When racism drove the AFL All-Star game out of New Orleans
In 1965, the black players answered prejudice by voting to leave the city
The trouble for the 20 black football players surfaced as soon as they stepped off the plane at New Orleans International Airport. It was Jan. 9, 1965, and the men were in town to play in the American Football League All-Star Game. But before 24 hours had transpired, events got so insufferably bad they all left.
White passengers watched as groups of African-Americans came out to the same curb as them and actually tried to hail cabs – their white cabs. And after 250 years of segregation, whites were making no concessions.
“The white players were going out, getting in cabs, and taking off, going to the hotels,” recalled Bobby Bell, the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker and 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.”
Sid Blanks, the Houston Oilers rookie halfback, found one cab after another cruising right on by. Although Blanks had captained the otherwise all-white Texas A&I team, the 21-year-old was being introduced to a new life experience in the South.
“I finally got a skycap to tell me, ‘You need to get the right cab, because you’re colored.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘They won’t pick you up … It’s a little different here. If you’re colored, you just can’t ride in any cab,’ ” Blanks said.
Buffalo Bills fullback Cookie Gilchrist summoned up a sense of humor. When told he had to find a “colored cab,” Gilchrist quipped: “I don’t care what color the taxi is – I just want to get to my hotel.”
Gilchrist got his ride downtown but only because the cabbie spotted 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. This, apparently, resulted from a new (or perhaps temporary) Taxicab Bureau policy that gave drivers with the proper permit the option of transporting black and white passengers – but only if the party who hailed the cab was from the hack’s own race.
Although they had been assured by organizers of the all-star game that the welcome mat would be rolled out, the players were already on their way to taking the unprecedented step of calling a boycott. The cabbies had laid the groundwork and the hotels followed suit.
The West team was stationed at the Roosevelt Hotel, grudgingly integrated just weeks earlier following the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The East was housed several miles away at the Fontainebleau motel. Like most tourists, the men unpacked, showered and prepared for an evening on the town.
At around 4 p.m. that Saturday, San Diego cornerback Dick Westmoreland, who played on the North Carolina A&T team quarterbacked by Jesse Jackson, was dressed up and ready to hook up with a couple of his West Coast colleagues. Their destination was the French Quarter. But the Southern “way of life” was lying in wait. Westmoreland got no further than the elevator before colliding with it.
“I thought I was pretty sharp,” said Westmoreland. “I had a nice brown suit on. And some cologne: Aqua Velva or whatever it was in those days. Anyway, there was an elderly white lady on the elevator with us. She was looking kinda stern; she must have been 70 or 80.
“She made a statement as we were getting off. She said: ‘What is that smell?’ Like we were smelling bad or something to that effect. And I said [to myself]: ‘It’s not me, because I have some cologne on.’”
Then there were the restaurants.
Buffalo Bill tight end Ernie Warlick and a small contingent of teammates set out from the Fontainebleau bound for the French Quarter and its legendary cuisine. They wound up at a restaurant where they digested a steaming dose of homegrown racism.
“I went to hang my coat up on the hanger, and this white couple said: ‘Don’t put your coat next to ours, put it over there somewhere,’ ” Warlick told me.
Every time the men picked up the coats to rehang them, someone else would leave their table, cross to the coatrack and toss the garments on the floor.
“I said, ‘My goodness,’ ” Warlick added. “ ‘What are we into here?’ ”
(Memories can fail over the decades. An account in Larry Felser’s book, The Birth of the New NFL, said Warlick was out with white teammates Kemp, later the 1996 Republican vice-presidential candidate, and linebacker Mike Stratton, but wasn’t allowed inside any restaurant despite Kemp’s best efforts. The coat hanger incident may have taken place over breakfast the next morning at the motel.)
The next stop proved among the most distasteful in an evening that was rapidly turning into a running battle with the locals. The guys from Buffalo happened upon a club where the racial heat was cranked up full blast, courtesy of a front-door barker.
“They had a guy out front who said, ‘Everybody come on in, come on in! Great show tonight!’ ” Warlick related. “We started in, but he said: ‘Whoa, not your kind, we won’t serve you. You can’t come in.’ So we tried another couple of places and said the heck with this and we went back to the motel.”
After extricating himself from the one-woman welcoming committee in the elevator, Westmoreland and his cohorts on the San Diego defense – tackle Ernie Ladd and end Earl Faison – continued their bid to squeeze in an evening of relaxation. They were accompanied by Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Dave Grayson and the only white among the group, Walt Sweeney, the Chargers’ offensive guard.
The players had no trouble hailing a cab, possibly because Sweeney was with them. They arrived on Bourbon Street and commenced strolling about. The Chargers entourage had no way of knowing the danger ahead.
The boisterous Ladd was the easiest man to spot in the group of Chargers-cum-tourists. At 6-foot-9 and 315 pounds, he was the largest gladiator in the league.
The players were subjected to mean-spirited catcalls as they sauntered up the narrow pavement: “You so-and-so’s get off the street! John F. Kennedy is not playing in here tonight,” Faison said.
No one was looking for trouble. But trouble is exactly what they got as the buddies closed in on a familiar funky beat pulsating out of the doorway of one joint. About that time “I Feel Good” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” were smash hits.
“We said, ‘James Brown! Let’s check it out!’ ” Westmoreland recalled, thinking for a moment that maybe they had stumbled upon a black club. “We got to the doorway – they had doorkeepers at all of the clubs down there – and the guy said: ‘Y’all can’t come in here.’ My friend Earl Faison saw the gun, but I didn’t see it at the time.”
Neither did Ladd. The sack artist, who later carved out a second career as a pro wrestler, segued into his gregarious persona: “I’ll snatch these doors off [the hinges]. What do you mean I can’t come in?” said Westmoreland, quoting the gargantuan tackle who died in 2007.
It’s impossible now to say whether the doorman took Ladd’s bluster as a real threat. But one word quickly led to another.
“We had it going back and forth: ‘If we can’t come in, why do you have black music on? Take that music off,’ ” Westmoreland summarized. “I was rabble-rousing myself. Talking a little smack.”
The unnerved bouncer, not used to such direct sparring with black men, believed he needed an equalizer, some kind of courage. And that courage came in the form of a Smith & Wesson.
“The doorman had a gun in his waistband,” said Grayson. “He pointed it at Ernie and told him if he walked through the door, he was going to kill him.”
“This little guy pulls out a gun [cocks it and says] ‘You are not coming in here. You n—–s are not coming in here,” Faison recalled. “We recoiled, we jumped back. Ernie Ladd lunges forward. The guy points the gun at Ernie Ladd’s nose: ‘I will pull the trigger.’ ”
No trigger was squeezed. No blood flowed. But the face-off had distracted the players from noticing a crowd gathering behind them. It was only about 20 people initially. By the time the belly-bumping was over, though, the cluster of onlookers had swelled to about 200.
No one panicked. The All-Stars were not intimidated since “football players are kind of crazy, like being warriors,” Westmoreland said.
Nonetheless, it was time to ratchet down the tension. One couldn’t battle 250 years of “way of life” right then, right there. After failing to hail cabs, the men walked back to the Roosevelt, where Ladd and Faison discussed the sorry state of affairs.
“I told Earl I wasn’t going to play in New Orleans under those conditions,” Ladd said. “Earl agreed and got in touch with [New York Jet tackle] Sherman Plunkett, who got us in touch with the other guys on the East squad.”
After the night’s episodes, word went out summoning the men to Room 990 at the Roosevelt the next morning.
“Cookie called me the next morning and said, ‘All the guys ran into some discrimination,’ ” said Warlick – old school all the way, who was still using that euphemism for racism 50 years later. “‘We’re having a meeting. We need to decide whether we’re going to play.’”
Meanwhile, the white players, unaware of what was unfolding in Room 990, boarded buses for practice. Coaches Lou Saban and Sid Gillman, head coaches for the East and West teams, respectively, were readying for a practice that turned out to include only a fraction of their teams.
“The bus was like a third empty,” said Ron Mix, a white San Diego tackle. “And the coach said, ‘Where is everybody?’ Somebody said, ‘None of the black players are here. They’re all in a meeting.’ ”
“I got on the bus to go to practice,” Denver Bronco defensive back Goose Gonsoulin recalled. “Then I looked around and there were no black players.”
In Room 990, the players initially weren’t in a fired-up mood. Ironically, some of them were watching an all-star football game – the rival NFL’s Pro Bowl on CBS. Mix got approval from the befuddled Gillman to take a shot at addressing the black men to see what their concerns were. (Mix and Kemp were the only two whites whose names have surfaced as being present at the meeting.)
Mix chatted briefly with his Chargers teammate Faison and the Oakland Raiders’ Clem Daniels near the doorway, asking for a chance to talk. The two said OK. Mix, who wrote an account for Sports Illustrated that ran two weeks after the incident, realized his audience didn’t want to hear any message of a better day coming. Even before saying a word, Mix knew “their minds were set; nothing would change them.”
Art Powell, the Raiders wide receiver, interrupted Mix and laid it on the line.
“Look, we know we aren’t going to change these people,” he said. “But neither are they going to change us. We must act as our conscience dictates.”
Mix countered that the men would be “bad examples” for blacks everywhere who couldn’t just get up and leave.
