when she was at nursing school, and a growing brood eventually including four children.
Harvey couldn’t get enough fights to make a living as a boxer because of the limitations placed on him.
“It helps to have an economic deprivation which, of course, we had here,” wrote Maverick. “If Sporty could box he would make more money, thus, because he was black he was being denied an equal opportunity to make a living.” Maverick could attack an unconstitutional law by arguing that it denied Harvey grocery money to take care of his family.
Not much food landed on the table from his meager boxing earnings, unless it was food he caught with his hands. Once, he and some other fighters from San Antonio drove to Beeville for a four-fight card in a tent. The eight fighters were supposed to get a share of the gate. But the gate total was $11 to be divided between the fighters and a promoter. Having fought for $1.22 purses, Harvey and Tony Castillo, a San Antonio bantamweight, left the tent disgusted and hungry. They saw two turkeys wandering around. In their most vigorous workout of the day, Harvey and Castillo chased the turkeys around the tent minutes until they each caught one to take home.
None of this would change until Harvey and other black fighters could fight those who held championships and drew bigger gates and paydays: white fighters. Harvey now sat in court because he couldn’t just wait around for that day to arrive.
There were two instances when Maverick feared Harvey’s testimony would hurt his cause.
Wanting to show the absurdity that Harvey couldn’t fight a white man in Laredo, Texas but could go across the border five miles in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico to fight the same white man—which Harvey had done—Maverick asked him, “Sporty, isn’t it true that you boxed a white man in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico?”
The courtroom was silent and Maverick grew more uncomfortable with Harvey’s silence. They’d rehearsed this but now Harvey appeared confused.
“Naw,” he finally answered. “I didn’t fight no white man--“
Maverick, not believing his ears, thought they’d get thrown out of court but Harvey continued, “—I boxed a Spaniard.”
Laughter spilled out over the courtroom.
Under cross-examination, the assistant attorney general of Texas took notice of Harvey’s thick eyeglasses and Maverick panicked again, worried that the glasses would allow the state to say that they were turning Sporty down because of his bad vision and not his race.
“Mr. Harvey,” asked the assistant attorney general. “Because of those glasses, you can’t see well, can you?”
Harvey answered, “I have perfect vision. I wear these eyeglasses for sport. That’s why they call me Sporty.”
He smiled and the courtroom laughed.
“Sporty could play the fool,” Maverick would say. “But the next minute break your heart.”
The state used Harvey’s subpar record as a fighter against him. Asked what his record was, Harvey said he was only “guessing” but that he’d won 18 out of 21 professional fights. The state countered, saying he had only seven wins in 17 fights and that his lack of talent was the barrier to his fighting for a championship.
Harvey was the only black man in a courtroom filled with white men who were lawyers, judges, politicians, and journalists; men practicing their crafts and making a living in the professions they chose and wanted. All were gathered because the lone black man in their presence was fighting for the right to do what they did, a right they took for granted: the opportunity to practice his craft and make a living in the profession of his choice.
Yet here he sat listening to these officials of the state in which he was born and raised talk publicly about how bad they thought he was at his craft; so bad, they claimed, that he should be denied the opportunity to see how far his talent would carry him. He was mocked for lacking skills and techniques by the very people denying him the opportunities to hone his skills and techniques.
Just two weeks earlier, two members of Harvey’s legal team, Carlos Cadena and Gus Garcia, had argued a case that would make them the first Latino attorneys to win before the United States Supreme Court. The landmark Hernandez v. Texas ended the exclusion of Mexican-Americans from jury pools based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections for all nationalities, not just white and black. Cadena now argued that Harvey’s talent wasn’t the issue, that in fact he was being denied the opportunity solely because of his race.
During the day’s testimony, Judge Roberts consistently ruled with Harvey and against the state on objections about evidence. Signs pointed toward a victory. But on February 3 came heartbreaking news. Roberts ruled against Harvey and upheld the law, citing Harvey’s losing record. His decision may have been swayed by electoral concerns.
