Everyone is aware of the Washington Redskins team name controversy. The consensus is that the word “redskins” is derogatory to the Native American Indians. Basically, it is called a racist connotation.
But, this is not the first time the Washington franchise has been considered racist. In fact, back in the day the Redskins were quite proud of being racist.
From the inception of the National Football League (NFL) there were black players and even a black head coach. However, there was a time-period when the league was devoid of any black players; many called it a “secret blacklist” period. That changed in 1946 when the Cleveland Browns were a brand new team in the brand new All-America Football Conference and hired fullback Marion Motley and defensive tackle Bill Willis. The Los Angeles Rams then signed running back Kenny Washington and Woody Strode to contracts. From there, black players were drafted, signed and played significant roles in the development of the sport.
What New York Giants fan isn’t fond of Roosevelt Brown, Emlen Tunnell, Homer Jones or Spider Lockhart?
In 1960, the NFL consisted of 14 franchises – and 13 were integrated. The Redskins’ owner, George Preston Marshall, refused to hire black players. To be factual, no black player had ever played for one of Marshall’s teams. He had a famous quote, “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” Very brash indeed.
In the 1930s-1940s Washington D.C. observed southern traditions of segregation. But after World War II and into the 1950s the city was only two-thirds white. The city already had desegregated with movie theaters, most restaurants, public transportation and lodging. Police and fire departments had also hired black employees.
Then the United States Federal Government stepped in.
Ever since the Redskins relocated from Boston to Washington in 1937 they played their home games at Griffith Stadium. This venue was built in 1911 and was home to several baseball teams, including the National League Washington Senators. It was built to accommodate baseball and was not fan-suitable to the game of football. Plus, the capacity was only 28,669.
A new stadium was proposed on government land to be ready in 1961. The stadium was a joint effort by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the D.C. Armory Board. The venue name would be D.C. Stadium (later renamed RFK Stadium). Although the design of the new facility would be multi-purpose, the main intent would be the Redskins new home field.
The Redskins were considered “the team of the South” as it was the NFL’s southernmost franchise. Marshall actually “claimed” the southern states as his territorial rights. Before every game the club’s marching band would play “Dixie” as well as the team’s fight song, “Hail to the Redskins” which also had lyrics that stated “Fight for Dixie!”
Marshall was steadfast about his team’s policy on not hiring black players. He didn’t draft any nor did he make any attempts to trade for any. And he didn’t back down from the subject, either. The Washington Post wrote several articles on these facts and that the team was the only one in professional sports devoid of black athletes. This was the time that civil rights was on everyone’s tongue and changes regarding race issues were eminent. One reporter wrote that the Redskins were “the whitest and worst team in professional football.” The team colors were noted as burgundy, gold and Caucasian.
By autumn of the 1960 season Marshall’s stance had become humiliation for the nation’s capital not only with segregation but also on the field. The last winning season for the Redskins was 1955 and the club went 1-9-2 during the 1960 campaign. And soon, the Skins would be playing in a brand new stadium – a stadium built on land owned by the Department of the Interior (DOI). Something had to be done, and someone had to be the one to start the process.
That someone was Stewart Udall, President John F. Kennedy’s newly-appointed Secretary of the Interior.
The Redskins had just signed a 30-year lease to begin play at the new stadium slated for completion in October of 1961. Not only was the $24 million ballpark completely financed with public funds, but was built at Anacosta Flats; which was a part of the National Capital Parks system. Because the DOI was basically the landlord and also a government entity, they could renounce usage from any entity that practiced discrimination and unfair hiring practices.
All government buildings had defined rules that did not allow discrimination in regards to hiring employees. D.C. Stadium wasn’t any different than any other federal structure. Udall contacted President Kennedy about the quandary to address the issue to which Kennedy told him to proceed with vigor and accomplish the task. Udall was instructed to force Marshall’s hand and then he fired off a letter with the advice that his team would be in violation of the government’s new regulations.
Udall held a news conference to explain the DOI’s stance. He pointed out that the new facility was being built on property owned by all persons of the United States, and managed by the public trust as well. The ultimatum garnered national attention from several of the nation’s largest newspapers, which basically articulated the story that the government had informed the Redskins to “integrate or else.”
For the very first time in U.S. history, the United States of America was going to desegregate a pro football team.
At a time when the conflict in Vietnam ruled the headlines, the Redskins dilemma suddenly took center stage. The fact that the club had only captured one victory had made the story even more desirable. As expected, Marshall did not take the letter (and his options) with class and fortitude. Instead, his response was that the lease had been signed with the current conditions therein, and the DOI knew his stance and yet they entered into the lease anyway. His next cause of engagement was to inform Udall that the matter had already been sent to his attorneys and that legal action was emanate. The back-and-forth duel was destined to be fought out in the newspapers.
The Vietnam War was on the brink of U.S. involvement. Marshall informed reporters that the real war was overseas and not in Washington, D.C. He asked the press why the government would put so much effort into whether another Negro player was going to join another pro football team and attempted to minimize the entire subject matter. Next, he developed a series of questions such as if his club did indeed hire black players, did those players have to play every game? Would every NFL team that played in D.C. Stadium have to use their black players during games? What if there were some southern colleges who played games at the new stadium and didn’t have any black players? Would the Navy, Air Force and Army college teams also have to integrate? Why black players and not Eskimos? Why not a female athlete?
