Myrtis Dightman always believed. Even after he was turned away
from a hotel that had plenty of empty rooms. Even after he was
barred by a security guard from entering an arena in which he
was scheduled to compete. Even after he was forced to get water
from "colored" drinking fountains. Dightman believed what his
mother, Ada Lee, had told him when he was a child: "Honey, if
you put your mind to it, you can do anything."
This is an article from the Jan. 11, 1999 issue
It wasn't until he was 33 that he finally learned the limits of
his mother's advice: No matter how nice he was to hotel clerks
or how well he rode bulls, he would never be treated the same as
a white man. In 1968 Dightman competed in more than 100 rodeos
in the U.S. and Canada. The only black man on the circuit, he
rode magnificently all year, handling 1,500-pound animals that
other riders avoided. In the season finale, the National Finals
Rodeo in Oklahoma City, he was brilliant again, and most people
in the arena felt he deserved the world title. But Dightman
ended up fourth.
Afterward he bumped into his good friend Freckles Brown, a white
rider who finished third. "Man, I can't ride any better than I
did this year," Dightman said. "What do I have to do to win the
"Myrt," Brown said, "you keep riding bulls like you do, turn
white, and you'll be the world champion for the next five years."
Thirty years later, his days in the saddle long behind him, the
63-year-old Dightman is not rich, famous or a past world
champion. But he is healthy and happy. He has six children,
three grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and two small
ranches: a 15-acre lot in Houston and a 180-acre spread in
Crockett, Texas, on which he raises cattle and horses. He
recently retired from the American Hat Company, owned by Billy
George, a friend from his riding days. He also has his own line
of American hats.
Dightman is always smiling, and he expresses no bitterness over
the humiliating treatment he has endured. If he were angry, he
wouldn't give "Work hard, stay in school" speeches at so many
predominantly white high schools. "I don't see color when I go
to the schools," he says. "I see bright-eyed kids who are our
Dightman's outlook has been bright ever since Ada Lee plopped
him down on her lap when he was eight years old and said,
"Always be happy, no matter what anybody else says or does.
Other people can never give you happiness. It comes from within.
God gave it to you, and nobody can take it away unless you let
Myrtis was born and raised on a ranch, and began his cowboy life
at 10, running herds of cattle across the Texas prairies. By 13
he had dropped out of school and was working with his father,
Od, on a large industrial ranch in Crockett.
One of his friends, James Francies, was a top rider on the Texas
black rodeo circuit in the '50s. During a stop in Houston he
told Dightman how much fun he was having, and in 1959 Dightman
joined him on the road, first working as a rodeo clown. Later,
Dightman, with Francies's encouragement, decided to try riding
bulls. Francies knew Dightman was a natural the first time he
saw Dightman ride. "He was so agile, so strong," says Francies.
"But what really set him apart was his joy. He loved what he was
doing, and the fans felt it. Whether or not Myrtis won, he was
always the hit of the show."
After riding in Texas for a few years, earning peanuts in
makeshift arenas, Dightman decided in 1961 to try to make it on
the national circuit. Francies, who had quit riding by then and
was working as a switch operator for Southwestern Bell, paid
Dightman's $50 initiation fee to the Rodeo Cowboys Association
(RCA) and then loaned his friend enough money to get going. "The
best investment I ever made," Francies says.
By the mid-1960s Dightman had become one of the country's top
riders. In rodeo parlance, he had try--fearlessness--and his
technique was exceptional. By keeping his left eye on the bull's
shoulder blade, Dightman knew which way it would jerk, and he
almost always stayed on the bull for the full eight seconds. Most
other riders got bucked off much earlier.
Dightman, though, never got his deserved measure of recognition.
For every rodeo he won, there were many he didn't win because he
was scored unfairly. "Myrtis was simply amazing," says Larry
Mahan, a six-time world champion all-around cowboy who rode
against Dightman. "But the judges were often prejudiced. So if
it ever came down to a choice between Myrtis and a white rider,
the white guy usually got the higher score."
Dightman's biggest troubles, however, occurred outside the
arenas. In 1967, for example, he arrived at the Civic Center in
Little Rock shortly before his 1 p.m. ride. "Sorry, no colored
allowed," the guard at the door said.
"But I gotta ride in a few minutes," Dightman pleaded. Just
then, Woodie Cones, a white rider and friend of Dightman's,
passed by the door. "Hey Myrtis, you're up," Cones yelled.
Grudgingly the doorman let Dightman enter, and he finished second.
Rather than react with anger to such racist behavior, Dightman
turned a cold shoulder to it and did as his mother had
instructed him to do. He focused on what he could control: his
riding and his attitude. "I never heard Myrtis say a bad word
about anybody, even when they called him nigger," says John
Forse, a close friend who rode with Dightman in the late 1960s
and now manages Dightman's personal appearance schedule. "A lot
of times, I wanted to attack guys who did racist things to
Myrtis, but he never let me."
In 1966 Dightman made history by becoming the first black man to
ride in the National Finals Rodeo. A few years later, in
response to an outcry from riders and fans who felt Dightman was
being unfairly scored, the RCA began requiring its judges to
attend race-relations seminars. Still, after his experience in
1968, Dightman knew he'd never win the world title. That
barrier, he felt as his career wore on, would be broken by a
young black rider from South Central Los Angeles named Charles
Dightman met Sampson in 1970 on a swing through Los Angeles.
Sampson, only 12 years old, showed Dightman a picture of himself
riding a bull. "Soon as I saw the photo, I knew he had the
tools," says Dightman. He dedicated himself to teaching the boy
the ropes, and when Sampson hit the road in the late 1970s,
Dightman went with him as his coach. At first Sampson threw
tantrums when judges robbed him.
"I'd kick and scream at the judges," he says. "Then I'd come back
to the hotel and ask Myrtis how he dealt with the hatred. He'd
say, 'Just ride, Charlie. Just show them you can ride.'"
Sampson eventually gained control of his emotions, and in 1982
in Oklahoma City, with Dightman in attendance, became the first
black man to win the bullriding world championship. "I never won
it, but I didn't have to," Dightman told Sampson during the
awards ceremony. "You won it for me."
Two years ago Dightman was inducted into the National Cowboy
Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Ever since, he's been sought for
guest appearances on the rodeo circuit, where he draws fans who
remember him in his prime.
During an autograph session at a rodeo in the Houston Astrodome
last winter, Dightman was approached by Lillian Lupau, a
72-year-old dance teacher from Sharpstown, Texas, whose brother
had been a bullrider. Lupau remembers seeing Dightman get
cheated out of a victory at a Houston rodeo, and she's been a
fan of his ever since. In fact, she introduced herself to
Dightman at a few small rodeos and went to Oklahoma City to see
Sampson win the world championship.
When Lupau got to the front of the autograph line in Houston,
her eyes locked on the golden Hall of Fame medal draped around
Dightman's neck. She broke into tears. "It's about time they put
you in," she said. Dightman, also teary-eyed, came out from
behind the table and hugged her.
"I tell you what, Myrtis," said Lupau. "It's been a long hard
road, but justice was finally done."
"Yeah, honey," he said. "Better late than never."