Few pro wrestlers were as universally despised as the Louisiana-born WWE Hall-of-Famer “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd, considered one of the first (and all-time best) African-American wrestling villains. His look, his athleticism and most of all his charisma made him a star everywhere he wrestled, from the Superdome to Madison Square Garden, from Toronto to Tokyo.
But before his run in wrestling, Ladd was a pro football player, and it was here in New Orleans that he made civil rights history by organizing the 1965 AFL All-Star boycott, an unprecedented and history-making collective response to a long weekend of racist abuse.
Beyond its effect on our city’s efforts to land a franchise football team, the boycott was a watershed event in our linked local legacy of racism and our rising tourist and event economies. When restaurants and bars close during Essence Fest, when gangs of plainclothes police target and attack black teenagers during Mardi Gras or when NOPD selectively enforces “curfews” in the French Quarter, they’re just maintaining a long tradition of segregation, working to keep our city’s hospitality—and Bourbon Street in particular—a white folks’ playground. 50 years ago, Ladd was one of those who wouldn’t stand for it.
The Biggest Man
Born in the tiny town of Rayville, Louisiana, Ladd earned the nickname Big Cat back in his football days for his uncanny speed, a particularly impressive trait given Ladd stood a legit 6 feet 9 inches and weighed over 300 pounds. He was part of the first Grambling State University football team to win a conference championship and was a loyal, lifelong supporter of the school. His pro football career included stints with the Chargers, Chiefs, and Oilers. Profiled by Ebony in December ’62 as “The Biggest Man in Pro Football,” he was at one point the game’s highest-paid lineman. He won a 1963 AFL Championship with the Chargers, was a three-time All-Pro selection and a four-time American Football League All-Star.
After his involvement in the 1965 All-Star boycott, Ladd remained outspoken. A September ’66 piece in Jet Magazine addressed the “howling buzz” over Ladd’s refusal to cut his beard despite the league commissioner’s order to do so, as well as Ladd’s criticisms of the then-recent AFL-NFL merger, which Ladd said would diminish players’ salaries and give too much power to team owners.
Jim Ross, pro wrestling’s greatest announcer, was a friend of Ladd’s and says Ladd was “one of the most vocal leaders of that movement” that organized all-pro players, both black and white, to boycott New Orleans. Ross, writing for Fox Sports’ website in February of this year, also describes Ladd as a teacher, working interpersonally to improve his white colleagues’ understanding of racism. “I had the greatest African American Studies teacher that one could ever imagine,” Ross writes of his time with Ladd. “Every time that I see the esteemed and wise Dr. Cornel West on Real Time with Bill Maher, I think of ‘The Big Cat.'”
After a career as a wrestler that included headlining the Superdome against Andre the Giant, Ladd also broke new ground working behind the scenes as a booker in our local Mid-South territory run by “Cowboy” Bill Watts, the same territory that set precedent by booking a black wrestler, The Junkyard Dog, to be its major star. Pro wrestling in the United States was (and largely remains) owned and controlled by whites; it was unheard of for a territory to have a person of color booking matches or a black champ atop the talent roster, but Mid-South had both.
Bill Watts and Ladd bonded in part because of their strong born-again Christian religious faith. Watts, whose writing style is heavy on ellipse, says in a devotional essay on his personal website, “[Ladd] taught me so much about ‘being black’… as he explained, no white man can understand, because we cannot walk in a black man’s shoes… we shared so much together… he blessed my life… he touched my heart!”
Hated in the Nation
All that was behind the scenes. In front of the camera, Ladd was a divider, not a uniter. Especially during the civil rights era, it wasn’t hard for Ladd to rile up most white audiences just by being a black man who spoke loud and acted proud. But as a villain, Ladd’s job was to turn everyone in the audience against him, not just racist whites. He accomplished this by getting on the microphone and speaking contemptuously of other minorities, including other black people, often using outrageous and racially derogatory language to make sure every last ticket-holder in the arena was dying to see somebody, anybody, come shut the Big Cat up.
On the rare occasions Ladd was a good guy, usually upon entering a new wrestling territory, it was almost always so he could team up with a popular, more established local wrestler whom he would then betray, setting up a feud. It was an angle he worked multiple times across the country with Bobo Brazil, Chief Jay Strongbow, Tony Atlas, Cowboy Bob Ellis, and Dusty Rhodes, a schlubby, Bill-Clinton type white soul brother.
In a sold-out July ’77 championship match against Rhodes at the Tallahassee Sports Stadium, with thousands turned away at the gate for lack of seating, Ladd cheated his way to victory. In video of this match, as the angry shrieks of the crowd escalate into pandemonium, Gordon Solie, another all-time great wrestling announcer, says with wry calm, “You can hear the fans now indicating their complete and total disapproval of this man Ernie Ladd.”
Even beyond his athletic accolades, including inductions into the WWE, WCW, AFL and Louisiana Sports Halls of Fame, Ladd had a rich life. His resumé included managing other wrestlers, a stint as an announcer for the WWE, religious ministry, community education efforts, political campaigning for the Bush family, and finally the ownership of “Big Cat Ernie Ladd’s Throw-Down BBQ” near Tulane and Broad, which earned an Honorable Mention in the Gambit’s June 2004 survey of New Orleans barbecue. He died in 2007 at age 68 in Franklin, Louisiana.
To learn more about Ladd’s involvement in and the history of the 1965 All-Star boycott, I spoke with writer and researcher Anita Yesho, who’s working on a Master’s Degree in History at UNO and has done extensive historical work on civil rights activity in the French Quarter.
Can you set the stage for us?
