Year of the Black QB

Richard Pryor told America about the struggle of black quarterbacks

In his prime-time show, the comedian brought James Harris’ mistreatment to white America’s living rooms

Fifty seconds. That’s all it took for Richard Pryor to embed himself in the complex odyssey of black quarterbacks in the NFL. In a sketch on his short-lived program The Richard Pryor Show, Pryor brought the simmering anger of black quarterbacks and fans into the living rooms of white America. And he did it while pretending to be the first black president of the United States, another instance of leadership that much of white America couldn’t conceive as anything other than a joke.

In the sketch that aired on NBC on Sept. 13, 1977, Pryor is holding a news conference in the White House. After fielding questions about Mideast peace, unemployment, and the space program, the president calls on “Brother Bell” of Ebony magazine, played by actor Tim Reid. “Brother, about blacks in the labor force,” Bell says, “I wanna know what you gonna do about having more black brothers as quarterbacks in the National Football Honky League.”

Pryor’s improvised response was a master class in comedy and cultural introspection. “I plan not only to have lots of black quarterbacks, but we gon’ have black coaches and black owners of teams. As long as it’s gon’ be football, it’s gon’ be some black in it somewhere!”

Pryor then invoked the saga of James “Shack” Harris, a name as vital to the discussion of black quarterbacks in the NFL as Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson are today. “ ’Cause I’m tired of this mess that’s been going on. Ever since the Rams got rid of James Harris, my jaw been uptight. You know what I’m talkin’ ’bout? We gon’ get down on the case now!”

Richard Pryor, shown here at a Night of 100 Stars event on March 8, 1982, in New York, used humor to speak truth to power.

(Photo by Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

Like many of the great satirists in American history — Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Dave Chappelle (who portrayed a black president in his own sketch comedy show three decades later) — Pryor used humor to speak truth to power.

“[That] sketch is consistent with the kind of social commentary infused in all of his greatest work,” said Samuel G. Freedman, the author of Breaking the Line, about black college football in the ’60s.

In an America still wrestling with the effects of the Vietnam War, Watergate and the civil rights movement, the stories of Pryor and Harris were connected in ways beyond a TV show.

Harris still remembers the scene in the locker room shortly after Pryor mentioned him on air. He was in his first season with the San Diego Chargers after a controversial trade from the Los Angeles Rams. Harris had gone 21-6 during three seasons starting with the Rams. But according to his former coach, Chuck Knox, Harris lost his starting role following a dinner party vote at then-Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom’s Bel-Air, California, house. Only Knox and his wife voted for Harris, who went 11-2 as a starter in 1975 and led the Rams to the NFC Championship.

By the fall of 1977, Pryor’s name-dropping of Harris was a proud moment for a black man whose professional career was spent working twice as hard for treatment not even marginally equal. Harris’ teammates were ecstatic. You heard Shack made Richard Pryor’s show? The black president sketch — he mentioned Shack!

The moment was equal parts amazement and shock for Harris. He hadn’t seen the show. And though both men had lived and worked in the Los Angeles area, Harris wasn’t sure Pryor even knew who he was.

“I just really appreciated being part of the skit and that he was even aware of my journey,” Harris told The Undefeated.

To understand that journey, one has to go back to 1969. Harris, a quarterback out of the historically black football powerhouse Grambling State, was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the eighth round. (Buffalo made O.J. Simpson the first overall pick in that same draft.) The selection was the fruition of a prophecy by Grambling’s legendary coach Eddie Robinson who, two years earlier, predicted to True magazine’s Jeffrey Izenberg that Harris would be the first black quarterback to make it big in the pros.

While Simpson stayed in a suite at the Hilton, Harris was rooming at a Buffalo YMCA for $6 a night. At first, he was made to lace and clean shoes, but eventually won the starting job, beating out veterans Jack Kemp and Tom Flores. Harris became the first black quarterback to start a season opener, and did so as a rookie. On Sept. 10, 1969, the New York Times’ headline read: Jets Are Likely to Face Harris, Bills’ Negro Passer, on Sunday.

If that attitude weren’t enough, one of Harris’ receivers was Marlin Briscoe, who a year earlier, as a rookie, was the first starting black quarterback in the AFL. Briscoe would never play quarterback again despite throwing for 14 touchdowns in five starts. So here was Harris’ reality — a “Negro passer” to the media, who saw him more as a circus freak show, being asked to throw to a teammate who had been forced out of the position he wanted to play.

