Civil Rights on the Gridiron
By Thomas G. Smith
"We'll start signing Negroes," Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall once quipped, "when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."
In 1961, the Redskins were the only team in professional football without a black player. In fact, in the 25-year history of the franchise, no black had ever played for George Marshall. Sam Lacy, the gifted black sportswriter for the Baltimore Afro-American, called the Redskins football's "lone wolf in lily-whiteism." Their owner was "the one operator in the whole structure of major-league sports who has openly flouted his distaste for tan athletes."
Along with George Halas of the Chicago Bears and Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Marshall was one of the founding fathers of the National Football League. Opinionated, flamboyant and contentious, Marshall also was imaginative, shrewd and persuasive. His contributions to the game earned him election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Born in Grafton, W.Va., in 1896, Marshall was raised in Washington, D.C., and always considered that city home. He dropped out of high school to pursue acting, but that career was interrupted by two years of service in World War I. Upon his father's death in 1919, he took over the family business: the Palace Laundry.
As a businessman, Marshall displayed a knack for promotion through clever advertising. He developed the slogan "Long Live Linen," and once ran a newspaper advertisement that consisted of a blank page except for a few words at the bottom which read: "This space was cleaned by Palace Laundry." By 1946, when he sold out, he had transformed a small family business into a multi-million dollar chain with 57 stores.
Marshall first became a sports owner in 1926 when he financed a professional basketball team, the Washington Palace Five. Six years later, he invested in a NFL team, the Boston Braves. Renamed the Redskins to eliminate confusion with the baseball team, the franchise enjoyed only modest success. In 1936, the team won the division title, but the fans and press showed little enthusiasm. Angered by the lack of support, Marshall moved the team from Boston to Washington in 1937.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s the Redskins were successful on the field and at the gate. Led by quarterback Sammy Baugh, the team won six division titles between 1937 and 1945. In 1940, the Redskins suffered the worst defeat in championship playoff history, losing 73-0 to the Chicago Bears. When the gun sounded ending the massacre, one reporter cracked: "That's George Marshall shooting himself." After World War II, the Redskins failed to win another title under Marshall. The owner's stubborn refusal to employ black athletes no doubt contributed to the team's poor record. "Thanks to the Marshall Plan," lamented one sportswriter, the Redskins were "the whitest and worst" team in professional football.
Innovations, halftime shows, and controversies
Marshall was a grand showman who promoted football as family entertainment. He introduced the halftime extravaganza because he believed that football was a pageant similar to the "gladiator shows" of ancient Rome. Despite the Great Depression, Marshall organized a 110-piece band and outfitted it with $25,000 worth of burgundy and gold uniforms. His wife, Corinne Griffith Marshall, co-authored a popular fight song, "Hail to the Redskins." And before games, the band played "Dixie." Besides the marching band, halftime shows sometimes featured animal acts, clowns, celebrities from stage and screen, symphony orchestras and, at Christmastime, Santa Claus.
Although he was an innovator, Marshall found some changes in the game distasteful. Besides integration, he opposed a players' union and pension system. He was extremely frugal in terms of travel expenses and salaries. He once berated fellow owner Art Rooney of the Steelers for driving up salaries by signing University of Colorado star Byron Whizzer White for $15,800, the highest contract in football in 1938. One sportswriter referred to Marshall as "the last of the small-time spenders."
Marshall enjoyed the limelight and controversy. At NFL meetings, Halas remembered, Marshall would "rave and rant" in order to win a point. He had long-running feuds with Harry Wismer, a Redskins stockholder who favored integration, and Shirley Povich, a Washington Post sportswriter whom he called a "fifth columnist." The Redskins owner caused a stir among sports-minded Americans when he wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post proclaiming football the national pastime because baseball was dead. And once on a television show, Oscar Levant asked Marshall if he was anti-Semitic. He responded: "Oh no, I love Jews, especially when they're customers." He went on to say that "No one of intelligence has ever questioned my theories on race or religion."