There was support and backlash from many groups and individuals. Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier, called the coup inspirational. Arthur Goldberg, the Secretary for the Department of Labor and a Redskins fan, vowed to boycott their games. Members of the American Nazi Party were seen with signs that read “Keep Redskins White.” The NAACP picketed Marshall’s home.
The other NFL owners, who had just signed a huge new television contract, certainly didn’t want the public to assume that Marshall had their blessing. The backlash of bad publicity would place the entire league in a bad light. The owners asked Commissioner Pete Rozelle to work with Marshall for a resolution. Rozelle didn’t want to take on the task saying this was a “strictly a club problem.”
Meanwhile, Marshall’s attorneys had other tactics. They announced procedures that the Redskins would comply with any and all of the government regulations – beginning with hiring black players. The franchise essentially would cooperate and work out a viable solution. Udall then set a date for fulfillment of the government’s requirements.
With this new information Rozelle then had several meetings with Marshall. After several months of initial gruff and posturing from Marshall, an agreement was made for the Redskins to continue to be the lessee in the new stadium for the 1961 season with the condition the franchise was integrated beginning with the 1962 NFL season.
The 1961 season for the Redskins was anything but pleasant – on the field as well as off. The club was dead-last or near the bottom of most statistical categories, including rushing offense, special teams and team defense. With attendance, black patrons boycotted home games and picketed the stadium. The club’s first two games were on the road with October 1 their first home contest in the newly-crowned stadium. President Kennedy refused an invitation to attend the opening game despite the promise to integrate the next season. The Giants spoiled the stadium’s grand opening with a 24-21 victory over Washington. Later in the season, those same Giants shellacked the Redskins, 53-0. As the club limped through the year (and finished 1-12-1) the crowds became smaller and smaller.
With another losing season, Washington had the first overall selection in the 1962 draft. With an anemic running attack, they took running back (and black athlete) Ernie Davis of Syracuse. At the same time, the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League had drafted Davis in their league’s college draft. Being crafty, Marshall took Davis on the assumption that he might prefer to stay closer to home (in the state of New York). Other black players were guard John Nisby and fullback Ron Hatcher, who was drafted in the eighth round. Hatcher was eventually the first black player signed by the club. When the press asked for a photo opp with Marshall and Hatcher, the owner refused.
Davis had eyes on the NFL instead of the upstart AFL. Just weeks after the draft, Marshall traded Davis’ rights to the Cleveland Browns for flanker Bobby Mitchell and running back Leroy Jackson, the Browns first-round draft choice. Both were black players.
Being the only black players on a solid white team and a town that wasn’t used to seeing many black athletes, things were uncomfortable to say the least. Fans tormented the black players at games as well as around the city. At the team’s kickoff dinner the Redskin band was playing “Dixie” to which Marshall noticed Mitchell was not singing. When approached, Mitchell explained to the team owner that he did not know the words. In a rare twist, Mitchell was actually treated quite well by Marshall and their relationship was good, but he was the only black player that could make that statement.
As it turned out, Davis contracted leukemia while Mitchell became a star for the Redskins. In 1962 he was named All-Pro and represented the Redskins in the Pro Bowl. He led all receivers with 1,384 yards and 11 touchdowns. The following season he would amp up his game with 1,436 yards and would again make the Pro Bowl. For his career, he was a four-time Pro Bowler with 7,954 yards, on 521 receptions and 83 TDs. Other great black players would follow and become the very core of the Redskins including DB Brig Owens, WR Charley Taylor and RB Larry Brown.
Jackson only played two seasons. Nisby would be named to the Pro Bowl three years and retired in 1964. Hatcher only played one season. After football Nisby would later become a City Councilman for the City of Stockton, Calif., while Mitchell became a scout and then assistant general manager. He would be interviewed for the GM position of the Redskins. Both Marshall and Mitchell are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Mitchell’s name resides in the Redskins Ring of Fame and was named to the “70 Greatest Redskins” list.
The Kennedy administration gave nothing but excellent acclaim to the Redskins. Newspapers heralded that integration didn’t take place in Mississippi but here in their own backyard. Of course Kennedy was not all-in with civil rights as he broke several promises so as not to upset the southern congressman. But with the Redskins, segregation took a bold step forward.
Despite the team’s integration and the success of Mitchell as a player as well as other black players, when Marshall died in 1969 he left funds to his children and for a new charity to become a reality called the George Preston Marshall Foundation in Bethesda, Md. Under his strict instructions, however, the foundation “should not direct a single dollar toward any purpose which supports or employs the principal of racial integration in any form.”
Things got better in Washington. When Vince Lombardi became head coach he was a man who already did not allow type of racism regardless of skin color or background. Later, Joe Gibbs drafted many a black player and in fact built his team around better athletes instead of whether they were a certain color or not. He started the first Super Bowl winning quarterback in Doug Williams.
One of the unpretentious successes in the desegregation of our country came about as a result with a professional football team.