Slater’s Story Reminds Us Why ‘The Forgotten First’ Should Be Remembered
Last Monday, as Slater reflected on the life of Bill Russell and the path of black athletes from past eras open to modern successors, he also spoke about his less heralded and trailblazing predecessors at UCLA.
“For whatever the reasons, good, bad, indifferent, there are certain characters that history has taught us to cling to, revere a little more than others,” Slater said. “But there are so many men or women, whether it’s these gentlemen from UCLA or others, that they’re kind of overlooked.
“But I think if you really go back and look at history, over history it was more than one or two people. It took a collective. And it took people from the two sides. I always say, black Americans at that time could only come this far. We needed the help of our white brothers and sisters. We just weren’t going to do it on our own- I think there are countless people whose names we will never know, whose stories we will never know, who really helped us get to where we are today. and it’s a shame that we don’t get the chance to celebrate them all, but I think we should celebrate as many as possible.
Slater’s historical perspective is informed by the experiences of his own family. In every Hall of Fame-worthy fiber of his being, Matthew is the son of Annie and Jackie Slater, a 20-year-old tackle for the Rams and Gold Jacket inductee in Canton’s Class of 2001.
The eldest of five boys, Jackie Slater was a child of the deep south of the fifties and sixties. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and didn’t attend an integrated school until high school.
“They started taking white kids to our school, Jim Hill High,” Jackie told Sports Illustrated Paul Zimmerman in 1995. “They had a hard time. Then in my freshman year they took the black kids by bus to Wingfield. We were five or six in the (football) team. My first day in practice I had two fights, normal football fights, but they only added to the nervousness of the situation.
“In fact, black kids have mixed together much better on the football field than they did at school. You have always felt the pressure. I know black children who have been kicked out of school completely.
Jackie stayed home for college, recruited in part by Walter Payton, to attend HBCU Jackson State.
“Then he got drafted by the Rams and he went to California, and he said he was scared to death,” Matthew recalled. “He didn’t know how it was going to be, how he was going to be treated, hadn’t had white teammates since high school, and that experience wasn’t good, I can assure you. So to watch guys like Russell and (Wilt) Chamberlain, (Muhammad) Ali, Jim Brown, guys like that – Jackie Robinson, obviously – who pushed the needle for black athletes and broke down barriers, he was definitely a beneficiary of that immediate.
“His rookie year was in 1976, so I know how grateful he is to all those men for making this what it was for him. Seeing this kind of change in his life has really blown him away. He didn’t expect it, especially with the way he was raised.
Like the names mentioned by Johnson and Slater, it is imperative to return to the men we now know as The first forgotten and what they went through.
So that we never return to a time when the unexpected becomes unexpected again.