By Rickey Hampton, Editor and Founder of The African-American Athlete
When NBA players LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul stood on stage at the ESPY’s in 2016, they challenged athletes to become more socially active.
“Generations ago, legends like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe and countless others, they set a model for what athletes should stand for,” said Paul. “So we choose to follow in their footsteps.”
I believe those four NBA superstars are sincere. They have all worked to make a positive difference in society in their own way. However, if you really want to follow in the footsteps of athletes such as Ali, Robinson, Smith, Carlos, Ashe and others, you have to give more than money and resources.
You have to be bold, courageous, and willing to sacrifice yourself.
You need the mindset of Buffalo Bills’ star Cookie Gilchrist, Kansas City Chiefs’ star Abner Haynes, and 19 other black men who were stars in the American Football League. They put their careers on the line when they decided to boycott the 1965 AFL All-Star game in New Orleans.
In 1965 the Big Easy was making a push to bring professional football to town. The AFL, looking to make inroads into the South, was interested in doing business. Of course, New Orleans, like much of the South, was vigorously pushing back against the recent signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The bill, at least legally, ended segregation and discrimination. In reality, the enforcement of the new law was an entirely different story. It was business as usual in the Big Easy. And the black AFL All-Stars felt the wrath of southern racism the moment they arrived in New Orleans.
The white cab drivers at the New Orleans airport refused to take their fares.
“All these cabs were lined up in front of the airport, and I walked out with my bag and went up to the first cab driver who was white, and he said he was on his break,” said Butch Byrd, a rookie defensive back for the Buffalo Bills. “I said, ‘Ok, no problem.’ I didn’t think anything about it, to be honest. So I went to the second one, then the third one, and then this black cab driver came up to me and said, ‘Are you looking for a cab?’ and I said yes.”
That was just the beginning. The black All-Stars weren’t allowed in the downtown New Orleans restaurants, clubs, and hotels. One player, Ernie Ladd, reportedly had a gun pulled on him by a restaurant owner, who refused to serve him.
However, unlike the NFL that only had a few black players, the AFL was built on the talent of black players, especially those from the Black Colleges. The black players had power, and they were not afraid to use it. “We were the last athletes you want to try and intimidate,” said Haynes.
Haynes and Gilchrist led the boycott. Haynes was a star player, and Gilchrist was the AFL’s best player. They decided they were not going to take part in a game played in a city that would practice such flagrant discrimination and racism policies. And they charged the other 19 black players to do the same.
“We were disrespected as men,” said Haynes, said in the Showtime documentary about the AFL ‘The Other League’. “We were not here because of color; we were here because of talent. Why should we go out there and put our lives on the line for people who don’t appreciate us?”
“It was time to stand up, and be counted. I think that is what we did.”
Not only did all 21 black players decide to not play, they were joined by several of the white players. Among them players such as Ron Mix of the San Diego Chargers, and Buffalo quarterback Jack Kemp.
Kemp would later serve as a Republican Congressman for the state of New York, was the running mate of Bob Dole in 1996, and Secretary of HUD for GW Bush.
AFL commissioner Joe Foss felt the pressure from the players. He moved the game from New Orleans to Houston. The City Fathers of New Orleans realized they would never become a pro city until they could end discrimination policies of local businesses. Two years later, in 1967, the NFL awarded New Orleans a franchise.
The AFL did not like the fact that Haynes and Gilchrist were the leaders of the boycott. Both men were soon traded by their respective teams. Nonetheless, the AFL continued to prosper in large part because of the influx of black players. The AFL and NFL merged a year later in June of 1966.
There has been much talk recently about some fans boycotting the National Football League season in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. The former 49ers’ QB flag protest last season sparked a debate over patriotism and free speech, that’s ongoing today. While some fans plan to stay away, the players intend to play on. After all, there are millions at stake.
The men who took a stand in 1965 didn’t have millions at stake. Their salaries were a fraction of today’s salaries. But these men were fighting for something far more valuable than a paycheck. They were fighting for their dignity and respect as men, strong black men.
Check out the video for more on the 1965 AFL All-Star game boycott.