Some guys are remembered and others forgotten, and often it’s difficult to fathom quite why the latter happens. Such a player was Art Powell, who stood out not simply because he was one of the greatest wide receivers in American Football League history. He stood out because he stood up at a time when to do so was a risk far greater than what Colin Kaepernick faces today.
Powell was a star wide receiver with Hall-of-Fame production for the New York Titans and Oakland Raiders in the 1960s. But he also was a foot soldier in the fight against racism during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. While many of his peers sat idly by and accepted the world the way it was, Art Powell refused to accept segregation on the playing fields where he stood or in the hotels where he rested his head, several times putting his career on the line as a result.
At 6-3, 210 pounds, Powell was the classic big receiver teams covet and every quarterbacks love. Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1959 as a backup defensive back and kick returner after two seasons in the Canadian Football League with the Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonauts, he made an immediate impact. Powell finished second in the NFL in kick returns his rookie season with a 27-yard average. But the following year he 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 Powell’s teammates, black or white, joined his protest, and he was soon released, signing with the then-New York Titans of the upstart AFL, which was in its inaugural season. Powell immediately found his niche when head coach Sammy Baugh shifted him from defensive back to receiver. Slingin’ Sammy could always find a receiver when he needed one.
Powell made Baugh look like a genius when 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. Together they became the first set of receivers to 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 downtrodden hotel in an all-black neighborhood rather than stay with their white teammates.
Once again, he stood alone.
With Powell one of the AFL’s best players and the Titans facing increasing financial problems, then-Titans’ owner Harry Wismer announced on October 19, 1962 that Powell would be for sale following the the season as part of a salary dump — even though Powell wound up leading the AFL in receiving yardage.
So, on Jan. 31, 1963, Powell signed with the Oakland Raiders, a team coached by a brash but then little-known guy named Al Davis. Their pairing would elevate them both.
Powell led the AFL with 1,304 receiving yards and 16 receiving touchdowns in 1963, but once again the racial unrest that was beginning to roil 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 game’s modern era 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). Perhaps what he saw Powell, Daniels, Roberson and Williamson face in 1963 made an impression upon him that lasted a lifetime.
Two years later, at the AFL All-Star game in New Orleans, Powell again led a boycott — but this time with 21 other black players on the two teams after a number of African-American players had been 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, and a number of other white players, including future Hall-of-Fame center Jim Otto, Powell’s Raider teammate.
The game was quickly moved to Houston and went on without further incident.
By the conclusion of his 10-year career, Art Powell had posted five 1,000-yard receiving seasons and was named to the AFL’s all-time team. Despite catching only 479 passes, he had 81 receiving touchdowns, which meant he got into the end zone 16.9 percent of the time he touched the ball, one of the highest averages in NFL history.
Now 49 years after his retirement, Powell still ranks 26th in NFL history in receiving touchdowns. To put this in perspective, Hall-of-Fame receiver Andre Reed had only six more career touchdown catches, yet he played in twice as many games (234) … and at a time when teams were throwing far more frequently than they did in the 1960s.
Powell ranked third all-time in AFL history in receiving yards behind only Hall-of-Famers Maynard and Lance Alworth but ranked far higher as a man of courage and conviction. He was as fearless in the face of racism and segregation in the 1960s as he was going across the middle against defenses massed to stop him. Neither could bring him down for long. It seems long overdue for Art Powell’s career to be given its due: Hall-of-Fame consideration.