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Nov 7, 2022

An important but surprisingly little-remembered story in the history of pro football - and a turning point in the city of New Orleans' eventually successful pursuit of an NFL franchise - is the subject of this week's hugely intriguing conversation with Erin Grayson Sapp, author of "Moving the Chains: The Civil Rights Protest That Saved the Saints And Transformed New Orleans".
From the book's dust-jacket:
We remember the 1966 birth of the New Orleans Saints as a shady quid pro quo between the NFL commissioner and a Louisiana congressman. Moving the Chains is the untold story of the athlete protest that necessitated this backroom deal, as New Orleans scrambled to respond to a very public repudiation of the racist policies that governed the city.
In the decade that preceded the 1965 athlete walkout, a reactionary backlash had swept through Louisiana, bringing with it a host of new segregation laws and enough social strong-arming to quash any complaints, even from suffering sports promoters. Nationwide protests had assailed the Tulane Green Wave, the Sugar Bowl, and the AFL’s preseason stop-offs, and only legal loopholes and a lot of luck kept football alive in the city.
Still, live it did, and in January 1965, locals believed they were just a week away from landing their own pro franchise. All they had to do was pack Tulane Stadium for the city’s biggest audition yet, the AFL All-Star game. Ultimately, all fifty-eight Black and white teammates walked out of the game to protest the town’s lingering segregation practices and public abuse of Black players. Following that, love of the gridiron prompted and excused something out of sync with the city’s branding: change. In less than two years, the Big Easy made enough progress to pass a blitz inspection by Black and white NFL officials and receive the long-desired expansion team.
The story of the athletes whose bravery led to change quickly fell by the wayside. Locals framed desegregation efforts as proof that the town had been progressive and tolerant all along. Furthermore, when a handshake between Pete Rozelle and Hale Boggs gave America its first Super Bowl and New Orleans its own club, the city proudly clung to that version of events, never admitting the cleanup even took place.