Los Angeles Rams quarterback James Harris (seen here during the NFC Championship Game on Dec. 29, 1974) became the first black quarterback to both make the Pro Bowl and then win MVP. Harris, through action, and Richard Pryor, through the spoken word, were both truth-tellers.

Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Likewise in 1969, Pryor’s career and life were in a state of profound transition. He was a fixture on the Las Vegas nightlife scene after getting his start opening for Bobby Darin at Sin City’s Flamingo Hotel. But he was drained by the compromises required to keep his primarily white audiences comfortable. During a show at the Aladdin in 1969, a fed-up Pryor stormed off stage and began a journey to hone his voice and perspective.

It was during this time he moved to Berkeley, California, and experienced a political and social awakening. Literary giants such as Claude Brown, Cecil Brown, Al Young and Ishamel Reed educated him. Black Panthers leaders Huey Newton, Angela Davis and Bobby Seale gave him the confidence that his work in front of a microphone mattered as much as theirs. Pryor had admired the honesty of how Malcolm X addressed what it felt like to be black in America. Now, he wanted to do the same.

By 1974, Pryor’s vulnerable, candid and explicit approach to comedy had become a signature brand of activism. When Pryor spoke, America laughed. But more importantly, it listened as he held a mirror up to the country’s ugliest truths. That year, Pryor was awarded his first Grammy for his stand-up album This N—–’s Crazy.

By 1974, Harris too, was experiencing a rejuvenation. His time in Buffalo ended less than ceremoniously with injuries and the debilitating pressure that came with being a black quarterback in the early ’70s. Teammates complained about his diction and hate mail poured in. He was cut after the 1971 season and no team signed him in 1972. But thanks to an assist from Grambling alum Paul “Tank” Younger — the first player from a historically black college to suit up in the NFL was then working in the front office of the Rams — Los Angeles signed Harris.

Harris’ 1974 season was his crowning moment. His first start was a 37-14 blowout over the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles went 7-2 in its last nine games. Harris led the NFC in passer rating (85.1) and took the Rams to the NFC Championship. He became the first black quarterback to both make the Pro Bowl and then win MVP. Harris, through action, and Pryor, through the spoken word, were both truth-tellers.

Despite his success on the field with the Rams and despite leading them to a second consecutive NFC Championship in 1975, it still wasn’t enough. Black folks weren’t supposed to play quarterback, or so the stereotype mandated. Not the glamour position. Not the one that required elite level athleticism and smarts.

“I know for a fact that I’m better than a lot of NFL quarterbacks,” Harris told Jet. “If I felt they were better, maybe I’d be concerned. I know I’m one of the best and no one can convince me I can’t play. I’m thinking positively about my future.”

In October 1975, Sport magazine featured Harris on its cover with the provocative coverline: Will James Harris Be The First ___* To Play Quarterback In The Super Bowl? Harris received death threats, and by 1976, the Rams were in the midst of a full-fledged quarterback controversy with Harris, Ron Jaworski and rookie Pat Haden. Even though Harris won three-quarters of his 27 starts over three seasons, the Rams’ front office never trusted him. And now it was bigger than just a football personnel issue.

High-profile black politicians in Los Angeles took notice. Maxine Waters, then a member of the California state assembly, brought Harris’ situation to the attention of the city council and later the California state legislature. L.A. councilman David Cunningham, who was furious at the Rams’ and the media’s treatment of Harris, presented the quarterback with a special resolution of support.

Harris spent the last three seasons of his career essentially serving as Dan Fouts’ backup in San Diego. After his playing days, he served in a personnel role for multiple teams and earned a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens in 2001. Throughout his journey, Harris continues to preach the gospel of opportunity. Bitterness claims no residency in his heart. For Harris, it was, and still is, about the next generation of black quarterbacks living with the prosperity his time in pads never afforded.

He doesn’t live with animosity, but in a moment of transparency, he admitted his time with the Rams ruined his love for the game. They had robbed him of a position Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech persuaded him he could play. This was the climate, that by September 1977, birthed the famed Richard Pryor Show sketch.

By the time its first episode aired, Pryor was a star. He raked in two more Grammy’s for 1975’s Is It Something I Said? and Bicentennial N—– a year later. Within a five-year span, he starred in Lady Sings The Blues, The Mack, Uptown Saturday Night, Which Way Is Up? and Greased Lightning. Largely written by Pryor and Paul Mooney, The Richard Pryor Show was a launchpad for a host of comedians tied to L.A.’s famed Comedy Store. Reid calls his time with Pryor and the show a “gladiator camp for comics.” Robin Williams, John Witherspoon and Marsha Warfield all saw their careers take off as a result of working with Pryor, whose fearlessness became characteristics of their own work.

