Gilchrist fought good fight for rights
With the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma coming up this weekend and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act later this summer, it might be a good time to remember how a local sports figure was part of a key moment in the Civic Rights movement 50 years ago.
Brackenridge native Carlton Chester “Cookie” Gilchrist was part of a decision to boycott an American Football League All-Star Game in New Orleans in 1965.
Black athletes who were part of the AFL All-Star Game protested ill treatment in New Orleans regarding taxi, restaurant and hotel services and agreed to boycott the game as a form of protest. The AFL moved the game to Houston’s Jeppesen Stadium with just a few days notice.
On Dec. 26, 1964, Gilchrist helped lead the Buffalo Bills to the AFL title, the first of their back-to-back titles.
Next on the agenda was the Jan. 16 All-Star Game at Tulane Stadium.
New Orleans was looking forward to hosting the game in an effort to eventually land an NFL or AFL team. The Crescent City, however, was slow to embrace the Civil Rights Act of 1964, part of which mandated equal treatment of customers in public and private places.
Gilchrist, with Bills teammates Jack Kemp, quarterback and later a U.S. congressman, and receiver Art Powell on board, Delta Flight 467 landed in New Orleans, and Gilchrist saw what the week would be like.
When attempting to hail a cab to take them to the Fontainebleau Hotel, Gilchrist, in a 2007 interview with the Valley News Dispatch, recalled the cab driver telling him he had to use a special phone to call for a “colored cab.”
The cab driver added he could ride in his vehicle if a white person were to accompany him. So Gilchrist waited until Kemp arrived.
Later, Gilchrist said he and some other black all-stars had knives pulled on them after they entered clarinetist Pete Fountain’s restaurant.
After other discriminatory incidents, the 18 black all-stars decided they had had enough. They met in Gilchrist’s hotel room, where they decided to boycott the All-Star Game by an 18-0 vote.
With the specter of 18 players missing, businessman George Dixon, who later owned the Saints, and Ernest Morial, the local head of the NAACP (and later the first black New Orleans mayor) met with the athletes to try to smooth things over. Gilchrist said he told them: “How could you invite us here, knowing the circumstances we would face?”
By then, many white athletes rose in support of the boycott, including Kemp.
After a second vote and a 15-3 tally favoring the boycott, AFL commissioner Joe Foss moved the game to Houston.
“I was quarterback and captain of the East All-Stars,” Kemp said in a 2007 Valley News Dispatch interview. “I strongly supported the boycott of New Orleans and the transfer of the game to Houston.”
As a result of the boycott, things changed in New Orleans, and by 1967, the city was given an NFL franchise.
“To me, it was the greatest thing I ever did,” Gilchrist said. “There was no marching, no violence, no singing. We just changed history.”
Gilchrist was a first-team, all-state back as a junior in 1953 after leading Har-Brack to the WPIAL title game, a 0-0 tie against Donora.
In the signature performance of his career Oct. 30, he scored seven touchdowns, kicked five extra points and ran for 294 yards as the Tigers beat previously undefeated Vandergrift, 68-33.
He could not play as a senior in 1954 because he was 19. He was signed by the Cleveland Browns but was released because of NFL age rules. He directly went into pro football with Sarnia of the Ontario Rugby Football Union and the CFL two years later.
Gilchrist died Jan. 10, 2011, but his contributions never should be forgotten.
George Guido is a Valley News Dispatch scholastic sports correspondent. His column appears Wednesdays.