A state district judge such as Roberts depended on the ballot for position, in contrast to a federal judge appointed for life. Years later, when Roberts was a federal judge, he ran into Maverick and told him, “If I had been a federal judge when you brought the Harvey case before me, I would have held with that nigger boxer.”
WHILE HARVEY WAS FACING a major setback, Buddy Turman, nicknamed “The Golden Boy from Noonday,” got a boost in his quest for boxing glory. This came in the form of a man named Bobby Joe Manziel. The boxing promoter and wealthy oilman was impressed with what he saw in the anvil-of-a-hook on the Tyler product. Small and lithe, Manziel wore a signature fedora. Underneath was an angular face with thick eyebrows, mischievous eyes and tight smile, features that would be shared by his great-grandson, future Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel.
“You come with me and you’ll become the heavyweight champion of the world,” Manziel told Turman the first time they met (according to Joe Garner Turman, brother and biographer of Buddy). “You can train on my farm, and I’ll set up a ring and everything else you need. I’ll get you the best trainer available. Listen, I know a lot of people in the boxing world. I can get you the fights you need to move you toward becoming a top contender.”
Brash, aggressive, and calculating, Manziel looked for the angles which would most quickly elevate him to the top of every endeavor. Manziel had originally moved to East Texas to wildcat oil wells. It was a $400 loan from boxing legend Jack Dempsey that allowed him to strike oil on the grounds of a black Baptist church that showered both men in riches. Settling in Tyler, Manziel would own hotels, banks, other real estate, newspapers, fighting roosters and pilot his own plane after taking off from a runway on his farm. He was also a promoter who lost his license after accusations of fixing a professional wrestling match.
Turman signed a contract with Manziel on a chilly fall day. To bring Turman to the next level, Manziel hired a black trainer named Robert “Cornbread” Smith, who fought in the 1930s and who’d worked the corners of world champions like Fritzie Zivic and Lew Jenkins. He now trained young fighters in a gym he owned above a liquor store in South Dallas.
Turman ended his last amateur fight with a first round knockout, and picked up right where he left off in his professional debut, on September 27, 1954, when he knocked Bobby Babcock off his feet three times en route to a unanimous decision. The referee for the fight was Manziel ally Jack Dempsey.
What Manziel couldn’t bestow on Turman was patience. Just like the young boxer, Manziel was driven to reach the top rung fast.
In Turman’s second fight against Max Baird, repeated left hooks knocked out the overmatched Baird in the second round and sent him to a hospital for observation. Then, in just his third professional fight, Manziel pitted Turman against Birmingham battler Oscar Pharo for the Southern Heavyweight Championship. Making things worse, Manziel said that after Turman beat Pharo, he’d try to arrange a fight against the formidable Rocky Marciano. Turman lost to Pharo on points, and suddenly his way forward became unclear.
THOUGH LOSING IN Judge Roberts’ court had been a crushing blow to Harvey’s case, Maverick and his team felt that Roberts, consciously or not, set up Harvey for appeal. But Maverick had yet to receive the $500 promised by the state NAACP to cover state costs. He hurried out a letter to Thurgood Marshall, executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and future Supreme Court Justice, and within 72 hours had received the funds to help keep the case moving.
Harvey’s appeal reached the Third Court of Civil Appeals on Oct. 13, 1954. In the interim, on May 17, 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled that racial segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Against this backdrop of upheaval, Maverick asked the appeals court to consider sociological as well as legal reasons for overturning the ban on interracial prizefights.
“We have this nation holding itself up as a democracy to the colored peoples of the world,” said Maverick, a gifted orator. “And yet we have this law here where a Negro man can’t even have a professional fight with a white man.
On October 27, the Third Court of Appeals ruled in Harvey’s favor by reversing the state district court’s decision and sending it back to retrial. The court did not invalidate the 1933 law, supposedly because doing so also would have nullified the necessary parts of the law, such as requiring strict physical examinations for fighters and the licensing of fighters and managers.
