Mel Renfro at a 2012 Dallas Cowboys reunion Ron Jenkins Star-Telegram archives
Mel Renfro at a 2012 Dallas Cowboys reunion Ron Jenkins Star-Telegram archives

Bud Kennedy

Dallas Cowboys star Mel Renfro stood up to ’60s racism. Now, he says stand for the flag

By Bud Kennedy

bud@star-telegram.com

September 30, 2017 03:15 PM

UPDATED October 01, 2017 12:17 AM

DALLAS

When 1960s Dallas Cowboys star Mel Renfro wanted to live in then-all-white north Dallas, the property agent said, “That presents a problem.”

But alnost 50 years after he stood up in court for African-Americans’ right to live freely — yes, even Cowboys faced racism in 1969 — Renfro now has less sympathy for the NFL’s kneeling, equal-justice protests.

“I’m firmly in favor of standing for the flag and national anthem, because that’s about our country, and our soldiers, and the unity of America,” Renfro, 75, said Friday.

“Yes, there are problems out there, and they continue to exist. But for a player who makes millions — if I had that kind of money, I wouldn’t have any problems.”

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In 14 seasons with the Cowboys, Renfro never earned more than $85,000. He is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was the fifth Cowboy named to the team’s Ring of Honor.

Yet in October 1969, the day after Renfro’s interception return helped seal a 38-7 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, he and his wife were turned away for a $375-a-month duplex on Rincon Way near a Cowboys practice field on Forest Lane.

Renfro’s wife, Pat, was ready to sign when the agent told her the rules had suddenly changed. Families with three children were no longer welcome. The new limit was two.

“I was refused a place to live — a personal place to live!” Renfro said Friday: “It was blatant. It was unfair.”

It wasn’t the first time. And Renfro also had been turned away from an Oak Cliff breakfast cafe.

When the lawsuit hit the paper, his fan mail turned to hate mail.

“It was unfair — I feared for my newborn baby, my kids,” he said.

“When I came to town, the Cowboys gave me an address and said, ‘Now you go here [the Cedar Crest neighborhood] and live.’ I didn’t ask questions because all the other players of color were there.”

Renfro was not the only Cowboys player to speak up for civil rights. Star fullback Don Perkins told the Washington Post that African-American players “can only find roach-infested houses” and pressed to desegregate hotels for visiting teams.

The Cowboys … said, ‘Now you go here and live.’ I didn’t ask questions because all the other players of color were there.

Mel Renfro, Dallas Cowboys defensive back and running back 1964-77

“Don was a very smart man,” Renfro said.

“Some of the guys from out of state raised questions about the conditions. But most of the guys from the South realized that was just how it was.”

Later, several Cowboys objected when their wives, some of them professional models, were excluded from a white Cowboys wives’ fashion show.

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But outside of Renfro’s lawsuit, the Cowboys’ civil-rights activism was mostly behind the scenes.

General Manager Tex Schramm “didn’t want us to upset anybody,” Renfro said: “I was told not to file a lawsuit. But once they were convinced I was going to file, then they said, ‘Mel, we’re with you all the way.’ 

I was very proud to see them all standing in unity with locked arms. … But they stood for the flag!

Mel Renfro

This time, Renfro says the Cowboys were on the right side from the beginning by kneeling in unity Monday, then standing for the flag and anthem.

“I was very proud to see them all standing in unity with locked arms — from the owner to the equipment manager,” he said.

“They knelt down together — that’s like prayer or meditation. But they stood for the flag!”

Renfro said players sitting or kneeling during the flag presentation and anthem as a justice protest “breaks my heart.”

Injustice is “part of society,” he said “It’s part of life.

“There are bad people out there who are going to do things for bad reasons. We can just hope and pray these kinds of things will get better.”

That’s another reason to kneel.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy.

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