The concept of athlete empowerment didn’t begin with LeBron James or Colin Kaepernick, or even Curt Flood or Muhammad Ali. It might have its roots in Mobile.
In August 1963, six African-American members of the Oakland Raiders refused to play in an exhibition game versus the New York Jets at Ladd Stadium, which then had segregated seating. The game was subsequently moved to Oakland, which had no such policy of fans of different races sitting together at sporting events.
The incident was an embarrassment for Alabama, a state whose national reputation was regularly getting pummeled during a watershed year in the civil rights movement. And it demonstrated the power that athletes wielded when they spoke out as one about social injustice.
“The decision that was made was the only one that could be made, not only from our players’ point of view, but from the whole morality of the thing,” Raiders coach/general manager Al Davis told the Oakland Tribune at the time.
Ernest F. Ladd Memorial Stadium opened in Mobile in 1948, a 40,000-seat venue that was billed as the premier football palace along 400 miles of the Gulf Coast. The stadium — named for a local banker — hosted a full slate of high school games, as well as a number of college games each year. It added the Senior Bowl college all-star game in 1951.
Rea Schuessler Jr., a decorated World War II veteran who had moved to Mobile after working as sports information director at the University of Alabama, served as spokesman for the Mobile Arts & Sports Association and managed Ladd Stadium.
As the ’50s unfolded, the association came up with a yet another game idea: to line up an annual pro football exhibition to kick off the stadium’s season and benefit local charities.
The American Football League obliged in 1960, having formed earlier that same year as a rival to the established NFL. The Houston Oilers were matched that August or September at Ladd against the New York Titans. The Oilers played that exhibition again in 1961 against the Denver Broncos, and in 1962 against the Buffalo Bills.
All of those professional exhibition games were integrated on the field, with African-Americans and whites playing both against each other and with each other. The stands, however, remained racially segregated.
For the 1963 game, Mobile landed the New York Jets, the former Titans who had re-branded themselves when Hollywood agent Sonny Werblin bought the franchise, and a team that hadn’t been to Mobile before, the Oakland Raiders. The game was scheduled for Aug. 23.
“There had been virtually no integration in Mobile by that point, with two notable exceptions: the city-owned golf course, which had been ordered to desegregate by U.S. District Judge Dan Thomas in 1961, and the public library system, which quietly integrated later that same year in anticipation of a similar court order,” said Scotty Kirkland, an historian who is in the process of writing a book about race relations in Mobile during the 20th century.
“Segregation was just the air that you breathed in 1963 in Mobile — particularly if you were white and privileged and thought that was what the air should consist of,” said Frye Gaillard, a longtime newspaper reporter and author who grew up in Mobile in the 1960s.
Alabama was the epicenter of the American Civil Rights Movement in 1963. Here Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker announce an agreement with Birmingham businesses to desegregate certain sevices and jobs in the city. (Birmingham News file photo by Tom Self)
But change was wafting in the air in 1963. In late April, mass demonstrations roiled Birmingham when Black citizens took to the streets to demand an end to discrimination in hiring practices and public accommodations. The world watched on May 2 as Birmingham police turned firehoses and dogs on protesters, many of them teenagers.
Gov. George Wallace made his infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” at the University of Alabama on June 11. That night, President John F. Kennedy addressed a nationwide audience on television, calling for changes that would eventually be embodied in the framework of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The following day, Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in the driveway of his Jackson home.
Four African-American members of the Raiders — running back Clem Daniels, wide receivers Art Powell and Bo Roberson and defensive back Fred Williamson — decided to have no part in a game in Alabama. Williamson, speaking for all four, told the San Francisco Examiner, “The situation down there is pretty tight now and we do not intend to play football in an area where a Negro can’t eat or sleep in a place of his own choosing.”
The Raiders were more of a melting pot than most pro football teams of the era, having several African-American players and also a Mexican-American quarterback in Tom Flores. The team had run into segregation previously during road trips to places such as Houston and Dallas, Flores recalled to AL.com, with many restaurants and hotels refusing to serve the team’s Black players (He said most times he escaped such racism, being relatively light-skinned and wearing his hair in a crew cut).
