In retrospect, Ralph Stokes’ decision to call his memoir “One of the First” was the ultimate taken for granted.
Born in Montgomery in 1953, Stokes came of age in the final days of the civil rights movement as African Americans began to tear down the barriers of segregation in his hometown and throughout the south. He was “one of the first” of his race in his previously all-white football teams at Robert E. Lee High School and the University of Alabama, in his high-level business classes and then graduated from college in various professional and social environments.
Stokes’ book, fully titled “One of the First: Lessons I Learned in Overcoming the Challenges of Integration,” was published earlier this year by Called Writers Christian Publishing. Written with Chris McKinney, it tells the story of Stokes’ life from his days as a high school football star in Montgomery to his career as one of the first African American players in Alabama to professional success as an insurance manager and now the trusted lieutenant of business tycoon Arthur Blank.
“I was lucky and blessed to be one of the first in several situations, but when I went through it I never really counted it as one of the first,” said Stokes. “I was just like, ‘Hey, I’m here. I do what I do. ‘ And you are just trying to do your best to be successful. But I had the perspective I needed to be successful, not just for myself but for others who would follow me.
“As an African American, you get into situations and circumstances so often, and there are some people who have the perspective that you are not the right person. You shouldn’t be here feeling like I have to be successful because if I’m not successful it will not only have a negative impact on me but also on the race itself. And you will get that, that old statement of, ‘You see, I told you they couldn’t.’ So I often had the ‘I want to be successful’ perspective, not just for myself, but to ensure that I create opportunities for others in these situations, be it in football or something else. “
Stokes, the star of an undefeated State Championship team in Lee in 1970 and one of the South’s most recruited athletes, was part of the first Alabama signing class, which included several African American players. He and his high school teammate Mike Washington joined Central-Tuscaloosa’s Sylvester Croom to sign for Crimson Tide in 1971, a year after Ozark’s Wilbur Jackson became the first black scholarship football player in Alabama and John that same year Mitchell transferred to junior college – whoever signed with the team in December 1970 – would be the first to play in a game.
Stokes was part of the freshman team in 1971 and advanced to college the following year. He recalls a sense of real surprise when Jackson and Mitchell became instant impact players for the Crimson Tide, paving the way for players like him.
“I grew up feeling like there would never be a day for us (in previously white college football),” said Stokes. “You see Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, the whole SEC, and it was fun to see them, but you don’t see them when you see an eye that ‘one day I might be in the field and I’ll be on the Competitions participate in SEC. ‘ You just never had that perspective because it hadn’t happened.
“… I thought that in all likelihood I would go to a historically black college or university to continue my education. … And when Wilbur signed it wasn’t that much fanfare. It was kind of under the radar.
“But when John signed it was the off-season, and it was more of a big deal because he was a junior college player who was expected to come in and play right away. They knew by then that they were serious about empowering black players to contribute. That’s when I started thinking ‘the door will be opened’. At this point, all of the SEC schools knocked on my door. “
Stokes played for Paul “Bear” Bryant-coached Alabama teams that reached 33-4, won three consecutive SEC championships and a national title in 1973, but never became a star. Injuries limited him to part-time roles alongside Jackson, Ellis Beck and Willie Shelby, but he ended his career with 337 yards and four touchdowns in 33 games at the Crimson Tide.
Like many players of his era, Stokes was in awe of Bryant during and after his playing time. He said that at the time he did it, gambling in Alabama had been a “divine gift from day one” in the years since, both personally and professionally.
“It has been said so many times that football is like a religion in the Southeast,” said Stokes. “And to have played in Alabama and played for legendary coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant – that alone has the right to open doors. … I was one of the first African Americans in the Southeast to try to sell employee (insurance) benefits to large corporations. And many of them never saw a face like mine trying to do what I was doing, but they welcomed me. In many arenas with the introductory question: “Hey, what was Bear really? What was it like playing for Bear? Or ‘tell me about the exercises and things’ or ‘so and so moment in a game’. I was welcomed in many areas because I was connected to the great program in Alabama and the legendary coach I was connected to. “
As a student in Alabama, Stokes resisted pressure to be pushed into a less demanding “jock” major and enroll in business school. He also joined a black brotherhood, Omega Psi Phi, against the advice of his coaches.
Stokes hasn’t stopped being a pioneer since leaving Tuscaloosa. One of the earliest African-American members of the Indian Hills Country Club in Atlanta and later the first black president of the Georgia State Golf Association, he made his way as an insurance manager with clients previously hostile to his race. in particular securing the business of a Tennessee company whose president was an allegedly imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Stokes settled in Atlanta a few years ago and currently works as the Director of Partnership Marketing and Community Relations for PGA Tour Superstore, a leading golf equipment and apparel retailer and one of Blank’s many companies, in addition to his high-profile role as the owner of the NFLs Atlanta Hawks. He spends his free time doing charity work, including golf tournaments, which benefit organizations across the country.
Stokes said that over the years he has not allowed himself to be merely a “token” in any of the environments where he was among the first of his people. He made sure to use these opportunities instead of being “used” to bring someone else’s social agenda forward.
“At first it was ‘I’m here and I’ll do my best,'” said Stokes. “But in the course of my life I really feel like it’s a calling. It was something that I was put into these situations for a reason. And I had to accept that reason. And whether the circumstances were good or not, I had to accept it.
“I’ve been asked on several occasions that you fit into an environment and environments where you knew they didn’t particularly want you once you were there, or there was a section of the population who would prefer not to be there ‘but they used you for your talents because you had talents that they wanted or that they thought could help but they didn’t want you individually. So did you feel used? And I’m telling you, I haven’t felt taken advantage of a single day in my life.
“I always had the feeling that it was only a chance. I’ve only ever seen it as an opportunity to use my gifts and talents, to make a difference, to contribute to the team or the organization and to show that I can be successful as a black man in this environment. But I never felt used. “
For more information on Stokes’ book One of the First, click HERE.