By Andrew D. Linden
Amidst the ongoing Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in sport, highlighted by the recent protest led by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, many writers, pundits, and editorialists have looked back at the cultural peak of the 1960s “revolt of the black athlete” (See here, here, and here.) Many of the articles fondly remember those that led the movement. Journalists discussed athletes such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos, Billie Jean King, Peter Norman, Bill Russell, and Tommie Smith. Indeed, history tends to remember those athletes who started or led revolutions; what we often forget is the many others who followed. As Andrew McGregor mentioned on Monday, more and more players (in the NFL, in other levels of American football, and other sports) continue to join Kapernick’s protest. In the same way, a number of athletes in the 1960s, who do not now appear in major newspaper headlines or popular history books, made activism a central part of their identity. This post is one such story.
But, more importantly, it is also a story of how black NFL players in the early 1960s attempted to combine the broader Civil Rights movement with the American gridiron, and, in doing so, appeared to be momentarily victorious in a fight to end racism in one southern city: Roanoke, Virginia. However, what they found was only a victory on paper, something that I fear, without continuing efforts to contemporary protesters and allies alike, could happen in the current Kaepernick saga.
Steelers vs. Colts, Roanoke, Virginia (1961)
In 1961, the National Football League’s (NFL) Baltimore Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers planned to meet for an exhibition game prior to the beginning of the season. They scheduled the match for the second week of August in Roanoke, Virginia. Just months after the Freedom Riders traveled through the South, the game in Roanoke became a hotbed of racial controversy because of the city’s stance on seating segregation in public areas. Roanoke itself in the early 1960s was racially segregated and had a high white population (a trend that continues today). Of its 100,000 residents, only about 18,000 identified as black.
The Roanoke Chamber of Commerce planned to host the game between the Colts and the Steelers at the publicly-owned Victory Stadium, with all of the proceeds going to charity. Built in 1942, and named in honor of the Allies during World War II, the stadium became most famous for holding a Thanksgiving Day game between the Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Tech through the 1960s. It also hosted the high school championship game between T.C. Williams High School in Alexandra, Virginia, and Andrew Lewis High School, in Salem, Virginia, the season that was made (fictively) famous in the 2000 movie Remember the Titans.
Initially, stadium officials opened up its ticket windows to all consumers for the exhibition contest, hoping to bring in 24,000 fans for $4 a ticket. However, Virginia State authorities quickly stepped in and demanded that the stadium follow the southern practice and law of seating segregation during the NFL game. This directive brought together many black football players on each team along with the NAACP, and the southern clergy. They all attempted to end segregation at Victory Stadium.
Reverend RR Wilkinson, head of the Roanoke branch of the NAACP, quickly filed a discrimination lawsuit in the State Court of Virginia, with assistance from attorneys Reuben Lawson, George Laurence, and Harry T. Penn. Yet, within four days of the game, the courts still had not scheduled to hear the suit. Thus, Wilkinson embraced a different tactic. With overwhelming support from his Hill Street Baptist Church, where he served as pastor, Wilkinson reached out to the black NFL players on the Colts and Steelers. In a telegram to the twelve Steelers and seven Colts, he stated:
The Roanoke Branch of the NAACP is engaged in the struggle for equal rights, the opportunity to become first-class citizens and to abolish segregation. The Chamber of Commerce of Roanoke has refused to sell tickets for the game scheduled for Aug. 12, 1961, on an integrated or desegregated basis. The colored citizens of Roanoke would love to very much to see you play, but we deplore segregation, particularly in a stadium owned, maintained and operated by all the citizens of Roanoke. Won’t you join us in our fight for freedom by refusing to play in a segregated situation?
Already attuned to the situation through other channels, the Steelers and Colts took action. According to the Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s black newspaper, when Steelers coach Buddy Parker heard of the situation, he polled his players who overwhelmingly responded that “We won’t cross an NAACP picket line, to play in a stadium which segregates Negro fans.” Colts players quickly agreed.
In response, Wilkinson, Roanoke Chamber of Commerce official Jack Smith, lawyers, and team representatives, including Pittsburgh P.R. director Don Kellett, halfback Buddy Young, and the personnel director of the Colts, met in a downtown Roanoke hotel on the Wednesday before the game. While no minutes to the meeting appear to exist, afterward, the Roanoke officials decided to not follow Virginia segregation laws for the game at Victory Stadium. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced the agreement in a press release, stating:
I feel that because of the charities involved there will be a real benefit to the children of all races and the game is to be played with all players participating. The position of the Rev. Mr Wilkinson of the Roanoke NAACP is appreciated, and it is felt that the segregation law is repugnant to the American way of life. . . . The worthy cause and the hope of early court settlement of matters of this type permits the teams to play. This incident has focused the attention of the National Football League on the unhealthy condition existing in the cities of this type. I am hopeful that in future seasons clubs of the National Football League will not play games to segregated audiences.
After hearing of the decision, all nineteen players involved agreed to suit up for the exhibition contest, and they, as the Pittsburgh Courier proclaimed the next day, “held jim crow for downs.”
Although the papers portrayed the story as a triumphant victory for the black players of the Colts and Steelers, and the black citizens of Roanoke, Leonard “Lenny” Moore, the star running back for the Colts at the time, remembers a different tale, as he articulated in his autobiography years later.
