The Jackie Robinson of Rodeo

Five decades ago, Myrtis Dightman broke the color barrier in professional rodeo and became one of the best bull riders who ever lived. But his imprint on the sport was only just beginning.

Texas Monthly |
  • Christian Wallace

Myrtis Dightman at his home in Crockett on May 29, 2018. Photo by LeAnn Mueller.

Eight seconds were all Myrtis Dightman needed to make history.
It was 1967, the first weekend in April, and the lean 31-year-old cowboy lowered himself onto the back of a 1,700-pound bull. He was at a rodeo in Edmonton, in the Canadian province of Alberta, the farthest he’d ever been from his East Texas hometown of Crockett. The air was thick with the stench of livestock and cigarette smoke as five thousand onlookers packed the concrete grandstands.
Dightman, dressed in a starched collared shirt and tan chaps with three dark leather diamonds running down the sides, slid his legs around the flesh-and-blood powder keg, careful to keep his spurs turned out. He slipped his right hand into the braided hold behind the Brahman’s muscular hump. Red dust billowed from the bull’s hide as the grass rope—the only thing Dightman was allowed to hold on to—was pulled tight as a hangman’s halter around the animal’s midsection. His hand now strapped in the rigging, Dightman leaned forward until he was nearly looking down between the bull’s horns. He closed his left hand into a fist as he raised it high above his cream-colored cowboy hat.
To make a qualified ride, a cowboy has to hang on for eight seconds without his free hand touching himself or the bull. If he “makes eight,” judges will give the ride a score, with a total of a hundred possible points—fifty for how hard the bull bucked and fifty for the rider’s ability to stay in control. If Dightman held on, this ride could send him to the top of the standings. He took a breath, then nodded. The chute flung open.
1, 2, 3, 4 . . .
There’s nothing quite like being on the back of a thrashing, writhing, bred-to-buck ton of hoof, horn, and muscle to make one truly appreciate the relative nature of time. Seconds become small eternities as man and animal blur together in a violent yet beautiful dance.
. . . 5, 6, 7, 8.
The buzzer rang. Dightman was still gripping the rope.
The crowd certainly appreciated the ride. So did the judges, who awarded Dightman the go-round’s highest score, pushing his total for the two nights to 142 points—enough to crown him the winner. But it’s unlikely that anyone in the arena that night understood the historical importance of what they had witnessed. It wasn’t until the following Monday, after the Rodeo Cowboys Association tallied the earnings from every sanctioned event, that Dightman was declared the number one ranked bull rider in the world. That made him the first black cowboy to stake a claim for the world title.
The headline for the wire story that ran in newspapers across the country announced, “Negro Cowboy Takes Bull Riding Lead.” The news came twenty years to the month after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. No surprise, then, that sportswriters took to calling Dightman the Jackie Robinson of Rodeo. The comparison between the two athletes was, in some ways, painfully obvious: in an organization with over a thousand contestants, Dightman was the only African American competing full-time.
Pursuing a championship in the world’s most dangerous sport is a formidable task for any cowboy, but for a black cowboy in 1967 such an undertaking seemed, to most, downright impossible. Dightman refused to buy it. “A lot of folks thought rodeo was a white man’s game,” he said years later. “But those bulls don’t care if you’re white or black. You could be green, for all it matters. They just don’t want you on their backs.”
Dightman at the 1966 National Finals Rodeo, in Oklahoma City. Photo courtesy of Devere Helfrich/Dickinson Research Center/National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

The bulls might have been color-blind, but certain stock contractors and judges were not. Signs posted outside rodeo arenas across the Jim Crow South announced their prejudice in big, bold letters: “No dogs, no Negroes, no Mexicans.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been enacted to snuff out this kind of explicit segregation, yet racism remained rampant. By the 1967 season Dightman had spent nearly a decade “riding the circuit” and had found ways to work around the system. He learned to hold his free hand farther away from his body than the other riders so a crooked judge wouldn’t be able to “foul him out.” He sometimes held on longer than the required eight seconds—just in case the timekeeper’s watch ran a little slow. And he wasn’t surprised when he somehow managed to draw the meanest bulls, the ones thought to be “unrideable,” over and over again.
Once, at a rodeo in Little Rock, a gateman stopped Dightman at the entry to the chutes: “No colored allowed.” Dightman pleaded with the man, even as the announcer called his name to ride. It wasn’t until a white bulldogger intervened that the gateman relented and let Dightman through. By then his bull had been turned out of the chute and returned to the holding pen. Dightman explained to rodeo officials what had happened, and they agreed to let him ride. He placed second.
He didn’t have time to stew over the injustice or celebrate his relative triumph. After he dismounted, Dightman threw his bull rope in the backseat of his Chevy Impala and headed for the next dusty town in hopes of winning another fat purse. He traveled nonstop from one event to the next, trying to win enough cash to earn a trip to the National Finals Rodeo, which was held each December in Oklahoma City. There, the year’s top fifteen money-earners in each event would compete for the most coveted piece of hardware in rodeo: a World Champion’s gold buckle.