Anita Yesho: The Civil Rights Act was passed July 4th, 1964. It was a tense summer. Racial tension was everywhere. I spoke to Albert Woodfox [of the Angola 3] and he said when the Civil Rights Act passed, the first place he wanted to go was Pontchartrain Beach. All the kids in the city, of all colors, grew up seeing these TV commercials about how great Pontchartrain Beach was; how much fun the rollercoaster was. And that became one of the tensions of that summer, whether people of color were going to be able to go to Pontchartrain Beach. Every aspect of life was affected.
In January 1965, a local moneybags named Dave Dixon, who was on a mission to bring pro football to New Orleans, landed our city the AFL All-Star Game. The white business elite were down with it; they were looking long-term at the tourism potential. This was a time when a lot of white-owned bars were getting themselves declared private clubs, to avoid letting black people in. But [the white business interests] thought by sitting down and explaining things to some of the big hotel owners and top management, it would all be smooth. They didn’t take into account the waiters and waitresses, cabbies, doormen—most people at the street level.
What specific experiences led to the boycott?
As soon as the All-Star players got here, they were treated badly. It started with getting cabs from the airport to downtown: it took black players nearly an hour to find a cab that would give them a ride. One linebacker had to wait two hours. Then when they got to their hotel, they couldn’t get cabs to a restaurant. They just couldn’t get cabs. They went out with their teammates to Bourbon Street and the clubs wouldn’t let them in… The big incident was Earl Faison, Ernie Ladd, and two other black All-Stars were walking down Bourbon Street and heard soul music from inside a bar—but the bouncer said they couldn’t enter. Faison was like, “You got James Brown music playing, and you’re telling me we can’t go in?” The bouncer said, “Well, wait here a minute” and closed the door. So they waited, but he wasn’t coming back. Ladd had a temper, and he was considering tearing the door off its hinges, and the guys he was with knew he could and would do it. They were concerned about that, and meanwhile a crowd of about a hundred white Bourbon Street revelers had gathered, first just to gawk at them, and then to see what would happen with them being denied entry. The crowd started taunting the football players, insulting them, and the guys got uneasy. They knew people were drunk, this was the South, and they were outnumbered, so they decided they’d head back to the hotel, but then they couldn’t get a cab to give them a ride. A white All-Star who happened along, Walt Sweeney, tried to intercede, and flagged down a cab, but once the cab driver saw the black guys, he refused their fare. Ladd said of this, “Walt Sweeney was gonna beat this guy merciless for not giving us a ride. I’d hate to fool with a drunk Walt Sweeney, man.” They talked Sweeney out of beating the cabby up and ended up walking back to their hotel. As they’re walking, Ladd decided to hell with this, he’s had it, he’s going home.
How was the boycott organized?
Back at the hotel they talked with Sherman Plunkett, another black player, and he convinced them to call a meeting of all the black All-Stars, to see if what had happened was an isolated incident. They had a meeting and it wasn’t an isolated incident: all 21 of them had trouble, no matter where they went. It was just ugly out there. They couldn’t get into clubs, couldn’t get served at restaurants. They took a vote then, and 18-3 decided they weren’t gonna play in New Orleans… One coach suggested they play and hold a daily press conference to talk about their experiences, but the players said no, the game was off. For Dave Dixon, the major backer, the 1965 All-Star game had been a trial run towards bringing pro football to New Orleans, so this was a disaster. Dixon brings Dutch Morial in to talk to the players. Morial, who of course was later Mayor, is a downtown Creole, a light-skinned guy. He’s exactly the kind of people the white business interests used any time there was an issue with the black community, like the  Panther shootout in the Desire Projects: send in a downtown-connected, light-skinned black man with a law degree, get them to talk to the masses for us… Morial had a reputation as a civil rights lawyer, but he wasn’t able to persuade them and I don’t know how hard he tried. I don’t know how he felt about this situation. The black players stood firm; a lot of the white players stood with them. And remember, the Civil Rights Act had passed and gone into effect. It was supposed to be the law of the land now, and I think that was vital as far as giving the players something to point to… This was just four days before the game. There was a meeting of all AFL owners, and Joe Foss, the commissioner of the AFL, said “These players are part of the AFL family, we can’t have them treated like this.” The AFL had no choice—on four days’ notice, they moved the 1965 All-Star game to Houston. Nothing like it had ever happened.
What was the fallout locally?
It shined a huge national spotlight on tourism in New Orleans, our civil rights and our racism. Vic Schiro was mayor at the time and he just didn’t get it. He didn’t understand what tourism would mean to this city’s future. The big chains, the big companies, weren’t comfortable with segregation. If it weren’t for the Civil Rights Act, we wouldn’t have a tourism industry. Only once we were integrated would the big hotels come in, but Schiro was unrepentant. He said, “negro players should roll with the punches” and that it was “a grievous injury that has been inflicted on the city of New Orleans.” Schiro wasn’t a bright man. The business elite always treated him like their pet [Italian] who was supposed to do whatever they wanted. He wasn’t exactly a visionary mayor.
Dave Dixon was interviewed about this in 1999, and he had the same view, that the boycott was unnecessary. He’s one of those who believes New Orleans is a magic island, that we didn’t have racism here like in the rest of the South. He said, “That thing in 1965 was the closest thing to a racial incident New Orleans ever had.” There was a panel discussion of the Schiro administration in 2009, and Dixon got up and talked about bringing pro football to New Orleans. He insisted then that the problem the football players had in 1965 didn’t even happen in the French Quarter, that it was in Fat City in Metairie. I couldn’t tell if he was maybe suffering dementia or what. He seemed coherent, but what he was saying was so obviously untrue. For anyone who’s interested, The Louisiana Weekly covered all of this really well. It’s worth going back and looking at. The Times-Picayune was never reliable on these kinds of stories– not sure if that’s changed.