As controversy about the Mobile exhibition gained media traction, Davis, then in his first season guiding the Raiders’ fortunes, said he backed the four players. The four would travel with the team to Mobile, but would not participate in the game.
That’s how Davis was, Flores told AL.com. “He seemed to look right through it — it didn’t matter what color you were or what kind of shoes you wore or how long you wore your hair. As long as you worked within the rules of the Raiders, worked hard, played hard, you were good with him.”
Coach and general manager Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders poses today December 17, 1963 in Oakland, Calif. on practice field with six of his players who have been named to the Associated Press 1963 All-Star team of the American Football League. From left: defensive halfback Tommy Morrow and Fred Williamson, linebacker Archie Matsos, halfback Clem Daniels, center Jim Otto and end Art Powell. (AP Photo/Robert Klein)
Mobile operated on the City Commission form of government at the time, with each of the three elected commissioners rotating the mayoral duties. Mobile’s mayor in 1963 was Charles Trimmier, who also served in the state Legislature and was the host of a popular hour-long religious broadcast on local television.
That fall, Murphy High became the first integrated public school in Mobile County following a lawsuit led by local civil rights activist John L. LeFlore. On Aug. 12, LeFlore — who was also associate editor of the Mobile Beacon, a local weekly African-American run newspaper — petitioned the City Commission calling for “the immediate integration of all city parks, playgrounds, and publicly owned and operated facilities.”
While Commissioners Joseph Langan and George McNally at least wanted to study the issue, Trimmier was staunchly opposed. As Kirkland described it, Trimmier accused LeFlore of “fomenting insurrection and threatening to upend the harmony of race relations in Mobile.”
Meanwhile, game week at Ladd Stadium was approaching. The Raiders and Jets were due to arrive in town on Aug. 22, the day before the game.
Mobile city officials scrambled to put a good face on things. Plans were made for a “quiet integration,” that is, personnel from Brookley Air Force Base would be seated in such a way that they’d act as a kind of buffer between African-American fans and white fans.
The four Raiders players — who by this time were joined by tackle Proverb Jones and halfback Eugene White — said that wasn’t satisfactory. The six players said they would sit out the game unless the stands at Ladd Stadium were fully integrated.
“We don’t want four boys from Oakland telling us how to run our stadium. We were going to integrate quietly. Now we are going to go ahead as in the past, for other exhibition games here.”
— Rea Schuessler Jr., Ladd Stadium manager in 1963
An Aug. 20, 1963, report in the Oakland Tribune by sports editor George Ross carried the headline “Mobile Seating Snafu — Six Raiders Out.” It also contained some inflammatory comments from Schuessler, who seemed to resent being pressured by “outside forces” to change the stadium’s seating policy.
“We don’t want four boys from Oakland telling us how to run our stadium,” Schuessler said. “We were going to integrate quietly. Now we are going to go ahead as in the past, for other exhibition games here.”
Trimmier at least publicly appeared to be diplomatic, declaring that his hands were tied because the stadium was privately owned. (The city of Mobile took over ownership of Ladd Stadium in 1983; it was renamed Ladd-Peebles Stadium in 1997).
Trimmier called the boycott a “step backward” for race relations in Mobile. “I’m going to do all I can to resolve this situation so the full Oakland team can play,” Trimmier said. “I think this is a shame.”
Kirkland, looking at the situation from six decades later, said Trimmier’s move was a ruse. Trimmer had been elected as city commissioner by a slim margin in 1961 after LeFlore’s Non-Partisan Voters’ League had endorsed incumbent Charles Hackmeyer.
“There’s no evidence I’ve seen that he actually meant to do anything of the sort,” Kirkland said. “His opposition just a few weeks earlier to John LeFlore’s integration petition suggests to me that this was a face-saving measure on his part to a national audience and little else.”
Meanwhile, said Kirkland, Schuessler’s claim that the Ladd board had intended to “quietly integrate” the stadium, then changed its mind after learning of the African-American players’ public statement, provides “a real snapshot” of the city leadership’s approach to race relations. “It had to be done on their timetable, according to their stipulations, and any prodding for a faster or more widespread approach, by locals or outsiders, was met with intransigence,” Kirkland said.
