The 1965 American Football League All-Star Game was scheduled to be played at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, but when the 20 black players selected to play arrived in “The Big Easy,” they faced blatant racism and heard that seating would be segregated.
It was scheduled for 10 days after the city hosted the Sugar Bowl in which Syracuse, which had eight black players, played all-white LSU team before the first totally integrated crowd in the history of the event.
Running back Clem Daniels and wide receiver Art Powell of the Raiders were right up front as the players threatened to boycott the game, and Coach/General Manager Al Davis played a major role in the game eventually being moved to Houston.
“Davis was a drum major on political issues of football, he was the NFL’s moral conscious,” Daniels once said. “He developed more leaders in professional football than any other person.
“He was the type of person that was mindful of social issues in the community and did something about it.”
It wasn’t a first for Davis.
Two years earlier in Davis’ first season with the Raiders, they were scheduled to play a pre-season game in Mobile, Ala., but in protest against Alabama’s segregation laws, he refused to have his team play there.
But this was much bigger.
After the black players got off the plane and tried to hail cabs, they were all passed by, while the white players got into cabs and headed for their hotel.
“The white players were going out, getting in cabs, and taking off, going to the hotels,” said linebacker Bobby Bell of the Kansas City Chiefs, a future Hall of Famer. “When the black players would go out to get a cab, the white cabbie would say, ‘No can do.’ I guess we were out at the airport a couple of hours.”
Running back Sid Blanks of the Houston Oilers finally ran into a skycap, who told him he had to get a “colored” cab.
Making the best of a bad situation, fullback Cookie Gilchrist of the Buffalo Bills quipped: “I don’t care what color the taxi is. I just want to get to my hotel.”
Gilchrist got his ride to the hotel only because he was with a white man, Bills quarterback Jack Kemp. The driver told Gilchrist he’d let him get in so long as Kemp was the one who hired the taxi.
The West team was stationed at the Roosevelt Hotel, grudgingly integrated only weeks earlier following the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The East was housed several miles away at the Fontainebleau Motel.
Although the players had been assured by organizers of the AFL All-Star game that the welcome mat would be rolled out, they were already talking about a boycott.
And then they went out on the town in the French Quarter.
Some players were going down the hotel elevator to the lobby when an older white woman said: “What is that smell?”
Said cornerback Dick Westmoreland of the San Diego Chargers, who played on the North Carolina A&T team quarterbacked by civil rights activist Jesse Jackson: “It’s not me. I’m wearing cologne.”
At several restaurants, when black players hung up their overcoats on racks, white people who apparently had coats on the same rack came over and threw the players’ coats on the floor.
Raiders defensive back Dave Grayson and several other players, including the only white among the group, guard Walt Sweeney of the San Diego Chargers, and 6-9, 315-pound defensive lineman Ernie Ladd of the Chargers, came upon a nightclub where James Brown music was playing and decided to go in.
There was a barker out in front, saying: “Everybody come on in, come on in! Great show tonight!”
But when the AFL players headed for the door, the barker said: “Whoa, not your kind, we won’t serve you. You can’t come in.’”
Said Grayson: “The doorman had a gun in his waistband. He pointed it at Ernie (Ladd) and told him if he walked through the door, he was going to kill him.”
The players headed back to their hotels but were headed on their way out of New Orleans.
After the events of the previous evening, the black players held a meeting in Room 990 of the Roosevelt Hotel the next morning and decided to boycott the game.
The white players, unaware of what was going on, boarded buses for practice along with head coaches Lou Saban of the Bills for the East team, and Sid Gillman of the Chargers for the West.
“The bus was like a third empty,” said Ron Mix, a white tackle for the Chargers who later played for the Raiders en route to the Hall of Fame. “And the coach said, ‘Where is everybody?’ Somebody said, ‘None of the black players are here. They’re all in a meeting.’”
Mix went upstairs to the meeting and spoke with Daniels and his teammate, defensive end Earl Faison, asking if he could say a few words, but he knew “their minds were set; nothing would change them.”
Powell interrupted Mix and said: “Look, we know we aren’t going to change these people, but neither are they going to change us. We must act as our conscience dictates.
I suppose it would be better to stay here and by doing so imply that we accept such treatment for ourselves and our people? Do you want us to condone it?”
Said Daniels of the game’s organizers: “They told us to bring your wife and kids. There will also be a golf tournament. It sounded like a big picnic.”
Mix later said: “I made a decision then that if the game were to go on despite the absence of the black players, I would not play. I felt I would be wrong in not playing, but that it was important for at least one white player to join them, to say we’re with you.”
The vote among the black players reportedly was 16-3 to boycott New Orleans, with one abstention, as Powell, Daniels, and Gilchrist reportedly made the most convincing arguments.
With the help of Davis and others, the teams reassembled in Houston two days later.
“Davis was a pioneer,” said tight end Raymond Chester, who played for the Raiders in the 1970s. “There was never any racism within the Raiders, we did not see color and neither did Davis.”
Only 15,446 fans showed up on short notice for the AFL All-Star Game the following Saturday at Jeppesen Stadium, the Houston Oilers’ home field, to watch the West rout East, 38-14.
But nobody remembers any of that when talking about the 1965 AFL-Star Game.
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