Early black players and changes in attitudes about race
The racial ban is not easily explained. Certainly there were qualified black athletes. Oze Simmons, Homer Davis, Fritz Pollard Jr., Jerome Holland, Kenny Washington, Marion Motley and others had all "proved their ability to stand the gaff and grind of the gridiron game." One writer speculated that NFL owners excluded all blacks because one, Joe Lillard, was alleged to have been "a bad actor." It is possible, though not probable, that Marshall may have persuaded other magnates to follow his discriminatory hiring policies. Marshall was new to the league in 1932, but he had enough influence to initiate several rule changes by mid-decade. But perhaps the best explanation is that football owners decided informally to emulate the policy of racial exclusion that prevailed in Major League Baseball. By falling into line with the baseball brethren, football titans could avoid the repercussions of hiring blacks while so many Depression-era whites were unemployed.
After World War II, many Americans began to reassess their racial attitudes. Thousands of blacks had joined the armed services to fight totalitarianism abroad. Nearly one million others had moved to northern and western cities to take jobs in war industries. The Cold War, too, helped break down segregation. How could the United States condemn the Soviet Union for civil rights violations when blacks in America were treated as second-class citizens? In 1946, President Harry S. Truman established a committee on civil rights. The next year, that presidential committee issued a report recommending the creation of a permanent federal bureau to insure equal job opportunities and the withholding of federal funds from those states that practiced segregation in public facilities. Those recommendations went unfulfilled due to Southern congressional opposition. In 1948, Truman issued an executive order desegregating the armed services and the Democrats inserted a civil rights plank in their party platform.
In the 1950s African-Americans made important strides toward racial equality. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously against school segregation in the Brown decision. The following year the court mandated the integration of public schools with "all deliberate speed." In 1955, a Montgomery, Ala., woman, Rosa Parks, lashed out against segregation in public transportation by refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man. And in 1960 four black students took seats in a segregated Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter and refused to leave until they were served. Their action sparked sit-in movements against segregation throughout the South.
Jim Crow also started to give way in professional sports. Baseball, basketball and football all hired black athletes. Although it was done without fanfare, professional football broke the color ban in 1946, the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league baseball contract. The "Jackie Robinsons" of postwar professional football were Kenny Washington and Woody Strode of the Los Angeles Rams and Bill Willis and Marion Motley of the Cleveland Browns.
As in Major League Baseball, full acceptance of blacks on the gridiron came about slowly. Influenced by the success of the desegregated Cleveland Browns, club owners gradually added black players to their rosters. By 1952, only the Redskins and Detroit Lions had failed to desegregate. By mid-decade, the Redskins stood alone. During the 1950s a total of 143 blacks played in the NFL. At the close of the 1960 season there were 61 blacks on NFL teams. The following year that figure climbed to 83, an average of six per team. Blacks constituted 16.5 percent of the players in the NFL while only 10.5 percent of the nation's population was black. Scores of African-Americans also played in the rival American Football League. Civil rights activists protested against Marshall's discriminatory hiring policies at NFL meetings and at Redskins' home games at Griffith Stadium. Marshall, however, steadfastly resisted desegregation. For the Redskins' owner, NAACP stood for "Never at Anytime Any Colored Players."
Marshall won't budge -- the press lets him have it
Despite those strides, racial intolerance and discrimination persisted in the nation's capital. Whites fled to segregated suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. In 1950, whites constituted about 65 percent of the city's population. Ten years later, whites were a minority of 4.5 percent. In 1960, six years after school desegregation, 76 percent of the public school population was black. Although blacks comprised a majority of the population, the city was governed by an all-white council appointed by the president. The police and fire departments had been integrated, but there were few black officers. Similarly, blacks were generally excluded from responsible positions in city government and business. Private clubs, such as the Cosmos, excluded blacks. Washington, then, was not an integrated city in 1960.
