First African American Athlete at Murray State Reflects on Sports Career

Oct 12, 2018

In 1960, Dennis Jackson became the first African American student-athlete to participate on a Murray State University team. Jackson visits the Sounds Good studio to reflect on his time at MSU and his athletic career.

From 1960 to 1964, Dennis Jackson was an incredibly successful athlete at MSU. He competed as a receiver, tailback, and safety in football and was a part of the MSU 4x100 meter relay team that had the best time in the southeast region. Jackson was named to the all-OVC football team in 1964. He was also inducted into the Kentucky High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999.

Jackson's passion for athletics carried on into his professional career. He currently lives in Paducah, where he has worked as a Paducah Public Schools administrator, officiated fifteen state basketball championships, and currently serves as the Director of District Personnel for the Paducah Public Schools. Prior to his current position, Jackson has taught health, physical education, history, and social studies at various schools such as Trigg County Junior High School in Cadiz, KY, Bard Junior High in Benton Harbor, MI, and Jetton Junior High, Brazelton Junior High/Paducah Middle School, and Paducah Tilghman in Paducah, KY. He has also coached football, basketball, and track. He has received numerous honors and awards, including the Kentucky Colonel Award, Duke of Paducah, and Teacher of the Year for Paducah Middle School. 

While visiting the Sounds Good studio, Jackson recounts his time at Murray State, and the process of becoming the first African American student-athlete, as going fairly smoothly in relation to other colleges of the area. Jackson recalls the faculty members, teammates, and his family all being extremely supportive. Yet even in the midst of the civil rights movement, Jackson didn't consider himself to be a trailblazer, saying "I just assumed that was something that was meant to be."

However, Jackson was not able to avoid the racism running rampant in the U.S. at the time. He recalled two separate occasions in which he was racially discriminated. At a hotel in Murfreesboro, TN, everyone on the track team was allowed to check into their rooms except for Jackson. Rather than stay in the hotel with the rest of his teammates, he had to find a different place to stay downtown with an elderly couple. Sometimes, he met discrimination from members of opposing football teams. At a game at Tennessee Tech, Jackson recalls a player who, for seemingly no reason, kicked Jackson in the head. The injuries sustained by the assault forced Jackson to sit out on multiple games. When speaking of the referee who didn't call for any foul or misconduct, he says the referee "either did not see it or pretended he didn't see it." Jackson explained that he held no grudges for the behavior at Tennessee Tech, but that he had continued to search for the player who kicked him in the hopes that he could discuss what had happened. When asked if he thought the player would feel differently now, Jackson said, "hopefully that was just a sign of the times, and everything is different now." 

Jackson's athletic career shaped the way he treats his own student-athletes today. He attributes a large part of his coaching techniques to the experiences he faced as a minority athlete during one of the most turbulent social movements of U.S. history. "I [make] an effort to treat everybody the same," Jackson says, "no matter where they came from, which side of town they were on, or what complexion they were."