There might have been another issue as well as Ross, the Oakland editor, said that Mobile Press-Register sports editor Vincent Johnson explained to him. Putting Black fans in any other section than what was designated would mean they would have to share restrooms with white fans (or not have access to the restrooms at all), an untenable situation in the Jim Crow South of 1963.
AFL Commissioner Milt Woodard said that the league had requested the stadium be integrated for the game. He noted that although AFL games in Mobile had been played without incident the previous three years, the “climate has changed.”
Daniels said he wanted to be treated as a citizen. Davis was even more vociferous defending his players, saying, “It is their life, and it is a much bigger thing than a football game.”
With neither side willing to budge, the game was canceled at the AFL’s request. It was hastily re-scheduled for the following Sunday, Aug. 25, at Oakland’s Frank Youell Field.
“This puts us in the light of reversing recent trends toward a better status for all the people of Mobile,” Trimmier told reporters. “I am deeply disappointed.”
While Schuessler could be portrayed as the chief antagonist in this affair, he certainly was not acting alone. He was merely manager of Ladd Stadium. J. Finley McRae — CEO of Merchants National Bank, president of the Mobile Arts & Sports Association and the man largely responsible for both building Ladd Stadium and for bringing the Senior Bowl to Mobile — was the power behind the throne regarding football matters in the city.
In this Aug. 4, 1963, file photo, Oakland Raiders head coach and general manager Al Davis looks on during the first AFL exhibition game of the season against the Boston Patriots at Youell Field in Oakland, Calif.(AP Photo/File)
A day after the Mobile exhibition cancellation, Ross, who died in 2015 at age 98, headlined his sports column in the Oakland Tribune “The Integration Bowl.” He wrote:
“They didn’t even go there, yet here they are winners over Mobile in the Integration Bowl. They wiped ‘em out.
“The game finally came down to a matter of principle … and darned if Oakland didn’t shut Mobile out, about 99-0.
“Mobile had a chance to win, but blew it.
“All Mobile had to do was recognize that the Civil War is, finally and completely, lost, and that the Negro who lives there is a full citizen of the United States and of Alabama. And entitled to pursue his happiness in 50-yard line seats like anybody else. And even to use the men’s room.
“Mobile wasn’t up to it. At least the seven men who run Ladd Memorial Stadium weren’t up to it.”
“I wanted to play in Mobile before an integrated crowd and contribute in a small way to the breaking down of these needless prejudices.”
Clem Daniels, Oakland Raiders halfback
In time, Daniels, who died in 2019, would express a sadness at the game’s cancellation and a wistfulness for what might have been. “I wanted to play in Mobile before an integrated crowd and contribute in a small way to the breaking down of these needless prejudices,” he said. “I have (family) in the South and it would be letting them down to have given in, especially to play before a segregated crowd in an area where dogs have been turned loose on human beings, and fire hoses used to break up demonstrations by young people.”
The six Raiders players received widespread congratulations back in Oakland, with local NAACP chairman Don McCallum saying the boycott “warrants the enthusiastic public support of their position.”
Werblin, the New York Jets owner, also backed the Raiders, telling the Associated Press he “could not reconcile my or the Jets’ part in a game so conducted.”
A story in the Oakland Tribune quoted each of the six players who’d led the game boycott. Williamson was quoted as saying, “It shows how backward this society is and it shows the typical feeling in the South. I don’t see how they can use words like ‘segregation’ and ‘democracy’ in the same breath. I feel sorry for them.”
The Mobile Press-Register was loath to wade too deeply into the controversy. A story published Aug. 20 indicating the game would go on as scheduled contained no byline, as was common at the time among Southern papers with stories regarding race-related issues.
The following day, the newspaper ran an Associated Press wire story about the game’s cancellation. Schuessler was not quoted other than to say that anyone who bought tickets for the game would receive a refund.
“Like the leaders of most Southern cities of the era, Mobile officials abhorred any kind of publicity about race relations that they could not totally control,” Kirkland said. “So the attempt here is to pivot, to make the Oakland players responsible for the stadium’s segregated seating, and in a way to shame them for speaking out to begin with.”
