“Taxi!” Clem Daniels shouted with his arm up as a cab cruised by him at the airport outside New Orleans. Then another call as another cab went by. Then another.
“What is it about the taxis in this town?” Daniels recalled thinking to himself as he and traveling companion Earl Faison struggled to get a ride downtown.
They were athletes from the American Football League, invited to play in the AFL All-Star Game, the first to be hosted outside one of the league’s member cities.
At the time — January 1965 — New Orleans was a prime candidate for a pro football team. In a sense, the city was auditioning to show its potential as it lobbied for an AFL franchise.
Fifty years later, players, politicians and civic leaders still can recall sharply what the game turned into instead: a mortifying symbol of how deeply entrenched racism remained despite the era’s landmark civil rights victories.
Daniels, an Oakland Raider who would retire as the AFL’s all-time leading rusher, and Faison, a five-time All-Star at defensive end for the San Diego Chargers, would eventually join other black players in an unprecedented boycott of the event.
In Daniels’ recollection, their experience at Moisant International Airport was the first bad sign. Cab after cab passed him, even as white players zoomed off without having to wait. When a black player went to hop in with a white teammate, the cabbie would say, “No, can’t go.”
Finally one of the porters told them, “Hey, you guys have to call a colored cab. They have to come from the city to get you.”
Hearing that, Daniels said, “I was ready to turn around and catch a return flight right then.”
Things got worse later. The West team was quartered at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Mid-City, and the East at the Roosevelt downtown, meaning they would have to use cabs to meet and mingle. But even in town, they said, cab service was spotty. Some black players said that when they did get a taxi, they were driven around in circles, then dropped off miles from their destinations.
When they went out, they said, they were denied access at some restaurants and nightclubs in the French Quarter. One player even claimed that a bouncer pulled a gun on him when he tried to enter.
Faison said he strolled into the crowded Playboy Club, where a group of people sat in the waiting area when he entered. “It was like magic. Everyone disappeared,” he said.
Buffalo Bills defensive end Ernie Warlick said in Jeff Miller’s oral history of the AFL, “Going Long,” that he hung his coat on a rack, and a white woman angrily told him not to put it next to her wrap. “On elevators, people would make little remarks, low but loud enough for you to hear, about blacks — only they didn’t use the word ‘blacks.’ ”
Daniels said he went into one club with three separate rooms, and the bands in each of them stopped playing when he entered. He had a drink in near-complete silence.
It reached a point where the players felt they had enough. Several of them take credit for leading the revolt, including Daniels, Buffalo fullback and renowned provocateur Cookie Gilchrist and the late Ernie Ladd, from Franklin and a member of the San Diego Chargers who returned to his native state to what seemed like a wall of insulting behavior.
“I orchestrated it,” Ladd said years later. “I waited for Earl, then said I wasn’t going to put up with this foolishness. I told him, ‘Let’s get all the black players together and get out.’ ”
The seed was planted.
Falling flat on a big stage
The All-Star Game presented a big stage for New Orleans, with an elite collection of athletes primed to put on a show. Nine of the 58 players on the combined East and West rosters were future Hall of Famers.
A crowd of 60,000, which would have been an AFL attendance record, was expected.
Elsewhere, America’s social upheaval was ongoing, with the landmark Selma march still two months away, and the game scheduled to be played on Jan. 16, six months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — outlawing discrimination in public accommodations — was passed.
Still, the offensive behavior aimed at black players in New Orleans — often perceived as one of the most moderate cities in the South on race relations — stunned many.
A lot of sports venues, even some in large cities, were still segregated, but Tulane Stadium had been integrated for years. Less than two weeks before the walkout, Syracuse University, with eight black team members, played LSU in a completely integrated Sugar Bowl, with Jim Nance, the Orangemen’s celebrated fullback, praising the city. “I’m going to tell everyone of the splendid treatment we received down here,” he said.
Moon Landrieu, then a state senator and later mayor of New Orleans, theorized that sometimes it takes time for enforcement to catch up with legislation. “I remember when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, excitedly telling my law school classmate Norman Francis, ‘It’s over, those terrible days of segregation are gone!’ ” he said.
“Six years later, when I was in the state Senate, I was fighting segregation laws in another form.”
Francis, now the distinguished retiring president of Xavier University but then a school administrator and young civil rights attorney, said the circumstances surrounding the walkout were disappointing.
“I’m not going to say New Orleans was perfect in any way,” he said. “We had — and have — problems. Some pretty serious. But New Orleans at that time was probably not as bad as other Southern cities. It was more cosmopolitan, to an extent, more open. I remember being very surprised — and very disappointed — at the situation.”
Local sports promoter Dave Dixon, who died in 2010, was the prime force in getting a pro team in New Orleans and in building the Superdome. He said later the loss of the All-Star Game was a sad incident but that he could not blame any man for not wanting to be subjected to indignities.
“It was just unfortunate to have occurred in New Orleans,” he added, “a city renowned for its predominantly live-and-let-live attitudes.”