“That was the comedy that Richard did,” Warfield said. “That was the kind of comedy I was learning how to do. You do stuff you care about and you bring issues to the forefront. And punch up at sacred cows.”

The show focused on topics ranging from African heritage to the trappings of capitalism. And it was rooting-for-everybody-who’s-black black. Famed poet Maya Angelou even delivered a soliloquy on the pain black women face from the trauma inflicted on, to and from black men. NBC regularly sent spies to the show’s rehearsals.

“You’d think we were building nuclear fusion equipment,” said Reid, laughing. “They were so afraid of us because they knew what we were doing was so counter to the system of TV.”

Richard Pryor is seen here doing stand-up comedy. The Richard Pryor Show lasted four episodes, but the sketch featuring Pryor as the leader of the free world stands out for its precision, nuance and rebelliousness.

Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

The show lasted only four episodes out of a scheduled 10. Pryor openly opined against the show’s time placement — NBC aired it between Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley — and network censorship. The show received a glowing initial review from the New York Times, which agreed with Pryor, saying, “If there are any problems about content, the time slot should go but Mr. Pryor should definitely stay. Television can use his originality.”

For a show that lasted a month, there were a number of beloved skits, from its To Kill a Mockingbird parody to Pryor as a Star Wars bartender. But it’s the sketch featuring Pryor as the leader of the free world that stands out for its precision, nuance and rebelliousness.

Warfield, then a 23-year-old comic with her first real mainstream shot, was understandably nervous that night. “I had this huge opportunity,” she said, laughing. “My whole goal was not to f— it up.” By the time Warfield’s question in the skit arrived, Pryor had already addressed the difference in black and white unemployment rates and the lack of black people in the space program. She asked if Black Panther Newton was being considered for head of the FBI. (He was, Pryor affirmed.) Now it was Reid’s turn.

Reid, who had been active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, knew he wanted his clothes and presence in the scene to be militant and he picked his own wardrobe. From there, he channeled the anger that had been part of his existence for years.

Neither the question nor the answer were scripted. Reid says he and Pryor both spoke from the standpoint of just about every young black football fan at the time. History would never know the majority of black quarterbacks who had their careers and lives affected because they weren’t allowed to play the position. This moment was for them. Reid came up with the question on the spot.

“Any black man back then that was struggling, dealing with the misconceptions and prejudice they used against us, was a hero to us,” Reid said. “[James Harris] was on the front line. That cat got screwed. It was a privilege to improv that because that’s how we felt, man. We were pissed!”

The mistreatment of Harris was widely followed by black sports fans and the black community in general. Most of white America never knew or cared. To have Pryor, one of the country’s most powerful voices, put this on a nationally televised program, during what was then called “family hour,” was a striking blow for public truth.

The smile on Harris’ face is almost visible through the phone. He laughs when he says people are still asking him if he’s seen the clip 43 years later. Opportunities for black leadership in the NFL have both improved since Harris’ playing days and remain drenched in perceived prejudice. Black head coaching candidates (and people of color as a whole) battle many of the same stereotypes Harris faced and black quarterbacks are still often credited more for their athleticism (or even skin complexion) than their intelligence.

Yet, when Harris thinks back to the moment Pryor took his name and his story national, the manner in which he did it is still startling: A black president talking about a black quarterback.

“There’s definitely some symbolism in that,” Harris said. “I thought it was a realistic discussion about black quarterbacks in America. There was a reality to what he was saying.”

Pryor wasn’t just playing a president who was black. He was playing a black president, 31 years before Barack Obama was elected leader of the United States.

“[Richard] was having to project forward to the day we would have a black president … the way he showed that president struggling with how, in a white country, a black president isn’t allowed to frontally talk about race,” said Freedman. “The same as what Barack Obama struggled with in a lot of his own public statements. Pryor foresaw that.”

Pryor died in 2005 and, as fate would have it, he and Harris never met. The quarterback never got the chance to thank the comedian for caring. To say thank you for humanizing him.

Harris pauses for a moment. He takes a deep breath. “I’m very happy to be a part of his legacy for all these years. The thing about it is,” Harris said, laughing, “it’s still playing!”

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.