Art Powell defeated racism and defenses

Art Powell photo courtesy Oakland Raiders
Art Powell photo courtesy Oakland Raiders

(Photo courtesy of the Oakland Raiders)

By Ron Borges

Talk of Fame Network

Art Powell was a man who stood out, and not merely because he was one of the greatest receivers in American Football League history. He stood out because he stood up.

Powell, who passed away April 6 at 78, was both a star wideout with the New York Titans and Oakland Raiders in the 1960s and a soldier in the fight against racism during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. While many of his peers sat idly by, he refused to accept segregation on the playing fields, in the stands or inside the organizations for whom he starred, several times putting his career on the line as a result.

At 6-3, 210 pounds, Art Powell was the classic big receiver every team covets and every quarterback loves. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1959 as a backup defensive back and kick returner after two years in the Canadian Football League, finishing second in the NFL in kick returns with a 27-yard average that season. The following year however, Powell refused to play in a preseason game against the Washington Redskins in Norfolk, Va. after learning the Eagles' black players would not be allowed to stay in the team hotel with their white teammates.

None of his African-American teammates joined his protest, and he was soon released, signing with the then New York Titans of the AFL, an upstart league in its first season. There Powell found his niche when head coach Sammy Baugh shifted him to offense. He scored four touchdowns in his first game and quickly formed one of the most prolific receiving tandems in pro football history, alongside future Hall-of-Famer Don Maynard.

They became the first duo to each post 1,000-yard receiving seasons in the same year, doing it in both 1960 and 1962. But in 1961 Powell again refused to play in an exhibition game against the Houston Oilers in Greenville, S.C. when he learned the team's black players would be housed in a seedy hotel in an all-black neighborhood rather than with their white teammates.

Once again, he stood alone.

With Powell one of the AFL's best players and the Titans facing deep financial problems, then-owner Harry Wismer basically put Powell's services on the auction block the following year despite him leading the AFL in receiving yardage. On Jan. 31, 1963, Powell signed with the Oakland Raiders, a team coached by a brash but little known guy named Al Davis. Their pairing would help to elevate them both.

Powell again led the AFL in receiving with 1,304 yards and 16 receiving touchdowns, but once again the racial unrest that was beginning to percolate around the country struck when the Raiders were to play a preseason game against Powell's former team, now renamed the Jets, in Mobile, Ala.

When Powell learned the seating at Ladd Stadium would be segregated, he again refused to play -- but this time was joined by three black teammates, Clem Daniels, Bo Roberson and Fred Williamson. They took their grievances to Davis, and he moved the game to Oakland. Years later, Davis would become the first NFL owner in the modern era of pro football to hire a black head coach (Art Shell), an Hispanic head coach (Tom Flores) and put a woman in charge of his organization (club president Amy Trask).

Two years later, at the AFL All-Star game in New Orleans, Powell led a boycott by the 21 black players on the two teams when they were refused service by white cab drivers and nightclubs around New Orleans. Joining them was future presidential candidate Jack Kemp, then one of the AFL's most respected white quarterbacks. The game was quickly moved to Houston and went on without further incident.

By the conclusion of his 10-year career, Powell would post five 1,000-yard receiving seasons and be named to the AFL's all-time team. Despite catching only 479 passes, he scored 81 receiving touchdowns, which meant he got into the end zone 16.9% of the time he touched the ball, one of the highest averages in NFL history.

Despite having retired 47 years ago, Art Powell still ranks 23rd all-time in receiving touchdowns. He ranks far higher than that as a man of courage and conviction, as fearless in the face of racism and segregation as he was going across the middle against defenses massed to stop him. Neither was successful at bringing him down for long.