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MLK Jr. African American Heritage Rodeo of Champions

This year’s National Western Stockshow is a bonanza. Denver’s famed conclave of cowboys and cattle will boast a colorful display of rodeo excellence heavy on diversity and substance. Mexican buckaroos will alternate with Black vaqueros. The stars are set to align into a stunning allegory of Black culture’s past, present, and future.

At the Denver Coliseum, the National Western Stockshow promises an evening where, "Stock Show fans can partake in the history and heritage of America's black cowboy as top black rodeo athletes and Buffalo Soldiers headline the National Western's first-ever Martin Luther King African-American Heritage Rodeo." The evening represents a personal triumph for Lu Vason as the city celebrates the great Civil Rights leader’s struggles and triumphs. Vason waged his own struggle for Black equality and recognition of an influential and integral aspect of African-American culture; the Black cowboys and cowgirls who historically took a back-seat to the Hollywood ideals of Western heroes.

In a much less dramatic fashion, Vason has assumed Dr. King’s mantle--and in a much less dramatic fashion, Vason is also becoming a celebrity. After burnishing the careers of stellar musicians like the Pointer Sisters, he set about promoting the legacy of a superstar who is long deceased--Bill Pickett. Before Vason introduced the rodeo champ to the general public, Pickett had faded from American history and few had heard his name, much less had honored his achievements.

Vason committed to resurrecting Pickett’s lackluster legacy into a living memorial and by doing so he not only propelled the late cowboy into a quasi-household name, but saw his own star rise. Today, Vason has assured Pickett’s immortality and can claim his own perch in the rodeo pantheon.

The days of global audiences being astonished by images of Black cowboys are long over. However, Vason still aims for a higher consciousness and general awareness. "My vision is on course," Vason said about his goal of educating African Americans about an important part of their history, and creating a general awareness about the presence of African Americans on America’s frontier.

Long gone are the days when Vason had to convince people that African American cowboys and cowgirls really existed. Their reality was never a figment of Vason’s imagination, as some might have originally believed. Embedded in his imagination 20-odd years ago was the reality today of a transcontinental awareness and appreciation of the African American Westerner.

He is satisfied that more people are becoming hip to the notion of African Americans excelling at rodeo competitions. "Now there’s an excitement; an aura that there are Black cowboys" and, he quickly adds, "cowgirls."

The rodeo carries the name of perhaps the most revered Black cowboy. Denver journalist Tom "TJ" Jacques told me that William "Bill" Pickett is reputed to be the greatest sweat-and-dirt cowhand who ever lived. That lofty assertion is justified by Pickett’s career. His life ended in a frenzied ride on a bronco in 1937, but the legend supports his inclusion in rodeo’s hall of fame.

Pickett’s enduring contribution, "bulldogging," is a wrestling match, where a cowboy pins the bull to the ground. Pickett would nip the bull’s upper lip, paralyzing the animal with either pain or shock at the audacity.

When the bull’s power is minimized, a cowboy is able to dominate his raging opponent. The sport has since become a rodeo staple. The Bill Pickett Rodeo also features calf-roping, bull-riding, bronco-riding, barrel racing for women, and plenty of cowboys and cowgirls.

The William "Bill" Pickett Invitational Rodeo is a tome of Black history that Vason has scripted for contemporary society. He is on constant assignment, observing his subjects--the past and present Black cowboys and cowgirls--and reporting to the world not only their amazing past, but their immediate relevancy.

Vason’s professional personality is a summation of the traits that are championed in leaders. Today, he carries on the torch of not only Bill Pickett, but also the ideals of Dr. King. His resume is sprawling and impressive--journalist, entrepreneur, showman, educator, and curator. Vason and the National Western Stockshow are both keeping The Dream alive this January in honor of Dr. King’s birthday.

By Wayne Trujillo - Denver Urban Spectrum - January 2006

Lu Vason Tribute