The court dismissed the state’s argument that mixed-race matches would lead to race riots, saying that, “Even if riotous conditions did result from mixed boxing exhibitions we doubt if this stature would be sustained by the Federal Supreme Court in view of language which we find in some of its opinions.” The first of those opinions it cited was Brown v. Board of Education.
The thrust of the court’s decision called for regulations so that mixed-race bouts would no longer be prohibited. On January 19, 1955, the Texas Supreme Court sustained the judgment of the appeals court, making it official: Sporty Harvey had just beaten the state of Texas.
After the decision, a jubilant Harvey said, “I’m going to really get started good in boxing now that I’m going to get my big chance.”
JUST MINUTES INTO a Buddy Turman fight at the Dallas Sportatorium on February 10, 1955, Turman’s vicious left hook staggered Bobby Babcock and left him covering up and clinching until the bell ended the round.
This fight suddenly had new stakes. It was announced that the winner would go on to challenge Sporty Harvey—now known far and wide as a trailblazer in the courts—in two weeks. In the last few months since Turman had stumbled against the hulking Oscar Pharo, he had put on ten pounds and cut a more dangerous figure than ever. This fight with Babcock could be a stepping-stone to Turman’s redemption and his biggest spotlight yet.
Just 55 seconds into the second round, another Turman left hook drove Babcock into the ropes as a follow-up right to his jaw knocked him out. Ringside, Turman was swarmed by a crowd of more than 200. Babcock lay on the mat with only his doctor and trainer, and a few concerned friends. It would be fifteen minutes before Babcock got to his feet.
During Harvey’s battle with the state, Turman, who’d idolized Joe Louis, sparred with black fighters and had his black trainer in his corner, voiced his support for Harvey’s case and offered to fight him if it would help. He told his guru Manziel, “Since I’m a white Texan, I’ll volunteer to fight Sporty. This will force the issue with the Texas State Legislature.”
But Manziel, the savvy promoter and businessman, wanted Buddy to fight Harvey for a more practical reason. “He knew the fight would generate a lot of publicity for Buddy, and he would make boxing history in Texas,” recalls Joe Garner Turman. “This would move Buddy along in the boxing world.”
Sporty Harvey had scored a chance to follow his dream, and now had drawn Buddy Turman, a human threshing machine.
Turman was fast, with astonishing power in both hands, and a bob and weave later admired by Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight champion of the world. Many experts saw in Turman the potential to become the future champion. Dempsey said Turman was “the best young prospect I’ve seen in the last twenty years.”
He had movie star looks and newspapers called him Handsome Buddy Turman or Handsome Heavyweight Buddy Turman, as if that were his given name. (In stories and headlines, Harvey’s name was often preceded or followed by “Negro” as in “Negro Sporty Harvey…” or “…Harvey, a San Antonio Negro boxer…”)
The irony was that Harvey took on the state of Texas for the right to fight white boxers so that he might have a chance to fight for titles. Now the manager of a white boxer wanted to fight Harvey to expedite his star fighter’s title chances. Harvey looked to be a sacrificial lamb to a white fighter, a killer in the ring whose opponents had to peel themselves off the canvas.
THE WEEK OF THE FIGHT, Sporty, true to his nickname and reputation, arrived in Dallas wearing a light tan coat, brown pants, a pink shirt, purple tie, robin’s egg blue hat and brown suede shoes.
In less than two weeks after the Harvey-Turman fight, Elvis Presley would perform there for the first time. But on the night of February 24, 1955 Sporty Harvey was the headliner for the first time in his career. Walking from his dressing room to the ring and the biggest spotlight of his life, a sweeping glance of the arena would have informed him that half of the audience, if not more, were black.
Extra security was on hand, just in case the defense made at trial by M. D. Morgan and the state of Texas for segregated boxing came true in the form of a riot.
