November 8, 2013

Aiello Featured as Guest Lecturer: Explores Racial Consequences of NBA's Move to the Deep South

Dr. Thomas Aiello

VALDOSTA – Dr. Thomas Aiello, assistant professor of history and African-American studies at Valdosta State University, has been featured as part of Columbus State University’s Civil Rights History Series. Aiello delivered a lecture titled “Leaving the Promised Land: The Atlanta Hawks, Race and the NBA’s Move to the Deep South” at Columbus State on Thursday, Nov. 7.

“The talk examined the move of the NBA to the Deep South and the racial consequences of that move – for the players, white Georgia and the election of 1970,” said Aiello.

Aiello discussed the arrival of the Atlanta Hawks, formerly the St. Louis Hawks, in 1968 as well as the reaction of the city and state.

“As Jim Crow restrictions fell in the wake of civil rights legislation, and as Sunbelt business imperatives began motivating Atlanta’s civic boosters, professional sports teams found an eager host in Georgia,” Aiello explained. “The NBA was a black league appearing in the Deep South for the first time, and its reception in Atlanta was cool at best. The disconnect between the largely white fan base and the largely black team led management to draft Pete Maravich in 1970, specifically to put a white star on the roster.”

Aiello added that the Hawks served as a “racial pivot” in the 1970 governor’s race between Jimmy Carter and Carl Sanders. Sanders, who was also co-owner of the Hawks, was seen in photos embracing black men pouring champagne over his head while celebrating a division championship. This embrace, Aiello explained, was seen as “a racial betrayal to many in Georgia.” Ultimately, Carter won the election.

Aiello’s lecture serves as part of Columbus State’s yearlong commemoration of the nation’s civil rights movement.

A Louisiana native, Aiello has taught at VSU since 2010 and has led classes that focus on the economics of slavery, black political murder, the Harlem Renaissance and the black power movement. He currently teaches courses on black press and the second half of African-American history.

Aiello has written and published several books that focus on athletes in African-American history and Jive. He is currently working on a book that explores conflict among some of the greats in African-American history, focusing mainly on the rift between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois in the early 1900s.

Aiello, who has studied African-American history for more than 15 years, said he is often asked why he - a white man - chose to make African-American history his focus.

“I grew up in a racist place in northeast Louisiana and went to an all-white high school,” he explained. “My parish has had more lynchings than any place on earth. As a child that did not seem weird to me although my family always taught me to be accepting of all races and cultures. However, sometime between going to college in Arkansas and returning home, I actually realized how different my hometown is from other places. Even if you’re taught not to hate others, you cannot avoid witnessing it in places like my hometown. It gets to you and you want to understand it and figure out why it has the problems it has, and eventually you find all of the problems go back to race.”

Aiello said that the topic of race interested him and seemed important.

“Of course there were other topics and careers that seemed interesting to me, but they were not important,” he said. “Race in the South is important and it has consequences that we can actually see. I encourage my students not to just celebrate African-American history, but to understand it.”

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