September 29, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Swedish-American actress Ann-Margret Olsson lights the Al Davis Eternal Flame before the game between the Oakland Raiders and the Washington Redskins at O.co Coliseum. The Redskins defeated the Raiders 24-14. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
It doesn’t seem that Martin Luther King, Jr., legendary civil rights leader, agitator, and American icon has much in common with former Raider owner Al Davis. The two were roughly the same age, King was born in January of 1929, Davis was born in July of the same year, but otherwise they led different lives. King was born a black man in the American South, a native of Atlanta, GA, while Al Davis was born a Jewish white man in Brockton, Massachusetts.
While a young Martin Luther King Jr. was attending seminary school in Pennsylvania, Davis was at Syracuse, starting to develop his early love of football and his early interest in coaching. When King was emerging as a leader during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Davis was the offensive line coach of The Citadel.
Yet Davis found himself working to realize the dream of Doctor King in his own way, and this began to manifest itself very early in Davis’ career with the Oakland Raiders – a team that represented a city that was itself a hotbed of the Black Power movement during those years. In 1963, the Raiders, then an AFL franchise, were scheduled to play a preseason game in Mobile, Alabama, where his black players were not allowed to be roomed in the same hotel as the whites. He demanded the game be moved to Oakland.
Throughout his tenure as Raider head coach, he would not accept segregated hotel accommodations for his players, and he fought to have the AFL’s All-Star Game moved from segregated New Orleans in 1965. When he took over as the AFL’s commissioner in 1966, he fought for racial equality league-wide, and helped the AFL build a brand of football that could compete with the NFL by encouraging scouting and drafting black players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. This practice was something he employed heavily when he returned to Oakland as the General Manager, and was behind his drafting of the first black quarterback in the modern era, Eldridge Dickey out of Tennessee State. He also took some of the greatest players in franchise history out of black colleges, like Art Shell (Maryland State), Willie Brown (Grambling State) and Gene Upshaw (Texas A&I).
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Davis continued to be one of the most socially progressive NFL owners after the NFL-AFL merger, when he became the principal owner of the Oakland Raiders in 1972, during the height of the Black Panther movement in Oakland. Davis’ Raiders became integral to the culture and identity of Oakland during the 60’s and 70’s, alongside the Panthers and the Hells Angels. He continued to break barriers at the end of the 1970’s by hiring former quarterback and longtime assistant Tom Flores as the first Latino head coach in NFL history. Flores, along with Jim Plunkett, who was the only Latino starting QB in the league, won two Super Bowls together, the second after the team relocated to Los Angeles.
The combination of a Latino head coach, Latino quarterback and relocation to predominantly-Latino Los Angeles quickly made the Raiders a massively popular sports franchise and brand in the Latino community throughout California and much of the Southwest, something that continues to this day.
In Los Angeles, Davis encouraged the branding of his franchise with anyone who wanted to be associated with it, including early Gangsta Rap group N.W.A., which included legendary rapper Ice Cube. Cube, who in the early 1990’s was one of the most politically vocal and angry voices in hip-hop has become the most visible Raiders superfan. Davis welcomed blue collar, often non-white fans, and the Raider Nation today is one of the most diverse fan bases in sports, due in part to Davis’ attitude toward the type of fans he wanted rooting for his teams
Davis continued to be an NFL pioneer into the late 80’s, hiring Art Shell to be the first black head coach in NFL history in 1989. Art Shell was his head coach for six seasons, and then returned for a one-year stint in 2006. Davis also supported the post-playing career rise of Gene Upshaw to head of the NFL Players Association, and the two remained close friends until the end of Upshaw’s life.
In 1997, Davis made history again by hiring the first woman executive in NFL history in Amy Trask. Trask was the Raiders CEO, responsible for all business operations with the exception of player personnel and football ops, which were directed by Davis himself.
When Al Davis died in 2011, there was an outpouring of grief and respect for him from around the league, despite the fact that he had been heavily criticized and even lampooned in the later years of his life while the Raiders had struggled on the field. He was remembered as a pioneer and an innovator for what he accomplished with x’s and o’s, and with personnel, but he was revered as a barrier-breaker and an agent for positive change, both in the world of Pro Football and beyond.
Al Davis and MLK never met, as far as we know, and Davis didn’t quote King at length. King died in 1968 probably not ever having heard of Al Davis, or if he had, not knowing much about him. But in the world of sports, very few – if any – white coaches, executives and owners ever personified the message of Dr. King like Al Davis. Davis, who had suffered discrimination of his own as a young Jewish American, refused to stand for discrimination around him. He stood up to the racist segregation attitudes in the South as a coach and executive. He sought to create opportunities for young men of color on his football teams, as players and coaches, and mentored the rise of a black man to the most important union post in sports. He hired a woman CEO in a completely male-dominated world, and kept her as his CEO until his death.
It was only fitting that the first General Manager of the Raiders since Davis death would be a black man who was a former Raider player. Davis believed in the content of a man’s character – or at least the time of a man’s 40-yard dash – was more important to him than the color of a man’s skin, and he always remained loyal to those who remained loyal to him – regardless of race or gender. He made pro football a better place, and he created a culture – the Raider Nation – where people of all races and ethnicities are bonded together by their common love of the Silver and Black.