Years later, Turman would tell the Dallas Morning News, “Oh, sure, people were saying this or that might happen at the fight but it didn’t seem like any big deal to me. I’d sparred a lot with black fighters. I was just thinking about trying to win. That whole thing about not allowing blacks and whites to fight seemed stupid. But it was that way all over the South.”
The chasm in talent between Turman and Harvey was seen by some as so wide as to render the fight absurd. San Antonio Express sports editor Dick Peebles, who’d testified on Harvey’s behalf in court, wrote that the idea that Harvey could make a good fight of it was like thinking “a horse that draws a milk wagon is going to win the Kentucky Derby.” He thought that Harvey’s presence was merely a sign of the promoters “trying to capitalize on the novelty of a white fighting a Negro.”
Attached to Turman’s future as a fighter were adjectives like “promising” and “up and coming” which had never been used to describe Harvey. Fighting is what Turman did for a living. Fighting is what Harvey did when he could.
Turman, with the backing of a multi-millionaire manager who believed he’d win the world title, had trained daily by running four miles, chopping wood and sparring 12 rounds. All the more intimidating, the immortal Jack Dempsey was said to own a “piece” of Turman’s burgeoning career and future.
Harvey, when not driving or handling freight, trained by running or going to a gym, of which the most iconic was the San Fernando Street Gym, on the western edge of San Antonio. There, he’d work the heavy and speed bags and spar under the eye of well-regarded but relatively obscure trainer, Jimmy Scarmozi. Harvey continued his workout regimen the day before the big fight.
Harvey had boxed only three times during his court fight with the state and had lost twice. At 29-years of age, Harvey weighed in at a “ponderous” 196 pounds, heavier than he’d ever been. Turman salivated for an easy match. According to a story the day before the fight on WBAP-TV of Fort Worth, Turman “says he is in good condition and can take the Negro without trouble.”
At the opening bell, Harvey moved towards a 21-year-old, 177-pound dynamo who in two of his last three fights had sent one man to the hospital and left another unable to get up for a quarter of an hour.
The first two rounds were uneventful as Harvey and Turman felt each other out but in the third, Turman’s advantage became clear as he snapped jabs, bobbing and weaving while trying to set Harvey up for a knockout punch. With less than ten seconds remaining in the round, he decked Harvey with the notorious sledgehammer of a left hook. The hit on Harvey was called “thunderous” by one beat reporter.
A former opponent had said of Turman’s power, “When he hits you, you get so weak you can’t stand up.”
At the count of eight, a weakened Harvey, struggling to get up, was saved by the bell ending the round. One minute later, when the bell rang for the fourth, Harvey was rising to his feet, ready to brawl. “[Harvey] appeared confident in the face of all odds at all times,” reporter Mark Batterson had observed, “and you finally had to get around to admiring him very much for this quality.” Harvey ended up sagging against the ropes, “eyes glazed and knees sagging,” as the bell gave him yet another chance.
Knowing that Turman was best while fighting long range where he could jab and plant his feet for his power punches—especially that murderous left hook—Harvey stayed close, smothering him and pounding blows to the body.
This confused the younger fighter who was inexperienced in how to handle the pressure of infighting.
In the fifth round—already a dramatically longer match than many had predicted—Harvey continued carrying the fight to Turman, forcing him against the ropes, smothering him and belting him with hard body shots; fighting not as someone who didn’t want to lose but who believed he could win. Desperation circled Turman. Twice in the fifth round, Turman was nabbed for hitting after the ref called a break. In the sixth, Harvey dominated, sending Turman “coasting and retreating” away from him, as described by Turman’s hometown paper. Each man had to catch his breath in the seventh.
But a Turman combo in the eighth signaled the end. Turman dug a left into Harvey’s gut before driving a right cross to the head, sending Harvey crashing hard to the mat.
IN MAKING THIS A FIGHT for eight rounds, Harvey had surprised almost everybody at ringside.