The criticism was fruitless. Marshall sought to improve the team by replacing coach Mike Nixon with Bill McPeak. At the NFL player draft in late December 1960 the Redskins pursued "state rights football" by shunning blacks. They selected Wake Forest quarterback Norm Snead and 19 other whites.
The dawn of the Kennedy era
For some blacks, the field of sports was "still leading the way" toward equality. Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith, a prominent black columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, denounced segregated housing at baseball spring training camps in Florida. Charlie Sifford became the first black to play in a PGA Tour event. The PGA also removed a whites-only membership clause from its by-laws. Willie O'Ree signed with the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League. And heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson insisted upon integrated seating in Miami when he signed a contract to fight Ingemar Johansson.
As president, Kennedy moved cautiously on civil rights. Instead of pushing legislation, he preferred to combat racial injustice with symbolic gestures and limited executive action. Marian Anderson, the famous black contralto, was invited to perform at the Presidential Inauguration. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall resigned their membership in exclusive, white-only clubs such as the Metropolitan. JFK urged unions to avoid hiring bias and advised schools to end segregation. He asked Cabinet members to avoid speaking engagements at segregated functions. He denounced the decision to hold the Civil War Centennial at a segregated hotel in Charleston, S.C. And he belatedly authorized the Justice Department to send U.S. marshals to the deep South to protect freedom-riders protesting segregation in interstate travel.
In his first few months in office, JFK appointed more than 50 blacks to important positions. To the dismay of blacks, he also named some white supremacists to the federal bench and failed to deliver promptly on a promise to abolish discrimination in federally subsidized housing. In early March 1961, he issued an executive order creating the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. At approximately the same time, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall decided to move against the discriminatory hiring policies of the Washington Redskins.
Stewart Udall pushes for desegregation of the Redskins
On March 24, 1961 Udall notified Marshall that the Interior Department had approved regulations prohibiting job discrimination by any party contracting to use "any public facility in a park area." Udall went on to say that "there have been persistent allegations that your company practices discrimination in the hiring of its players." Without prejudging the owner, he nonetheless warned him "of the implications of this new regulation -- and our view of its import."
At a news conference that same day, Udall explained that the new guidelines were designed to conform with the administration's anti-discrimination policy. "It is certainly our feeling that here in the Nation's Capital, with the marvelous new facility being built on property owned by all the people of the country, that we ought to set the very highest of standards in terms of adhering to the policies of this administration with regard to treating everyone in this country equally." If Marshall continued his ban on blacks he would be denied the use of D.C. Stadium. "I think it is quite plain that if he wants an argument, he is going to have a moral argument with the president and with the administration." He advised the headstrong owner to "adjust himself to the situation."
Udall's ultimatum gained nationwide attention. The New York Times and Washington Post featured the story on the front page. Not surprisingly, the black press also gave the story prominent coverage, as evidenced by the Chicago Defender headline: "REDSKINS TOLD: INTEGRATE OR ELSE."
Marshall and Udall fight it out in the papers
At his office, the pugnacious owner sounded off to reporters. First, he wondered why the government would get involved in such a trifling matter. "I am surprised that with the world on the brink of another war they are worried about whether or not a Negro is going to play for the Redskins." Second, he doubted that "the government had the right to tell the showman how to cast the play." Then he expressed a desire to discuss the issue with the president. "I could handle him with words. I used to be able to handle his old man."
Marshall also raised some pointed questions. Would a black have to appear in every contest and event scheduled at D.C. Stadium? Would George Washington University's football team be forced to carry blacks? What about southern colleges that played there? Did Udall also plan to integrate the Army, Navy and Air Force football squads? What about the national theatre, national symphony orchestra, the White House press and photographers corps? Where would the government draw the line?
