Black Fans, Protest, and Power
Playing the role of the heel, white wrestler Rod Rivera looked up at the segregated balcony in New Orleans’s Municipal Auditorium, looked back down at his black trunks, and screamed, “I hate you.” After hearing the insult, a white lady in the crowd agreed and said she “hated Negroes and suggested a fan club be started.” Rivera then hurled more racist vitriol and took a step toward the Black fans. But before anything could happen, the police stopped him. As one Black fan noted, “It would have been a bloody battle royal if this man had been permitted to come up stairs because the Negroes were armed and ready.” Frustrated by the double indignity that occurred that night, an anonymous fan told the Louisiana Weekly for the August 27 issue, “I urge all Negroes to stay away from these wrestling shows. It’s bad enough to be Jim Crowed, but it’s even worse to be Jim Crowed and insulted at any place where you have paid your cold hard earned cash.”
In 1960 in the South, that was no idle threat. Black sports fans had earned a reputation for their boycotts. Inspired by nonviolent protests throughout the South, sports fans started their own direct-action assault on Jim Crow. And Joe Gunther, like other white Southern sports promoters and team executives, knew the power of Black protest. Two weeks later, fearing a financial loss, Gunther publicly apologized to Black citizens and fined Rivera $100,1
During the Civil Rights Movement, in cities from Shreveport to Savannah, Memphis to Mobile, Houston to Dallas, Atlanta to St. Louis, and Birmingham to New Orleans, southern Black sports fans used boycotts and the power of the dollar to produce change. Simply put, if a team refused to sign Black players or integrate their stands, Black fans organized a “stay away” campaign. Fans in New Orleans initiated the first major movement in April 1955 when they started a protest campaign of the city’s minor league baseball team. Their brave boycott spread throughout the minor league’s Southern Association, and by the summer, the mass movement had reached Birmingham, Memphis, and Atlanta. Two years later Black fans boycotted the entire Texas League because Shreveport’s team refused to sign Black players. Without Black fans attendance dropped 30% league-wide, and the Shreveport team eventually folded.2
Fans maintained their protests through Black press, pickets, and pamphlets. In Houston, when fans boycotted the Houston Oilers in 1961 because of segregating seating, protesters held signs urging fans and Black players to stay away. One sign called those who crossed the line “gutless.” Few crossed. And in Savanah, in 1962, in coordination with the local NAACP, Black fans plastered 20,000 signs around the city urging fans to boycott Grayson stadium. The most common tactic was the use of the press. In combination with Black sportswriters like Jim Hall, Marcel Hopson, Marion Jackson, and Lloyd Wells using their columns to keep fans abreast of the latest boycotts, newspapers also encouraged fans to write in and tell their stories. Enthused by the prospect of the successful boycott in 1955 in New Orleans, for example, a Black woman in New Orleans wrote to the Weekly that she hoped that “every man who has an ounce of race pride” boycotted the local baseball games.3 From Charges Loss to Houston Oilers at Jeppesen Stadium,” Houston Informer, December 9, 1961; “Boycott Started Against Savannah, Ga, White Sox 9,” Louisiana Weekly, June 9, 1962; Jim Hall, “Time Out,” Louisiana Weekly, April 16, 1955.] She also praised the sportswriter Jim Hall for having the courage to start the boycott.
When fans did not adhere to the boycott, Black sportswriters used their platform to shame those who did not fall in line. One tactic was reminding sports fans of the sacrifices those in the movement made. If one could risk their life in Mississippi, a writer crowed, then certainly a fan should be able to boycott a game. In addition Black writers chided these fans that would not stay away. In Birmingham, Marcel Hopson of the Birmingham World called Black fans that attended games during a boycott “cowards” and likened them to an internal enemy that would “pimp” themselves to the racist opposition. In New Orleans, Jim Hall pointed to the bravery of freedom fighters throughout the South and argued that a Black fan that sat in segregation “should hide his face in shame.” And in Houston, writer Lloyd Wells of the Informer wrote that Black fans that attended games during a league-wide boycott of the Texas League might as well join the White Citizens Council. In most of these campaigns, the combination of boycott and shame worked.4
Throughout the South, teams that did not integrate their teams or stadiums felt the financial pain. A number of teams folded or had their franchises pulled away from them by their major-league partners. In the most successful boycott in sports history, a battle that lasted from 1955 to 1960, Black fans in New Orleans forced the local Double-A baseball team, the Pelicans, to fold. The estimated Black attendance dropped dramatically from an estimated 40,000-50,000 fans before the boycott, to 3,000 in 1956. Two years into the boycott, the Pelican’s general manager, Vince Rizzo, quipped, “Give me the 40,000 Negro fans we lost last year and we’re out of trouble.”5 Ultimately, the Pelicans chose to fold rather than integrate.
These boycotts eventually changed the makeup of professional sports in the South. In major southern cities that wanted to attract professional sport teams as a strategy to appear modern as they tried to hide from their racist roots, the thought of Black protest weighed heavily on city leaders’ minds. Leaders knew that they could not have successful sports franchises if they could not attract Black fans. On the potential of the NFL coming to the South, Marion Jackson of the Atlanta Daily World, wrote “There isn’t a single confederate dollar worth more than the good old U.S. buck that Negro fans pay to watch games played in the NFL parks. Mr. Rozelle [NFL Commissioner] knows this and any loot picked up on the exhibition circuit will be knocked out by boycotts when the NFL season begins.”6 Houston received the baseball Colt 45s in 1962 after they agreed to integrate their city, and soon after Atlanta integrated, they received the Braves and then the Falcons. The Hawks moved to Atlanta in 1968 from St. Louis, because the team in St. Louis could not attract Black fans, who had deemed the ownership racist. And the NFL only awarded New Orleans the Saints after the mayor and governor promised that fans and players would not face discrimination.
During the Civil Rights Movement, as Black folks fought for integration in education, housing, and public services, they also turned their fandom into a nonviolent weapon. Sports were more than just entertainment, and their fandom was more than just fanatic interest in a game. The stands held real political meaning. As activists across the South continued to risk their lives in the Movement, most Black fans were no longer willing to sit in segregation, and as Jim Hall wrote, pay to have “‘Jim Crow’ kick them in the teeth.”7 They withheld their dollars to fight for their dignity. Although overlooked as part of the Civil Rights Movement, Black fandom became a formidable arm of the Movement by mobilizing people’s passions to change the playing field.
- “Wrestling,” Louisiana Weekly, August 27, 1960; “Wrestling,” Louisiana Weekly, September 17, 1960. ↩
- “Texas League Attendance Drops Due to Race Ban,” Louisiana Weekly, May 25, 1957. ↩
- “Some Senes [sic ↩
- Marcel Hopson, “Hits and Bits,” Birmingham World, September 11, 1957; Jim Hall, “Time Out,” Louisiana Weekly, August 3, 1963; Lloyd Wells quoted in, “Time Out,” Louisiana Weekly, April 20, 1957. ↩
- Jim Hall, “Time Out,” Louisiana Weekly, July 6, 1957. ↩
- Marion Jackson quoted in “Time Out,” Louisiana Weekly, April 27, 1963. ↩
- Jim Hall, “Time Out,” Louisiana Weekly, April 9, 1955. ↩