[W]hen I went onto the field in the pregame warmup, I looked around the stands and it was obvious that black fans were still sitting in predetermined blocks of seats. I walked down the field, to the end zone, to meet some of the black kids. They were fenced in, like pigs in a pen. I had to reach through the chain-link fence in order to shake their hands. No image had ever made me realize, with such force, just what blacks have been up against all through American history: we have always been on the outside looking in. We are isolated by the spaces we have been allotted, watching society from a distance, given only a partial view of reality.
Moore’s memories suggest the political tensions that remained in the league, regardless of the coverage of an improving racialized terrain in the league in the postwar era, a message, on paper, that Rozelle hoped would spread because of the league’s decision. While the city appeared to respond to the threat of protest from the black football players, in practice, segregation remained.
This short story shows the successes and failures of attempted activism in the early 1960s. The black players involved were influenced by the broader Civil Rights movement. In his autobiography, for instance, Moore explains that when he arrived in Baltimore in the late 1950s, “the city was alive with debate” about the recent Martin Luther King Jr.,-led Montgomery bus boycott. Just like Kaepernick who has engaged aspects of the BLM movement, black football players brought in tenets of the broader struggle to end racism to the American gridiron. Moore’s and the other players’ protest, though, only brought about marginal change. On paper, Roanoke seemed a victory for the broader “revolt of the black athlete” (which would not be coined or reach its cultural peak until a few years later) But, in practice, it appeared to do little. Racism continued to run rampant in Virginia, throughout the rest of the country, and in professional football.
From Roanoke to Kaepernick
It is my hope that the Kaepernick-led protest merits more substantial change than the 1961 activism did in Roanoke, and in many other stories of black athletic protest that have occurred throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Although many have spoken out against him (there are, sadly, too many instances to link here), there have been a growing number of athletes who are joining Kaepernick in his protest.
But perhaps more importantly, there are a small (but growing) number of people across the United States who say they “respect” or “support” his actions. For example, the hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick emerged on Twitter, showing that although some people still disagreed with his choice of protest, they at least respected his choice. LeBron James has recently spoken out on Kaepernick. “You have the right to voice your opinion, stand for your opinion and he’s doing it in the most peaceful way I’ve ever seen someone do something.” Many coaches, like former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, have said that they do not support Kaepernick; however, there have been a small number of coaches in the major U.S. sports who have showed at least some support. Some, for example, like the Detroit Lions Jim Caldwell, have said they “respect” his rights. “Freedom of speech, freedom or religion in this country–that’s the great thing about this country.”
Others have offered more specific support.
For example, NBA coach of the Detroit Pistons Stan Van Gundy explained, “To me, in some ways, (police brutality is) just the most visible to focus on and it goes to deeper inequities in our criminal justice system, our education system so there’s so much to focus on.” Likewise, NBA coach of the Golden State Warriors, Steve Kerr, recently told a reporter that “one of the best things to come out of the Kaepernick issue is that people are talking, and that’s a good thing.” He continued, “No matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, I would hope that every American is disgusted with what is going on around the country, what just happened in Tulsa two days ago with Terence Crutcher.”
Recently, former Seattle Seahawk Marshawn Lynch, appearing on the late-night show Conan, said “I’d rather see him take a knee than stand up, put his hands up, and get murdered,” a clear comparison to the “hands up, don’t shoot” rallying cry of the BLM movement.
Kaepernick’s own coach also seems to be in support. In late August, when asked about the situation, Chip Kelly commented “We recognize his right to do that. It’s not my right to tell him not to do something. That’s his right as a citizen.” Although not a ringing endorsement, Kelly recently doubled down on his support. When asked if he was a distraction to the 49ers, Kelly explained he is going “full-bore” with the team. He went on to explain his feelings on the protest.
I think it’s an issue – you look at what’s gone on in Tulsa and Charlotte in the last two nights. . . It’s an issue that’s at the forefront of our country and it needs to be addressed, needs to be taken care of, because what’s going on is not right. I think he’s shedding light on a situation that is heinous. It shouldn’t happen in this country. We all have inalienable rights as a citizen of this country that are being violated. That’s what I think Colin is standing up for.
These comments are encouraging, and every day there seem to be more. In 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in Mexico City, the IOC sent them home. Kaepernick’s protest, for now, seems to be at least starting a conversation. However, for this protest to become more than simply “victory on paper,” as many black players found in the 1960s (like in Roanoke) it will take more than supportive thoughts and public-relation-department-approved one-liners.
What will it take? I am not sure, but I hope that is where the conversation goes.
Andrew D. Linden is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Adrian College. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at email@example.com and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. Check out his website at http://www.andrewdlinden.com.
 “Boycott Wins! Negroes to Sit all Over Roanoke Stadium!” Pittsburgh Courier, August 12, 1961, p. 1; “Negro Players Will Participate in Exhibition,” The Alexandria Times, August 10, 1961, p. 6; “Negroes Agree to Compete in Steelers-Colts Grid Game,” Simpson’s Leader-Times (Kittanning, Pennsylvania), August 10, 1961, p. 7. “Steelers, Colts Will Play Game as Scheduled,” The Daily Courier (Connellsville, Pennsylvania), August 10, 1961, p. 7.
 “Boycott Wins!”
 Lenny Moore with Jeffrey Jay Ellish, All Things Being Equal: The Autobiography of Lenny Moore (Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing LLC, 2005); 113.
 Moore with Ellish, All Things Being Equal, 70.