Johnson, the Press-Register sports editor, addressed the game’s cancellation in a pair of “From the Bench” columns on Aug. 21 and Aug. 23. In the first he noted that the “racial question … seared the game out of existence.” He also indicated that it was the Jets who requested that the game be canceled, which they had not done when they played before a segregated crowd in Shreveport, Louisiana, vs. the Houston Oilers on Aug. 9.
Johnson predicted that an NFL preseason doubleheader set for Sept. 7 in New Orleans might be undone as well. “New Orleans has apparently relaxed its laws but you can’t tell about these things,” Johnson wrote. “Mobile enjoyed excellent relations along those lines yet a game was snatched from it.”
John LeFlore, shown here in September 1963, is a legendary figure in the Civil Rights history of Mobile. He was head of the local chapter of the NAACP and co-publisher of the city’s African-American interest newspaper. Mobile’s Toulminville High School was re-named in his honor. (Press-Register file photo)
The New Orleans games went on as scheduled, so far as is known in the public record.
In the Raiders’ re-scheduled game, they won 43-16 before a crowd of 8,317 in Oakland. Daniels scored two touchdowns, on a 50-yard run and a 15-yard reception from quarterback Flores.
In Mobile the following May, Murphy High School held the first integrated commencement exercise at Ladd Stadium. And the Senior Bowl featured African-American players for the first time on Jan. 9, 1965, although this took some arm-twisting.
NBC Sports had canceled its broadcast of the Blue-Gray All-Star Classic — held each Christmas Day in Montgomery — because game organizers refused to integrate. Fearing a similar fate for the Senior Bowl (also broadcast by NBC), the game leadership added four African-American players to the rosters: Florida A&M’s Bob Hayes and Bob Felts and Michigan State’s Dick Gordon and Jerry Rush.
The 1965 Senior Bowl was a hit, though a lot of the credit probably goes to the presence of Alabama superstar Joe Namath. Before a sellout crowd of 40,605, Namath’s South team tied the North 7-7.
Freddie Sigler, who is African-American and is now in his 80s, said in a 2020 interview with iHeart Radio that he was hired to be a liaison and driver for Hayes, Felts, Gordon and Rush while they were in Mobile. He said that Schuessler provided him with a car for the week and gifted him with 50-yard-line tickets for the Senior Bowl game, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 having legally required integrated public accommodations.
“There was some resistance, and it wasn’t like everybody rushed out to integrate everything,” Gaillard said. “On the other hand, I was kind of surprised at how quickly … things changed visibly after the Civil Rights Act passed. I saw plenty of places where blacks and white would be eating in restaurants together by 1964 or 1965. You could feel the beginning of change in the air. Whereas in the summer of 1963, I didn’t feel that.”
“There was some resistance, and it wasn’t like everybody rushed out to integrate everything.”
Frye Gaillard, former reporter and Mobile native
And yet, to say that things suddenly changed in Mobile would also be an oversimplification. Gaillard said he vividly remembers bitter confrontations over school integration in the late 1960s, while Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson said that the city didn’t remove “colored only” signs from various public establishments until around 1972.
“I frequently find references to a small handful of laudatory national stories about race in Mobile published in the Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, and New York Times. Most of these articles suffer from the same problem of ‘Mobile-by-comparison,’” Kirkland said. “They look at the Port City through the lens of Birmingham, Montgomery, New Orleans or Atlanta, not solely on its own merit. You get a different picture of Mobile’s race relations if you eschew these comparisons and examine it in real time on its own. This story I think is a good example of that.”
The incident seems to be largely forgotten, even by those who were alive at the time. Richardson (who is Black) and longtime Mobile city councilman and civic leader Reggie Copeland (who is white) were both adults living in Mobile in 1963, but both told AL.com they do not have any recollection of the canceled Raiders-Jets game at Ladd Stadium.
Said Richardson, “I have no knowledge of that incident.”
Robert Battles, a longtime member of the Mobile County School Board, graduated from all-Black Mobile Central High School in 1964. He said he remembers the canceled Raiders-Jets game only in vague terms.
“I remember it,” said Battles, who played his high school football games at Hartwell Field, the former home of the Mobile Bears baseball team. “I don’t remember it vividly, but I remember it happening. I really need to read up on it more.”
Rea Schuessler Jr., Ladd Stadium’s manager in 1963, is pictured at left. Charles Trimmier, the city’s mayor that year, is pictured at right. (Press-Register file photos)
Many of the key participants in the 1963 Raiders’ boycott of Ladd Stadium are long dead. Trimmier (who later unsuccessfully ran for Congress) died in a car accident in 1967.
Schuessler ran the Senior Bowl until his death from cancer in 1980. He was elected to the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame in 2019.
“You had to like him,” Eddie Menton wrote in the Mobile Register upon Schuessler’s death. “He was an honest man, a man of integrity. Rea shot straight, as the saying goes. He didn’t often mince words. He said what he thought and what he felt.”
Schuessler’s son, Rea III, became one of the top golfers in the Southeast and now runs a golf academy in Gulf Shores. He said he and his father “never talked business much.”
“I was only 20 when he died,” the younger Schuessler said, “but I would go to games with him at Ladd Stadium when I was a kid and he interacted with everybody, Black and white. It seemed like he knew everybody and was friends with everybody.”
LeFlore died in 1976 at age 73. Toulminville High School was re-christened John L. LeFlore High School in 1981.
McRae, inducted alongside Schuessler in the 1990 Senior Bowl Hall of Fame class, died in 1982. The Mobile Press-Register eulogized him on its editorial page, writing that “his death leaves a gap with no bridge to span it.”
“He was the leader in getting the Senior Bowl here and getting Ladd Stadium built, because his bank was the one that handled the bond issue,” Copeland said. “He would take proceeds from the various games and pay down that debt.”
The official Senior Bowl programs from 1963 and 1964 list both McRae and Schuessler as among six Mobile Arts and Sports Association officers, along with T.K. Jackson Jr., Henry F. Schaub, Victor H. Lott and John F. Lyle. All were affiliated with McRae’s Merchants National Bank (which merged into First Alabama Bank in the mid-1980s and is now part of Regions Bank), and all are many years deceased.
Davis coached the Raiders until 1965, after which he served a one-year stint as AFL commissioner. He eventually assumed control of the Oakland franchise through a series of leveraged buyouts, and ran the Raiders as principal owner and general manager until his death in 2011 at age 82. (Along the way, he won three Super Bowls — two with Flores as head coach — and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.)
Williamson played pro football through 1967, spending the final three years of his career with the Kansas City Chiefs. Like Jim Brown, he traded in his helmet and shoulder pads for a career as an action movie star, headlining or appearing in such films as Black Caesar (1973), Three the Hard Way (1974), Original Gangstas (1996) and Starsky & Hutch (2004).
Now 78, Williamson lives near Flores in the Palm Springs area of California; Flores said the two former players’ wives are especially close. Attempts to reach Williamson for this story were not successful.
Among the other five, Daniels died most recently, in 2019 at age 81. Among those who spoke at his funeral were Bay Area sports legends Bill Russell, Joe Morgan and Jim Otto, as well as former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. Flores called Daniels “a dear friend and just an outstanding, outstanding individual.”
After Daniels led the AFL All-Star Game boycott in 1965, Black athletes around the country began to “find their voices” in speaking up for injustice. Ali refused induction into the military in 1967, causing him to be banned from boxing in the United States for more than three years.
“You have to have people to speak out and not just speak up, but they have to be active. They have to walk the walk and talk the talk.”
Tom Flores, former Oakland Raiders quarterback and head coach
At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos each held aloft a black-gloved hand during the national anthem, resulting in their being sent home from the Games. Flood retired rather than be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969, telling baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.”
Kaepernick sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem prior to NFL games also resulted in his being unofficially banned from the league. As college and professional sports have returned to play following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, we have seen widespread protests and public appeals for social justice from athletes of all races.
Flores, who worked on the Raiders’ radio broadcast crew up through 2018, said he sees parallels between current athletes speaking out against social injustice and what his Raiders teammates did in 1963.
“That’s what has to happen,” Flores said. “You have to have people to speak out and not just speak up, but they have to be active. They have to walk the walk and talk the talk. Lip service is cheap. Nowadays players have the platform and the microphone and they need to keep using it and using it wisely.”
Creg Stephenson is a sports reporter for AL.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CregStephenson.
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