What led the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, one of the nation's best-known black leaders, to trade his Sunday church clothes for Western wear and jump on a horse?
"A lot of prayer," joked Lowery, who served as grand marshal for a recent stop of the Bill Pickett International Rodeo ("The greatest show on dirt.").
The rodeo, named for the black cowboy who invented the art of bulldogging, has been touring the nation for 21 years. But Lowery said the history lessons it offers need to reach a wider audience.
"I agreed to do this . . . because our history with the building of the West has been saturated with vanishing cream. Blacks did play a significant role in pushing the frontier," Lowery said.
In pushing the civil rights frontier, Lowery, 82, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy in 1957.
The rodeo has served as a launching pad for some successful pro rodeo stars, and more are moving up.
ProRodeo's first black champion was bull rider Charles Sampson in 1982. In 1999, Fred Whitfield became the first black cowboy to claim a world all-around title. Four years later, he became only the third cowboy to reach $2 million in career earnings. He was elected to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2004. Mike Moore, Ronnie Fields and others join Whitfield in the current ranks of black rodeo stars.
Nearly 30 years ago, when young entertainment promoter Lu Vason attended his first rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyo., he did not find an integrated competition. "My curiosity was piqued as to why there were no black cowboys," he said.
Later, Vason visited the Black American West Museum of History in Denver, and it was there he learned about Bill Pickett, born in 1870 in Texas.
Pickett helped refine what now is known as steer wrestling with his success in riding alongside a steer, jumping onto the steer's shoulders and horns and then digging his feet into the ground to bring the animal down. According to legend, Pickett borrowed a trick he learned from a cattle dog by biting the lip of a particularly stubborn steer.
In part because of his fascination with Pickett, Vason was hooked on the sport.
"I just got excited and thought if I was having that much fun, other black people would have that much fun," Vason said. "At that time, I decided to put together an all-black rodeo."
Vason's original plan was to stage an annual black rodeo in Denver, but the 1984 debut became a national tour of 10 to 13 stops. This year, the rodeo is scheduled for Beaumont, Tex., on June 18 and San Diego on June 25-26, before moving to Oakland, Calif.; Los Angeles; Denver; Austin, Washington and St. Louis. Before coming to Conyers, about 30 miles east of Atlanta, the rodeo made its first stop of the year in Memphis.
The Georgia event attracted a predominantly black crowd of several hundred, including many children.
"Parents bring them to expose them to the culture of the black West," Vason said, before adding, "We have to do something with more hip-hop" to attract teenagers.
Most of Vason's cowboys are from Oklahoma and Texas and have similar stories about growing up around horses and rodeos. Even some who grew up in an environment where there were black cowboys were taken with Vason's all-black show.
"I was very inspired by it and motivated," said Jesse Guillory, who saw his first Bill Pickett Rodeo in Houston 20 years ago and was immediately hired by Vason.
"It was one of the greatest things I had seen, black cowboys and black cowgirls," said Guillory, now the general manager of the rodeo.
Houston native Justin Richards, 22, said he remembers when he was tempted by other more mainstream sports such as basketball and football. Then came a rodeo accident that forced his hand.
"I messed around and got hurt when a bull stepped on me and broke my ankle," said Richards, adding that his high school coaches were angry at losing a player and ordered him to commit to a sport.
"I decided to cut the other sports loose and make rodeo full-time," he said.
"This is just a steppingstone for a lot of these young guys," Guillory said. "For us, it has been great. We've had Fred Whitfield, we've had Ronnie Fields, we've had Mike Moore. We look at them up there, and we're very proud to know they were a part of this."
Bull riding draws the applause of Chris Wynder of Snellville, Ga. The rodeo has trained many professional cowpokes.
Civil rights leader Joseph E. Lowery says "blacks did play a significant role in pushing" the frontier.