“Three! Four! Five!”
He’d given the customers their money’s worth, a chance to see history and a good fight.
“Six! Seven! Eight!”
Eight. This was the eighth round and there were two rounds left. If a man is going to headline his first ten-round fight, he should finish it.
That’s when the Sportatorium shook. Because Sporty stood up.
Buddy Turman went on the assault, intent on ending the fight in a knockout. He left his opponents crumpled up in a corner, and this showboat wasn’t going to go the distance with him. Hell no, Turman wasn’t going to let that happen. He ripped a left hook into Harvey’s face that banged him to the canvas for the third time.
Then the roof might as well have come off the place: Harvey stood up again.
As the round ended, Harvey pressured Turman, hammering punches and trying to pummel his way to an upset win. Maybe the world was just using him, like others had said, but he’d show the world.
Harvey kept charging into the ninth, shocking Turman with powerful combos to the head, leaving the favored fighter drained. In the tenth round, Turman flicked jabs and crosses, wanting to unload another left hook as he “tried for the kill.” But it didn’t happen.
The final bell rang, and Harvey was standing, face-to-face, toe-to-toe with his opponent.
ON A 1978 VISIT TO SAN ANTONIO, 22 years later, Sporty Harvey, now 52 with a face lined with more wrinkles but his still-unmistakable smile flashing, sat down with reporter Dan Cook. He recalled segregated life in San Antonio during the 1950s, perhaps throwing in some hyperbole.
“Sitting in the back of the bus was just a pride thing and black people got used to so it wasn’t any big deal. It wasn’t, that is, unless the back of the room was crowded. The real problem, in those days, was finding downtown public toilets and getting something to eat out of a restaurant’s rear back door. After I got everything changed, me and Maury Maverick Jr., I caught a city bus and plopped right in the first seat.”
When Harvey returned to San Antonio over the years to visit his mother and friends, you’d never know what he’d be driving. One time it was a camper. Another year it was a baby blue Cadillac.
Harvey told Cook he was going to see Maury Maverick while in town. “He might need me to help bust down some more color lines.”
As for the fears, looking back to 1955, about what his groundbreaking boxing match between a black man and white man would stir up? The race riots these pugilists would ignite for practicing their craft? Police had reported only one disturbance in the stands. A fight between two white men.
Harvey could look back at his big fight with pride and some lingering bitterness. After the last bell rang, Turman won a unanimous decision by wide margins on the scorecards of the referee and two judges. But the amazing fact was that Sporty Harvey was still standing. What had knocked him down again and again was not as powerful as what lifted him up. And what lifted him up, leaving him standing, was a strength scorecards could never gauge.
The older Harvey believed his technical loss in the ring was payback for taking on and beating the state in court. “They got back at me and gave the decision to Buddy.”
“The only thing I know is that I did my best,” he had told his wife Hazel after the fight. “I thought I put up a good fight.”
HARVEY AND TURMAN would meet in the ring again. In a June 1955 rematch in Tyler, Turman knocked Harvey down two more times before winning on another unanimous decision. After his two fights with Turman, Harvey would fight ten more times, losing eight of them. Harvey never fought for the Texas state title. The closest he’d come to the world heavyweight championship was sparring with Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier. He settled into a career working for the Jones Tire Company in Los Angeles.
As for Buddy Turman, he would later reflect on the fight. “I was delighted to have an opportunity to demonstrate my attitude toward integration. I felt, and still do, that sports is a field where each man is proven by his feats and not by his social or ethnic background.”
Late summer of 1955, in his tenth fight, Turman outpointed “Red” Worley for the Texas heavyweight title. Turman also would never fight for the world heavyweight title but in November of 1960 and March of 1961 he fought light-heavyweight champion, Archie Moore, losing both fights on unanimous decisions. Their first fight, in Dallas, was close enough that Turman thought he’d won. He wasn’t the only one. In his dressing room, afterwards, Turman was visited by a young heavyweight who’d recently won his first professional fight.
