Courtesy of The Roanoke Times
In August 1961, the NFL Baltimore Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers planned to meet for an exhibition game prior to the beginning of the season. The game was scheduled for the second week of August in Roanoke, Virginia. Just months after the Freedom Riders traveled through the South, the game in Roanoke became a hotbed of racial controversy because of the city’s stance on seating segregation in public areas. Initially, stadium officials opened their ticket windows to all consumers for the exhibition contest, hoping to bring in 24,000 fans for $4 a ticket. However, Virginia State authorities quickly stepped in and demanded that the stadium follow the southern practice and law of seating segregation during the NFL exhibition game.
This directive brought together many black football players on each team along with the NAACP, and the southern clergy. They all attempted to end segregation at Victory Stadium. The Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and NAACP attorney Rueben Lawson quickly filed a discrimination lawsuit in the State Court of Virginia, with assistance from NAACP attorneys George Laurence, and Harry T. Penn. Yet, within four days of the game, the courts still had not scheduled to hear the suit. Attorney Rueben Lawson spoke passionately to Roanoke City Council urging them to integrate Victory Stadium, but the city council did not reach a decision. So, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson embraced a different tactic. With overwhelming support from the NAACP, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson reached out to the black NFL players on the Colts and Steelers teams in a telegram to the twelve Steelers and seven Colts. Already attuned to the situation through other channels, the Steelers and Colts took action. According to the Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s black newspaper, when Steelers coach Buddy Parker heard of the situation, he polled his players who overwhelmingly responded that “We won’t cross an NAACP picket line, to play in a stadium which segregates Negro fans.” Colts players quickly agreed. This was a radical escalation, especially for an era where pro athletes weren’t known for social activism. “We have never faced this kind of situation before,” Colts spokesman Don Kellet told The Roanoke Times. “It came as quite a surprise to us.”
Rev. R.R. Wilkinson telegram message sent to 19 black football players on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Colts teams.
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On August 4th, 1961 NAACP attorney Reuben Lawson passionately pleads with Roanoke City Council to stand against segregated seating at Victory Stadium.
NAACP President Rev. R.R. Wilkinson, Roanoke Chamber of Commerce official Jack Smith, lawyers, and team representatives, including Pittsburgh P.R. director Don Kellett, halfback Buddy Young, and the personnel director of the Colts, all met in a downtown Roanoke hotel on the Wednesday before the game. The NFL’s young commissioner, Pete Rozelle, was patched in by phone from his New York office. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson apparently surprised this meeting by telling the participants that some Black fans in Roanoke had already bought tickets to the whites-only section, which further raised the stakes. Would they be denied admission? While no record of the five-hour meeting appear to exist at all, afterwards, the Roanoke officials decided not to follow Virginia segregation laws for the game at Victory Stadium. There was, however, a cryptic comment from Rev. R.R. Wilkinson saying that “I’ll be there rootin’ on the 40-yard line.” That 40- yard line was a section reserved for whites only. The outcome of this meeting was either a masterful compromise, or too much of a compromise, depending on your point of view. Again, the reporting at the time was lacking in details (perhaps purposely so?) However, hearing the decision, all nineteen African American players involved agreed to suit up for the exhibition game. The Roanoke press coverage mostly focused on the game and the fact that the Black players would, indeed, suit up.
The next day, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and other Civil Rights activists bought tickets in the white section, and simply showed up and claimed their seats. Although the Roanoke Fire Department showed up with fire hoses , the Virginia National Guard was called, and even FBI agents showed up, there were no confrontations and the Steelers won the game 24-20. "The Pittsburgh Courier declared that the Steelers has 'held Jim Crow for Downs."