A Black High-School Athlete Was Denied Entry into a Tournament—And This Was the Response of His Friends

They were just kids, but they understood what the right thing to do was.

Editor’s Note: At Reader’s Digest, we stand with the black community, people of color and with all who believe in the fight against racism and injustice. As the late Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” For George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many before them, we pledge to be part of the change that must happen to bring our communities together in the name of equality and justice for all. 

In this article pulled from our archives (March 1993), a black high-school golfer is barred from the country club where his school is in the finals, recalling for the writer—actor, songwriter, and pastor Clifton Davis—the same racism he’d experienced in the 1950s. In both cases, the kids’ classmates stand with them in a show of solidarity, friendship, and love. Warning: The story contains racial slurs.

Dondré Green glanced uneasily at the civic leaders and sports figures filling the hotel ball­room in Cleveland. They had come from across the nation to attend a fund­raiser for the National Minority College Golf Scholarship Foundation. I was the banquet’s fea­tured entertainer. Dondré, an 18­-year­-old high­-school senior from Monroe, Louisiana, was the evening’s honored guest.

“Nervous?” I asked the handsome young man in his starched white shirt and rented tuxedo.

“A little,” he whispered, grinning.

One month earlier, Dondré had been just one more black student attending a predominantly white Southern school. Although most of his friends and classmates were white, Dondré’s race had never been an issue. Then, on April 17, 1991, Don­dré’s black skin provoked an inci­dent that made nationwide news.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the emcee said, “our special guest, Dondré Green.”

As the audience stood applaud­ing, Dondré walked to the micro­phone and began his story. “I love golf,” he said quietly. “For the past two years, I’ve been a member of the St. Frederick High School golf team. And though I was the only black member, I’ve always felt at home playing at the mostly white country clubs across Louisiana.”

The audience leaned forward; even the waiters and busboys stopped to listen. As I listened, a memory buried in my heart since childhood began fighting its way to life.

“Our team had driven from Mon­roe,” Dondré continued. “When we arrived at the Caldwell Parish Coun­try Club in Columbia, we walked to the putting green.”

Dondré and his teammates were too absorbed to notice the conversa­tion between a man and St. Freder­ick athletic director James Murphy. After disappearing into the clubhouse, Murphy returned to his players.

“I want to see the seniors,” he said. “On the double!” His face seemed strained as he gathered the four students, including Dondré.

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” he said, “but the Caldwell Parish Country Club is reserved for whites only.” Murphy paused and looked at Dondré. His teammates glanced at each other in disbelief. “I want you seniors to decide what our response should be,” Murphy continued. “If we leave, we forfeit this tournament. If we stay, Dondré can’t play.”

As I listened, my own childhood memory from 32 years ago broke free.

It happened to me

In 1959 I was 13 years old, a poor black kid living with my mother and stepfather in a small black ghetto on Long Island, New York. My mother worked nights in a hospital, and my step­father drove a coal truck. Needless to say, our standard of living was some­what short of the American dream. Nevertheless, when my eighth-­grade teacher announced a gradua­tion trip to Washington, D.C., it never crossed my mind that I would be left behind. Besides a complete tour of the nation’s capital, we would visit Glen Echo Amusement Park in Mary­land. In my imagination, Glen Echo was Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Magic Mountain rolled into one.

My heart beating wildly, I raced home to deliver the mimeographed letter describing the journey. But when my mother saw how much the trip would cost, she just shook her head. We couldn’t afford it.

After feeling sad for ten seconds, I decided to try to fund the trip myself. For the next eight weeks, I sold candy bars door­-to­-door, deliv­ered newspapers, and mowed lawns. Three days before the deadline, I’d made just barely enough. I was going!

The day of the trip, trembling with excitement, I climbed onto the train. I was the only nonwhite in our section.

Our hotel was not far from the White House. My roommate was Frank Miller, the son of a business­man. Leaning together out of our window and dropping water bal­loons on passing tourists quickly cemented our new friendship.

Every morning, almost a hundred of us loaded noisily onto our bus for another adventure. We sang our school fight song dozens of times­ en route to Arlington National Cem­etery and even on an afternoon cruise down the Potomac River.

We visited the Lincoln Memorial twice, once in daylight, the second time at dusk. My classmates and I fell silent as we walked in the shadows of those 36 marble columns, one for every state in the Union that Lincoln labored to preserve. I stood next to Frank at the base of the 19-­foot seated statue. Spotlights made the white Georgian marble seem to glow. Together, we read those famous words from Lin­coln’s speech at Gettysburg remem­bering the most bloody battle in the War between the States: “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”

As Frank motioned me into place to take my picture, I took one last look at Lincoln’s face. He seemed alive and so terribly sad.

The next morning I understood a little better why he wasn’t smil­ing. “Clifton,” a chaperone said, “could I see you for a moment?”

The other guys at my table, espe­cially Frank, turned pale. We had been joking about the previous night’s direct water­-balloon hit on a fat lady and her poodle. It was a stu­pid, dangerous act, but luckily nobody got hurt. We were celebrating our escape from punishment when the chaperone asked to see me.

“Clifton,” she began, “do you know about the Mason­Dixon line?”

“No,” I said, wondering what this had to do with drenching fat ladies.

