Keith Dunnavant Talks About New Documentary ‘Three Days at Foster’


June 12, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers assistant head coach John Mitchell instructs during minicamp at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Sports author Keith Dunnavant has released his new film, Three Days At Foster on streaming video. “Three Days” chronicles the long, hard journey to end segregation in athletics in the state of Alabama, most notably at the University of Alabama.

Many of the stories told in “Three Days” are little known and have unfortunately been lost to history, until now.

BamaHammer staff writer Josh Boutwell had a chance to speak to Dunnavant, author of The Missing Ring: How Bear Bryant and the 1966 Alabama Crimson Tide Were Denied College Football’s Most Elusive Prize about these amazing stories, and was given a screening of the film, which is available for streaming online Monday.

JOSH BOUTWELL: What is the story you’re trying to get across with this film?

KEITH DUNNAVANT: Three Days at Foster reflects my point of view that the athletes who shattered the color barrier at the University of Alabama – including the unknown Bama football walk-ons of 1967 – deserve to be recognized as civil rights pioneers. They weren’t just gifted athletes. They were brave young men who attacked and ultimately destroyed the last bastion of segregation in the state. Even in George Wallace’s Alabama, even as the state was deeply divided by the explosive matter of race, there was a force more powerful than hate ready to be tapped. Alabama football played a significant role in healing the festering wounds of the Sixties – helping us as a culture see beyond black and white. And contrary to popular belief, Sam Cunningham did not integrate Bama football (the long standing myth about the 1970 Bama-USC game). It was an evolutionary process, and with Wilbur Jackson already on the roster when USC routed the Tide in 1970, it was only a matter of time before the last step was achieved.

JB: When will it be released and how can the readers see it?

KD: The world is changing, so we are releasing this film in a cutting-edge way that makes it easily accessible by Alabama fans everywhere. Starting Aug. 26, Three Days at Foster will be available on demand through our website for $4.95. No other historical sports film has been released this way, so we’re excited about breaking new ground.

JB: Who are some of the people that were involved in this project?

KD: Wilbur Jackson, the Jackie Robinson of Alabama football. Doc Rone, Arthur Dunning and Andrew Pernell, who walked onto the Bama football team in the spring of 1967. Danny Treadwell, who integrated the state (high school) basketball tournament at Foster, just 33 months after Wallace made his infamous stand. Also a long list of coaches, teammates, journalists and historians. A total of 42 people appear in the film, including Pat Dye, C.M. Netwon, Bama Magazine’s Kirk McNair.

“Three Days” director/producer/writer Keith Dunnavant with former Crimson Tide great Wilbur Jackson.

JB: Tell me about the team you assembled to produce this film.

KD: I was blessed to have an outstanding team to bring this story to life: Director of photography/editor Jonathan W. Hickman and Editor Joe Beamon, as well as design consultant Maggie Boudreaux Hickman. I can’t say enough about their skill and dedication. They put in incredible hours under significant pressure to get the film completed on time, on a small budget. I am so very proud of the work they did on this film – the meticulous detail touches and the technical savvy required to bring the story to the screen in the best possible light. They shared my passion for the story. They knew we were doing something that was significant, something that mattered, and they dug deep, day after day.

JB: Your book The Missing Ring tells the story of the 1966 Alabama football team, which may have been robbed of a third straight national championship due to Alabama still being segregated. Now with “Three Days” you tell the other side of Alabama history in that sense with its integration. What compelled you to tell these stories?

KD: The same impulse, I suppose. As a historian, I enjoy digging deep to find compelling human drama surrounded by some epic tale. The Missing Ring was a story about the greatest injustice in college football history – Alabama finishing perfect but being denied that elusive third straight national championship – but it was also about the surging ambition of young men like Ray Perkins, Jerry Duncan and Kenny Stabler against the backdrop of a time and place on the brink. By the same token, Three Days at Foster is a story about the complicated evolution toward the integration of Alabama sports, but it also contains, and is given texture by, narrative detail such as Wilbur Jackson’s relationship with his father.

JB: What do you say to the people that portray Bear Bryant as someone who simply didn’t want to integrate Alabama, rather than the man that seemed to have been looking for the way to do so for quite some time?

KD: Bryant was in difficult position. He was a giant figure, but segregation, personified by George Wallace’s defiance at Foster and elsewhere, was a powerful cultural force that wasn’t going to die quickly. Clearly, he wanted to integrate much sooner than he did. It’s easy for us to speculate now, from the security of the 21st century, the whys and hows involved in his decision-making process, but what if he had acted sooner and something awful had happened? Could he have done it sooner? Absolutely. We can all look back and say the barrier should have been shattered much sooner. That’s a no-brainer. But would sooner have been too soon in terms of the culture? Impossible to say. For reasons that we can debate, in the mid-1960s, he believed the time wasn’t right for black scholarship athletes. By ’69, he thought the time was right and so he signed Wilbur Jackson, who turned out to be a transcendent figure. In terms of race, Bryant became the Anti-Wallace, and the state of Alabama emerged as a better place because of the way he integrated his program and the example that he represented.

JB: Why was John Mitchell, Alabama’s first black All American, not a part of “Three Days?”

KD: Unfortunately, John Mitchell could not make time for us when we were filming last fall.

*NOTE: Mitchell is currently defensive line coach and assistant head coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

JB: If and when will “Three Days” be released on DVD?

KD: October.

JB: What would you say you learned most from doing this documentary and having this experience?

KD: As a journalist, I want to keep stretching myself creatively, and I’m still finding my voice as a filmmaker, so Three Days at Foster was an enormous challenge for me as a storyteller on several different levels. It’s different than a book, and yet, in some ways, it’s similar. The trick is finding the best of both worlds. Of course, I also learned so much from the characters in the film while trying to get inside their heads – trying to understand what it must have been like all those years ago, in a very different world, having the determination and the courage to challenge the system.

JB: Why are the stories in this documentary important for the public to know and why do you think some of these incredible stories have been lost to history?

KD: I think it’s always important to know your history. The characters in this film represent who we were and who we became. It’s hard to say why these figures are not better known, but it is my hope that Three Days at Foster will promote a greater understanding of that critical collision between race, sports and culture that fundamentally altered the way we think about black and white.

JB: Let everyone where they can find you and the documentary online.

KD: or visit us on Facebook.