The West players were sitting in a bus on their way to practice the day after arriving in town, and coach Sid Gillman, of the Chargers, was taking roll.
“Bobby Bell,” he shouted.
According to Ron Mix, somebody yelled, “Hey, all the black guys are missing,” and someone else said, “They’re meeting back at the hotel.”
A befuddled Gillman asked, “What about?”
Mix said he got off the bus and went to room 990 of the Roosevelt Hotel, where Gilchrist was leading a discussion among 21 black players. They were going over their grievances in loud voices, with reporters in the hallway taking notes of what was described as “wild talking.”
Dixon made a plea on behalf of the city, along with other local power brokers, including attorney Harry Kelleher, a tireless crusader in the area of public accommodations, and young lawyer Ernest N. Morial, then head of the local NAACP and later the city’s first black mayor.
Voices, overheard through the door, were pleading, “We’re asking you men, cooperate with us. This would be a deadly blow to our community, and it would undo all the good that has been done in this area. We have arranged for you men to have access to all of the better-class establishments — restaurants and nightclubs — in the French Quarter. Why penalize all of these people because some discriminated against you?”
One player responded, “You’re asking us to sacrifice our principles and play when the conditions that surround us outside are deplorable. This is an unfair request.”
Kelleher said later, “They seemed determined to stand on the brink.”
The black players put it to a vote, with the stipulation that if one voted to leave they would all leave. “We had to have solidarity,” Buffalo receiver Elbert Dubenion said. “That was important.”
The final tally is lost to history, but most remember the vote as either 18-3 or 13-8 to go. Warlick, the spokesman, said afterward, “All the guys who swung the most influence wanted to leave.”
At that point, Daniels remembers slapping Ladd on the leg as he got up and saying, “I’m outta here.”
On Jan. 11, five days before the game, the All-Stars started heading home.
The league quickly moved the game to Jeppesen Stadium in Houston.
Opinions on the decision varied.
New Orleans Mayor Victor Schiro made himself a punching bag by saying the black players should have just “rolled with the punches.”
Gov. John McKeithen puckishly noted, “There are some clubs down on Bourbon Street that won’t even let our district attorney (Jim Garrison) in.”
WWL-TV, owned then by Loyola University, wagged its finger at New Orleans in an editorial for its casual approach to things: “Either we are going to compete in this world of ours, as other cities are competing, oh, so successfully, or we close ourselves off from the rest of America and remain the petty, provincial capital of Limited Opportunity and dubious culture, which some seem to enjoy.”
But as ugly as this all was, not every voice condemned the city, pointing out that the perpetrators didn’t represent the entire populace.
A week afterward, Mix, a tackle for the Chargers, who is white, wrote a piece in Sports Illustrated, saying he sympathized with the black players but disagreed with the decision to leave. Mix said he told his black teammates, “You must look at the overall effects of your action. Will it serve any good to New Orleans? Hell, no. The whole city isn’t guilty.”
Columnist Dick Young, of the New York Daily News, wrote, “You don’t judge an entire town by some slob cab driver, because there are lots of good cabbies, and you don’t judge an entire city because some guy in some lousy gin mill insults you.”
One thing the black players’ boycott did do was end New Orleans’ flirtation with the AFL. No one in the town’s power structure wanted anything more to do with the league. Some began referring to the AFL as “the “Mickey Mouse League” in the local sports pages.
Dixon said even some of the black players had second thoughts.
In “Going Long,” Dixon said, “I went over to Houston and met with the guys. By then, all the AFL owners were very much on our side. And the players. Even Cookie (Gilchrist) came up and apologized: ‘Look, you’re a good guy. I’m really sorry.’ I think Cookie arrived in New Orleans with a slight chip on his shoulder. If you’re a black guy and you arrived like that, you’re going to find trouble.”
An unexpected outcome
Still, the episode did not kill New Orleans’ dream of getting a pro football franchise. A couple of weeks afterward, Dixon got a phone call from Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the older National Football League. He was still interested in the Crescent City, and he informed Dixon he was sending one of his key assistants, former Baltimore Colts All-Pro back Buddy Young, a black man, down to assess New Orleans’ racial climate.
Dixon was euphoric. He and Young proceeded to integrate New Orleans’ most famous restaurant, Antoine’s, by meeting in the center of the main dining room to discuss matters.
After spending some time checking out the situation, Young reported to Rozelle that New Orleans would pass any racial test with flying colors.
New Orleans moved ahead of such franchise-seeking locations as Cincinnati and Seattle.
Months later, when an anti-trust bill threatened to derail the merger of the two pro leagues, it was Louisiana’s heavy-hitting politicians, U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs, the House majority whip, and Sen. Russell Long, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who rescued the merger.
The upshot: Within 22 months of the AFL All-Star Game boycott, New Orleans was awarded the NFL’s 16th franchise, and within five years it was hosting its first Super Bowl.