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When football makes history: Bills lead the 1965 AFL All-Star game boycott

Posted Jan 16, 2015

Football and civil rights collided to make history exactly 50 years ago at the boycott of the 1965 AFL All-Star game in New Orleans.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had recently been passed, outlawing discrimination based on race. The Sugar Bowl had just taken place featuring a number of African American players, and no incidents of racism were reported. This isn’t to say race relations were calm – far from it – but everything seemed to be in place for a 1965 AFL All-Star game without incident in New Orleans.

Fresh off an AFL Championship, 10 Bills were on the Eastern Division All-Star Team that year, including rookie defensive back Butch Byrd.

“I was very eager to go,” Byrd said. “All these cabs were lined up in front of the airport [in New Orleans] 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. 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.”

Byrd didn’t realize it at the time, but his difficulty in hailing a cab on the first few tries was probably not a coincidence, and many of his African American teammates had already faced incredible discrimination upon their arrivals in New Orleans. Some received taxi rides to the wrong location and were forced to get out of the car; others couldn’t get a taxi at all. And that wasn’t the worst of it.

“One of the ballplayers was saying that a gun wasn’t pulled on him, but as he tried to make his way into a restaurant, the guy pulled back his jacket and showed the gun and said, ‘You’re not allowed,’” recalled Byrd.

After “a ball” of a night out on the town with a few fellow All-Stars, Byrd received a phone call early the next morning from Bills teammate Ernie Warlick telling him to come to a meeting in an hour in the hotel’s ballroom to decide whether or not they would play the game.

“I was taken aback,” said Byrd. “I heard the stories but personally, nothing had happened to me. So I went to the meeting and I won’t say every ballplayer was there, but the room was full, with white ballplayers and black ballplayers and a very emotional discussion was taking place.”

As Byrd recalls, Ernie Ladd of the Chargers and notable Bill Cookie Gilchrist were leading the discussion amongst the African American players, and Ron Nix of the Chargers and another memorable figure in Bills history, Jack Kemp, were leading the discussion amongst the white players.

“All the white ballplayers wanted to play,” said Byrd. “The black ballplayers didn’t know which way they wanted to go but Ernie Ladd and Cookie were so loud and so strong in there ascendance that soon they began to sway the black ballplayers.”

And Byrd? He wanted to play. He was coming off of a great rookie season and was thrilled to be included in a group of legendary football names at what would be his first of many All-Star games. But with Cookie at the helm, a decision was soon made.

“If you knew Cookie, he was very outgoing,” said Byrd. “He had his thoughts. He was single-minded. Like he did many times during games, he just took over and said what he had to say and made it stick. He was a natural leader.”

So the African American players gathered their luggage and headed back to the airport to return home that day, effectively initiating the boycott. They later found out the white players shortly followed suit.

“Ron Mix gave a little speech to the white ballplayers in the room and said, ‘Guys, I want to play the game, however I respect what the black ballplayers are going through, so I’m not playing.’ Then Jack said the same. So that turned the tide with the white ballplayers so none of them would play, because of the leadership of Mix and Jack.”

Byrd landed in Buffalo and headed home to find his wife on the phone, getting word right at that moment that the All-Star game had been moved to Houston. He didn’t even take his coat off and went right back to the airport.

The game went off without much to-do in Houston; the real history had already been made. The 1965 AFL All-Star game boycott was the first ever boycott of a professional sports game host city by the players themselves. At a time of widespread racial unrest and social indignity, the act transcended the sport.

“It didn’t dawn on me until I read accounts in various newspapers and you could see what an event this really was,” said Byrd. “We had to take a stand.”

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