In the spirit of MLK, Art Powell sought social justice

On Martin Luther King Day, January 15, 2024, as we commemorate the man who waged historic battles against social injustice and segregation, let’s recognize another who boldly confronted the same issues, yet seems forgotten, despite his high profile as a great athlete.


Art Powell, one of the most dynamic wide receivers in pro football history, was a strong-minded, focused man who did more than just condemn segregation. He made a statement by boycotting four games over five years when inequality between Blacks and whites was accepted or even mandated in a stadium, hotel, or city where his team was scheduled to play. 


His boycotts were personal and relatively subdued, although media coverage and reaction at the time portrayed him as a troublemaker. In reality, Powell was a pioneer, doing what he thought was right as he hoped to help lead the country away from contemptible but pervasive Jim Crow laws and attitudes.


Although not as celebrated or recognized, Powell’s boycotts preceded most well-known actions regarding social justice.


He began his boycotts in 1960. That was before numerous well-documented events of that hectic era, including the courageous but ill-fated Freedom Rides (1961) and before 127 U.S. marshals helped James Meredith enroll at Ole Miss (1962). It predated MLK’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech (1963) and riots in Watts (1965), Detroit (1967) and other cities. Powell's protests were well before John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised gloved fists at the 1968 Summer Olympics and even six years before the heralded 1967 Cleveland Summit of 12 leading African American sports heroes, including Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor, who would become known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.


In time, Powell wondered aloud if his actions helped the cause and acknowledged, without remorse, that they definitely impacted his image as a great player.


Perhaps, but the undeniable reality of Powell’s athletic legacy is seared into pro football's record books: No. 2 in touchdowns per game (.77), behind only Hall of Famer Don Hutson (.85); No. 4 in frequency of touchdowns (one every 5.9 catches); and No. 7 in yards receiving per game (76.6 yards). He did this during 14-game seasons (1959–1968), when it was legal to mug wide receivers in a way that would get you arrested outside football. His career stats remain among the best in pro football history.


When the Oakland Raiders hired a 33-year old rookie head coach in December of 1962, the first thing he did was fly to Toronto to visit Powell, who had been blackballed by the NFL and was the subject of an ill-conceived auction by cash-poor New York Titans owner Harry Wismer. Powell had gained 1,000 yards receiving in two of three seasons. That little-known new Raiders coach was Al Davis. He made the first of many brash career moves by signing Powell and returning to Oakland New Year's eve, ready to start a new era for the woe-begotten Raiders, who were 1-13 in 1963.


With an offense spurred by Powell, who led the league with 1,304 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns, the Raiders made the biggest one-season turnaround in pro sports history with a 10-4 record. Before an injury ended his career in 1968, Powell proved to be one of the most prolific wide receivers in pro football history. He caught 479 passes for 8,046 yards and 81 touchdowns with five seasons over 1,000 yards receiving and two over 800. These were 14-game seasons. 


Yet, it wasn’t until now, some 55 years after he last played and eight years after he died, that Powell was even discussed as a prospect for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. An enlightened selection committee finally named him a Senior Finalist for the Class of 2024.


Why did it take so long? There are reasons. 


First, Powell soon became a forgotten man largely because he predated ESPN and the NFL Network by decades. He was never acknowledged in those dramatic video productions that created memories and defined history. He was a superstar from a black-and-white era whose heroics were never produced in living color. So most of the selectors never saw him play, even on a video.


And when he was playing, Powell represented an inconvenient truth in America’s Jim Crow era. His actions during historic social upheaval in America negatively impacted Powell's legacy and obscured his standing as one of the elite wide receivers in the game.


He was shunned for marrying a white woman in 1957, although it was the start of a marvelous relationship that lasted 58 years until his death. And, as early as 1960, he was ridiculed for taking a stand against segregated games.


When injury forced his retirement, the memory of Powell's greatness was too quickly dismissed. Perhaps it was set aside, either subconsciously or conveniently, to avoid the discomfort caused by his insistence on social awareness. His actions made people uncomfortable, both Black and white.


"They thought you were putting them out in front of a situation they didn’t want to deal with,” Powell said. “So I pretty much kept to myself. I didn’t look for someone to side with me. You just made choices, and in my gut, I thought I made the right choice.”


Looking back on it in 2006, Powell had the insight of 20/20 hindsight.


"There was a whole social movement going on at the time and it's way bigger than you," he said. "Art Powell didn't create those situations, and if he had never existed, those situations were still going to happen.


"I know I put my career on the line, and I know what happened in those years had an impact on how people looked upon me. So be it. It was my choice. The challenges that were before me were social challenges. They were personal and they were important. I made a lot of people angry at the time, but I question if I made an impact.


"I've heard about African American kids playing baseball who don't know who Jackie Robinson is. If that's the case, no one is going to know who Art Powell is."

Well, that may not be so. This month the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee votes on the Class of 2024, which will be announced at the NFL Honors show on Thursday, February 8, three days before Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas. There is a chance that the Art Powell story may live forever after all.   


Note: In recognition of Martin Luther King Day (Jan. 15, 2024), this story is a version of a more comprehensive article on Art Powell's life in football, posted in August 2023, when he was named a Hall of Fame Senior finalist. 


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