“I suppose it would be better to stay here and by doing so imply that we accept such treatment for ourselves and our people?” Powell responded. “Do you want us to condone it?”
Kansas City Chiefs halfback Abner Haynes summed up the discussion, telling Mix that city big shots would be descending on them within minutes pleading: “‘Let us work it out. What can we do to make it up?’ … [But] we’ve got to do what we believe is right.”
As if on cue, the big shots came knocking. Ladd felt certain there would be an African-American intercessor. Sure enough, Ernest Morial, field secretary for the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP, had received an urgent call from game officials asking him to come down to the Roosevelt pronto. He was assigned the thankless job of talking “sense” to his black brethren.
“I met with the players and asked them not to leave immediately, but to give us 24 hours to see if the matter could be worked out to the satisfaction of the entire community,” said Morial, who later would become the first black mayor of New Orleans. “[But] in the final analysis, it was their decision.”
Outside the door, the press had set up shop. One reporter wrote: “The city had marshaled all [its] mover and shakers … Some wild talking was going on.”
Some of that talk was wearing on the increasingly frantic promoter, Dave Dixon. Of all the dozens of city officials and organizers, Dixon had the most to lose. For more than five years, he had been meticulously devising a campaign to impress the NFL into granting him and the city an expansion franchise.
Suddenly, he was trapped in a totally unexpected nightmare. Everything he had planned for was about to go up in smoke.
“[Dixon] said: ‘Please don’t go! We’ve got this game to play!’ ” Warlick related. “And we said: ‘You should have thought about that before.’ ”
In the wake of the Dixon-Morial tag team, the players agreed to vote on a resolution over whether to leave.
The exact results aren’t memorialized. Some recalled it being unanimous while other reports said it was more like 16 to 3. It made no difference. The more vociferous veterans – primarily Gilchrist, Daniels and Powell – led the way.
“All the guys who swung the most influence wanted to leave,” Warlick said.
Gilchrist, having virtually chaired the meeting, which lasted a couple of hours, was now calling it to a close. There was one final bit of business – how to handle the press waiting outside the door. Gilchrist, who had a reputation for battling with management — just six weeks earlier he walked off the field in the middle of a game, claiming he wasn’t getting the ball enough – feared he would be viewed as the leading rabble-rouser and he wasn’t going to fall into that stereotypical trap.
“We need an older guy,” he said. “Ernie, you be the spokesman.”
With that, the players bolted, leaving Warlick behind. “I sat there and wrote something,” Warlick said modestly. His 110-word statement said the men couldn’t play under “adverse conditions” in which “recreational facilities and transportation were not available to the Negro players and service was refused.”
Within hours, most of the boycotting players were back on planes home. Daniels later groused that the hospitality promised by Dixon was as phony as a Confederate $3 bill. “They told us to bring your wife and kids. There will also be a golf tournament. It sounded like a big picnic.”
At the airport, Gilchrist was feeling uneasy. He complained of having become “the target of anyone angry over the game having been moved from New Orleans. Even though Ernie Warlick was acting as the public face of the boycott, everyone blamed me.”
With white passengers milling about – and with the boycotters’ faces popping up on TV monitors – Gilchrist was rocked by a solitary thought: “Suddenly, I felt like everyone in the airport was looking at me, and for the first time in my life I feared for my safety. All of the stories I had heard of violence toward Negroes in the South came rushing back to me.”
Rookie teammate Butch Byrd felt the same way. Byrd told me: “What I remember vividly was the tail end of the situation – where I was scared.”
Two days later, the teams reassembled in Houston. The AFL had decided to move the game to that more tolerant city, where the teams kicked off the following Saturday afternoon. A paltry 15,446 fans showed up on short notice at Jeppesen Stadium, the Houston Oilers’ home field, to watch the West stomp all over the East, 38-14.
Dixon had plenty to say in the boycott’s wake. He told The New York Times the boycotters had unjustly sullied New Orleans’ reputation, complaining their “militant action … would not only damage the city, but would greatly retard efforts by men of good will of both races to achieve harmony.”
Over the next two years, the racial climate began to change in New Orleans. Black bus passengers, discovering African-American drivers behind the wheel for the first time, no longer had to head to the back of the bus. Blacks could now shop at Canal Street department stores. Restaurants and grocery stores slowly ended the custom of having African-American customers go to side windows for service.
And Dixon – with the NFL’s blessings and backed by a civic campaign to get the Superdome erected – eventually became co-owner of the Saints. A photo of the team’s inaugural 1967 team showed 10 blacks on the 48-man squad.
Years later, Ladd saw the boycott as a matter of principle.
“Someone had to take a stand and stop players from being treated as second-class citizens,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “We didn’t do it for publicity. We did it because of what was right and what was wrong.”