Heritage Moments: The Buffalo Bills and the black players’ All-Star boycott of 1965

Jan 18, 2016

The 1965 AFL All-Star Game boycott by black players was a landmark moment in American sports. The previous generation of African-American athletes had all it could do to break the color barrier and secure footholds on professional rosters. But in 1965, the AFL’s new generation of black players upped the ante considerably, taking direct political action against racism for the first time -- and several Buffalo Bills helped lead the way.


The walkout was a spontaneous reaction to the racial segregation and outright hostility the black All-Stars encountered upon arriving in New Orleans for the game in early January. The city was angling for an expansion team in either the AFL or the more established NFL, and viewed the game as a chance to showcase the appeal of the Big Easy.

But as soon as they reached New Orleans a week before the game, black players felt the sting of overt racism. Ernie Warlick and Cookie Gilchrist of the AFL. champion Buffalo Bills were refused service in a white taxi (according to some accounts, a third black Bills player, Elbert Dubenion, was with them). So were the San Diego Chargers Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison and the Oakland Raider Clem Daniels. A Bourbon Street club would not serve Oakland’s Art Powell. Warlick was barred entry to a club; the white Bills players Jack Kemp and Mike Stratton, who were with him, left in protest. Several black players reported hearing muttered insults from restaurant and hotel patrons, and bands abruptly stopping the music when they entered the room.*

The next day, the entire contingent of 22 black All-Stars on the East and West squads convened for a meeting, led by Ladd, Gilchrist and Daniels. They voted to boycott the game and received a pledge of support from white players led by Kemp and the Chargers’ Ron Mix. (Kemp, the Bills quarterback, founded the AFL players’ union and went on to become a nine–term congressman from the Southtowns; Mix became a lawyer after retiring from football.) The All-Star coaches, Lou Saban of the Bills and Sid Gillman of the Chargers, also supported the black players’ decision.

Warlick was chosen the group’s spokesman. An older player at 32, he was seen as less militant than the others, and with a manner more acceptable to a wide audience. (Warlick went on to become a WGR-TV sportscaster, the first black personality to anchor a newscast on Buffalo television.) He read the statement announcing the walkout, and though it seems tame by today’s standards, it contained a revolutionary message: “Because of adverse conditions and discriminatory practices,” the league’s black players had “decided to withdraw from the All-Star Game.”

With the white players honoring the boycott, the league hastily arranged to move the game to Houston, where it was played on the date originally scheduled, Jan. 16. The AFL's black players had publicly punished New Orleans for racism -- an action that would have been considered unthinkable only a couple of years earlier. And several Buffalo Bills were in the forefront of the movement.

“It was a major positive response by black ballplayers,” remembered Butch Byrd, another African-American All-Star from the Bills. “It was time for black athletes to stand up for what was right.”

*Although there are several books and magazine articles on the subject, Bills fans will take special interest in the account of the 1965 AFL All-Star Game in the oral history “Rockin’ the Rockpile: The Buffalo Bills of the American Football League,” by Jeffrey L. Miller.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Ernie Warlick: Ron Hicks
White Cabbie: James Toback
Cookie Gilchrist: Antoine Lanier
Jack Kemp: Thomas J. Reigstad
Lou Saban: Jesse Tiebor
Narrator: Susan Banks
Black Player: Xavier Harris

Sound recording: Micheal Peters and Connor De Junco (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Post-production: Kim Ferullo (Chameleon Communications, 510 Franklin St., Buffalo)

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)
Jesse Tiebor (Casting Hall Productions, Buffalo State Theater Dept., 2014-15 academic year)

Special thanks to:
Jeremy Catania
Paul Martin
Brian McDermott, WBNY general manager, 2014-15 academic year
Connor De Junco, WBNY production director, 2014-15 academic year
Anthony Chase, assistant dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Buffalo State
Ronald Smith, professor, and Thomas McCray, assistant professor, Buffalo State Communication Dept.  

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein