Al Davis, civil rights pioneer.
Al Davis has been called many things. Innovator, rebel, leader, dictator; and many other things that are not for print. One thing many will remember him for though is as a civil rights leader. Al Davis had one goal in sports; winning. And because of that spirit, he didn’t care what color or sex you were. Just win baby.
Davis Stand against Racism in the 1960’s; The AFL makes history in a boycott:
The 1960’s was a heck of a time. It had a lot of turmoil due to military conflicts and racial injustice. From the college game to the NFL game, there were still many fans, coaches and administrators that didn’t like having blacks on their teams. We applaud the storied Alabama football program for it’s winning today but we forget it didn’t integrate black players until 1971 when John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson first played for the Crimson Tide. Even though the civil rights bill threatening to take away federal funding to schools that discriminated against African Americans was enacted in 1964, it took years for some schools to comply. In fact, even though they have tried to hide it, look at the Mormon Church and BYU’s history in the 1970’s in regards to race. Quite a read.
The same was seen at a smaller level in pro football. Even though there were many African American players, they were not welcomed by everyone with open arms. Al Davis really helped in opening doors for many people.
The AFL and Al Davis especially were different. In a 1963 exhibition game in Mobile, Alabama, Al Davis demanded the contest be moved to Oakland because he was not going to separate his players in segregated hotels. He also tried to do this in many other games through the 1960’s. When Raiders outspoken star Clem Daniels complained about the way black players were treated at the 1965 AFL All-Star game in New Orleans, Al Davis supported them when they voted to boycott the game unless it was moved. Other owners and commissioner Joe Foss joined the outcry. Even many white players including Ron Mix stated that they would no longer play in the game if it stayed in New Orleans. The organizer of the All-Star game went so far as to tell the minority players that they and their families were welcome in New Orleans but that was far from the case. African American players were left stranded at the airport with some not being able to get taxi’s while others were not allowed to go into restaurants and bars in the french quarter due to the color of their skin. Eventually the game was moved to Houston and even though it was a spur of the moment thing, Houston did a good job of hosting. AFL Commissioner Joe Foss wrote a letter to the people of Houston thanking them for the classy way they supported the AFL’s players. The actual letter is below. Pretty cool letterhead.
African American Colleges Play a Big Role in Player Drafts:
When he took over for the Raiders, Davis was one of the first to specifically target black/small colleges. Some of the greatest Raiders were from small or black colleges including Hall of Famer’s Gene Upshaw ( Texas A & I) and Art Shell (Maryland St.). Both Hall of Fame players were thought of as somewhat risky picks because they were from schools that were too small or too abstract.
When Raiders all world WR Warren Wells was in Texas state prison serving time, the Raiders had an important team celebration. Mr. Davis contacted the state of Texas stating that he would pay for security for Warren to attend, but the state denied the request. It didn’t matter that Warren was an African American to Al Davis. What was important was that he was a Raider.
The Good Old Boys Network Get’s a Shakeup:
When Davis hired Art Shell to be the first African American head coach, it had broken down decades of prejudice. It was groundbreaking and even today name all of the GM’s in the NFL that are African American or Hispanic? There aren’t very many, but of course the Raiders have one of them in Reggie McKenzie. Al Davis also hired the first Hispanic head coach in Tom Flores, and the first female executive in Amy Trask. If he thought you could do the job, he didn’t care if you were a blue smurf, he would hire you.
In an episode of HBO’s amazing series “Real Sports”, they talked about the lack of support and care for retired NFL players. One owner had an idea of building a hospital in Utah or another inexpensive state for the retired players that would be funded by the NFL retirement plan through the profits of the league. Who was the owner that created the plan and was the only one that voted yes for it? Al Davis.
There have been many white owners, coaches and players in pro footballs history who have done their part in helping to cross the barriers of prejudice and hate. None of them though did it with the confidence, fire and flare that Al Davis did. On the field Mr. Davis didn’t want to lose and he didn’t want to tie. He wanted one thing and that was to win. And if you could help the Raiders get to that goal, he wanted you and you were a Raider brother for life no matter what your religion or race was. Especially in today’s America, wouldn’t it be nice if that was the way things were?
Sadly we still have a long way to go in eliminating hate and prejudice, but it’s people like Martin Luther King Jr.; and to an extent Al Davis; that gets us closer to that goal. I know today is MLK day but on this day I always think of Mr. Davis. From Terry Bradshaw to Derrick Thomas to the countless number of players from other teams that he supported during bad times, Mr. Davis really cared about them. The football world is not as fun without Mr. Davis but few see his other side because like most men his age, they didn’t want the attention it gave. The thing that everyone in football knows about Al Davis is that even though he loved the Raiders tough, renegade image, he had an awful soft heart under that ugly white jumpsuit.