The Johnny Bright Incident by Don Ultang and John Robinson

29.03.2015 |

Episode #8 of the course “Pulitzer prize-winning photos”

In 1951, racial tensions remained high in the United States and were spilling into the racially-integrated world of college football. Johnny Bright was one of the first black players. An extremely talented tailback, Bright’s future seemed assured when in his senior year, he was on the short list for Heisman Trophy candidates. Playing for Drake University in the game against Oklahoma A&M, Bright was repeatedly violently attacked by white players including defensive tackle Wilbanks Smith, who used racially derogatory language against Bright and incited his teammates to target Bright. Oklahoma A&M had been integrated in 1949, but racism remained, and locals had been boasting that after the game, Bright would be eliminated.

In a series of aggressive tackles during the first seven minutes of the game, Bright was knocked unconscious three times. In the final hit from Smith, Bright’s jaw was broken. Because of the injury, he was forced to leave the game early.

A series of six images taken by cameramen from the Des Moines Register—Don Ultang and John Robinson—clearly showed that the hits against Bright were made long after the hand-off of the football, which is illegal by today’s rules. The two photographers had decided to focus on Bright because of the rumors of him being targeted, and the effort was well worth it. Because of these direct assaults, the NCAA changed the rules about protective gear and declared that all players must wear protective helmets with faceguards. The series of photos was published in the Des Moines Register, eventually made the cover of Life Magazine, and won them the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for photography.


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