“Before the Civil War,” she explained, “the Mason­Dixon line was originally the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania—the dividing line between the slave and free states.” Having escaped one disaster I could feel another brew­ing. I noticed that her eyes were damp and her hands shaking.

“Today,” she continued, “the Mason­Dixon line is a kind of invis­ible border between the North and the South. When you cross that invisible line out of Washington, D.C., into Maryland, things change.”

There was an ominous drift to this conversation, but I wasn’t fol­lowing it. Why did she look and sound so nervous?

“Glen Echo Amusement Park is in Maryland,” she said at last, “and the management doesn’t allow Negroes inside.” She stared at me in silence.

I was still grinning and nodding when the meaning finally sank in. “You mean I can’t go to the park,” I stuttered, “because I’m a Negro?”

She nodded slowly. “I’m sorry, Clifton,” she said, taking my hand. “You’ll have to stay in the hotel tonight. Why don’t you and I watch a movie on television?”

I walked to the elevators feeling confusion, disbelief, anger and a deep sadness. “What happened, Clifton?” Frank said when I got back to the room. “Did the fat lady tell on us?”

Without saying a word, I walked over to my bed, lay down and began to cry. Frank was stunned into silence. Junior­-high boys didn’t cry, at least not in front of each other.

It wasn’t just missing the class adventure that made me feel so sad. For the first time in my life, I was learning what it felt like to be a “nigger.” Of course there was dis­crimination in the North, but the color of my skin had never officially kept me out of a coffee shop, a church—or an amusement park.

“Clifton,” Frank whispered, “what is the matter?”

“They won’t let me go to Glen Echo Park tonight,” I sobbed.

“Because of the water balloon?” he asked.

“No,” I answered, “because I’m a Negro.”

“Well, that’s a relief!” Frank said, and then he laughed, obviously relieved to have escaped punishment for our caper with the balloons. “I thought it was serious!”

Wiping away the tears with my sleeve, I stared at him. “It is seri­ous. They don’t let Negroes into the park. I can’t go with you!” I shouted. “That’s pretty damn serious to me.”

I was about to wipe the silly grin off Frank’s face with a blow to his jaw when I heard him say, “Then I won’t go either.”

For an instant we just froze. Then Frank grinned. I will never forget that moment. Frank was just a kid. He wanted to go to that amusement park as much as I did, but there was something even more important than the class night out. Still, he didn’t explain or expand.

The next thing I knew, the room was filled with kids listening to Frank. “They don’t allow Negroes in the park,” he said, “so I’m stay­ing with Clifton.”

“Me too,” a second boy said.

“Those jerks,” a third muttered. “I’m with you, Clifton.” My heart began to race. Suddenly, I was not alone. A pint­-sized revolution had been born. The “water­-balloon brigade,” 11 white boys from Long Island, had made its decision: “We won’t go.” And as I sat on my bed in the center of it all, I felt grateful. But, above all, I was filled with pride.

United we stand

Dondré Green’s story brought that childhood memory back to life. His golfing teammates, like my child­hood friends, had an important deci­sion to make. Standing by their friend would cost them dearly. But when it came time to decide, no one hesitated. “Let’s get out of here,” one of them whispered.

“They just turned and walked toward the van,” Dondré told us. “They didn’t debate it. And the younger players joined us without looking back.”

Dondré was astounded by the response of his friends—and the peo­ple of Louisiana. The whole state was outraged and tried to make it right. The Louisiana House of Represen­tatives proclaimed a Dondré Green Day and passed legislation permit­ting lawsuits for damages, attorneys’ fees, and court costs against any pri­vate facility that invites a team, then bars any member because of race.

As Dondré concluded, his eyes glistened with tears. “I love my coach and my teammates for sticking by me,” he said. “It goes to show that there are always good people who will not give in to bigotry. The kind of love they showed me that day will conquer hatred every time.”

Suddenly, the banquet crowd was standing, applauding Dondré Green.

My friends, too, had shown that kind of love. As we sat in the hotel, a chap­erone came in waving an envelope. “Boys!” he shouted. “I’ve just bought 13 tickets to the Senators­-Tigers game. Anybody want to go?”

The room erupted in cheers. Not one of us had ever been to a pro­fessional baseball game in a real baseball park.

On the way to the stadium, we grew silent as our driver paused before the Lincoln Memorial. For one long moment, I stared through the marble pillars at Mr. Lincoln, bathed in that warm, yellow light. There was still no smile and no sign of hope in his sad and tired eyes.

” . . .we here highly resolve. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom . . .”

In his words and in his life, Lin­coln had made it clear that free­dom is not free. Every time the color of a person’s skin keeps him out of an amusement park or off a coun­try­-club fairway, the war for free­dom begins again. Sometimes the battle is fought with fists and guns, but more often the most effective weapon is a simple act of love and courage.

Whenever I hear those words from Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg, I remember my 11 white friends, and I feel hope once again. I like to imagine that when we paused that night at the foot of his great monu­ment, Mr. Lincoln smiled at last. As Dondré said, “The kind of love they showed me that day will conquer hatred every time.” Clifton and Dondré’s classmates prove that anyone can stand up against injustice. Here are 14 small ways you can fight racism every day.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Clifton Davis
Clifton Davis is an author, singer, songwriter, and composer, perhaps best known for writing The Jackson 5 hit song "Never Can Say Goodbye." He is also a pastor and has played one on TV in the series Amen (1986-1991).