“You beat that old man,” said 18-year-old Cassius Clay to Turman.
Turman primarily would be remembered in Texas boxing circles as Sporty Harvey’s partner in history. No footage or photographs of their groundbreaking bout have surfaced.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1997, Maury Maverick called me to ask a favor. I was a columnist and reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, thanks to Maverick bringing me to the attention of some editors. At that paper, I would become the first African-American on the editorial board of any San Antonio daily, as well as the first metro columnist.
“Kiddo,” he said, his nickname for anyone younger than him. “Do you think you could drive me to Sporty Harvey’s funeral on Thursday?”
Harvey had died in Los Angeles from heart disease on June 5, 1997 at the age of 71. His wife, Hazel, had promised his mother that when he died she’d bring him home to San Antonio.
After a long career as a civil rights attorney, including a 3-0 record arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court, Maverick, now 76, was penning a regular Sunday column for the Express-News.
Maverick was one of the few white people in the predominantly black church we entered. Hard of hearing, throughout the service, he’d turn to me and ask, “Huh? What did he say?” or “What did she say?”
Inside the funeral program, a picture of Harvey in boxing gear sat above the Samuel Ellsworth Kiser poem, “The Fighter” which ends with the lines:
“My victories are small and few,
It matters not how hard I strive,
Each day the fight begins anew,
But fighting keeps my hopes alive.”
Not long after the trailblazing fight of 1955, Charley Eskew in the Austin-American Statesman had already begun to mark Harvey’s legacy not as a boxer, but as a fighter. He made the case that despite his middling record overall, Harvey would be voted into a hypothetical Texas sports hall of fame “for making his greatest stand outside the ring and, as a result, bringing life again to Texas boxing.”
“He took it upon himself,” says Dr. Francine Romero. “There are so many people who no one hears about who challenge big things. Because of them, we can say, ‘hey, it’s starting to crumble a little bit. You can see it happening.’”
Harvey v. Morgan was cited when a similar law forbidding mixed-race boxing matches in Louisiana was overturned by a federal court in 1958. “You don’t know how many people it effected,” writes Romero of Harvey. Harvey’s breakthroughs joined a slew of events still brewing—such as the campaigns of 1960s Birmingham and Selma—that helped dismantle segregation and establish political and economic justice through smaller, specific, and achievable remedies.
Harvey and his family were proud of what he’d done. The children wrote school reports about how their father had “knocked out” Jim Crow.
“I think he did a great thing at that time of his life and with what was going on in this world,” says Lymont Harvey of his father. “I’m very proud of him and glad he stood up and spoke his mind and that people listened and agreed and he won. By the time the (Turman) fight started, he’d won and opened the doors for other people.”
After the funeral’s minister eulogized Harvey for his courage in challenging a racist law, he asked if anyone wanted to come up and say a few words. Without hesitating, Maverick rose from the seat, excusing himself as he eased past others in the pew to get to the aisle. As he approached the pulpit, some in the church recognized him and smiled or pointed toward him.
“I’m Maury Maverick Jr. and I had the honor of representing Sporty in his lawsuit against the state of Texas,” he said as people nodded in appreciation.
He recounted the summer day they met, when Harvey strolled into his office with a smile and a mission. As Maverick spoke, his rumbling drawl picked up pace and volume as it rolled over a growing chorus of “Amens!” “Tell it!” and “Preach!”
“I had two college degrees,” Maverick thundered. “But that black man…” he pointed to Harvey’s gray casket, “with a sixth grade education taught me more than I taught him!”
When he finished, there was applause, more “Amens!” and shouts of “Yes! Yes!” As the lawyer walked past the casket, many in the congregation were doing what Sporty Harvey did against the state of Texas and Buddy Turman.
They stood up.
CARY CLACK, born and raised in San Antonio, is an editor and columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. He has been inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.