He also tried to downplay the charge of discrimination against the Redskins. "All the other teams we play have Negroes; does it matter which team has the Negroes?" The Redskins lacked blacks because they recruited players from segregated southern colleges. Recruiting southern white players was not a matter of prejudice, he declared, but a business decision. As the owner of several radio and television stations, he did not want to offend his southern white audience by playing blacks. Although he had never signed a black, he had in the past hired athletes who were Samoan, Hawaiian, American Indian, and Cuban. He was color blind when it came to selling tickets and he frequently hired blacks to do custodial and other menial tasks. As for Udall's ultimatum, Marshall said that the NFL draft was over and his player roster was frozen. Leaving room to maneuver, however, he claimed that he was always open to the possibility of adding "players of recognized ability."
The next day Redskins' attorneys attempted to soften some of Marshall's statements. The Redskins, they asserted, had no intention of defying the federal government or breaking any laws. The team would cooperate in seeking a workable compromise.
Udall kept up the pressure. At a press conference on March 28 he gave the Redskins a deadline for compliance. To avoid cancellation of the lease and possible criminal prosecution, the owner must comply with the administration's anti-discrimination policy by October 1, the date of the Redskins' first home game. Marshall could best show compliance by hiring a black player. Udall suggested the possibility of a trade. In a final dig, he said that with a black player, Marshall's team "might win a few games."
Disillusioned with the administration, Marshall told a reporter that "you can't tell what will happen under the guise of liberalism." Still, he planned to obey the law even it if meant hiring "Eskimoes or Chinese or Mongolians."
How the desegregation fight played with the public
Despite intense criticism, Udall refused to back down. The president supported his position as did Attorney General Kennedy and Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg. A longtime fan, Goldberg announced that he would boycott all Redskins games because their hiring policies were "an outrage and a disgrace." Rep. Denis Chavez (R-N.M.) also applauded Udall's order. To those who feared that he would become a "Commissar of Sports," Udall pointed out that he was concerned only with Marshall's hiring policies. Indeed, his focus on Marshall gave credence to the charge that he was following a double standard. Georgetown University's segregated team was allowed to use the stadium on the specious grounds that it used amateur not professional athletes. Udall did put his own house in order. Learning that only oneof 474 National Park Rangers was black, he moved promptly to improve that "disgraceful record" by recruiting 50 minority candidates.
Rozelle steps in and Washington suffers through a terrible 1961 season
In the spring and summer of 1961 members of the NAACP and CORE picketed Marshall's home, D.C. Stadium and the Redskins' exhibition games in the west and south. Many sports owners also supported the government's position. Bill Veeck, maverick owner of the Chicago White Sox baseball team, recommended threatening Marshall with the possibility of having an integrated AFL team play in Washington. William Shea and Jack Kent Cooke, members of the Redskins' Board of Directors, urged Marshall to yield. Edward B. Williams, who would become a stockholder in 1962, recalled Marshall saying "that under no circumstances would he change" his racial policy. Football owners, who had recently signed a lucrative television contract and dreaded the bad publicity of Marshall's intransigence, asked Commissioner Pete Rozelle to mediate the conflict.
Initially, Rozelle labelled the controversy "strictly a club problem" and refused to intervene. Udall informed him that the government would not back down. And other owners were embarrassed by the bad publicity. In August Rozelle met with Marshall and persuaded him to relent. Following that meeting, Marshall announced that his team had "no policy against the hiring of football players because of their race." In fact, he had prepared a list of five black players whom he planned to select, if they were available, at the annual NFL draft in December. Running backs Ernie Davis of Syracuse University and Larry Ferguson of Iowa headed the list.
Marshall's conciliatory statement prompted a concession by Udall. He would permit the Redskins to field an all-white team at D.C. Stadium in 1961 if they agreed to place a black player on their roster the following year. Udall made it clear, however, that he was not backing down on his commitment to civil rights. "The Kennedy administration," he asserted, "is determined that every American should have a full and equal opportunity to utilize his or her talents in the classroom, in industry, on the playing field and in all areas of our national life." Still, some blacks suspected "a clever diversionary tactic" by Marshall and believed that "the administration should have held to its requirement of compliance" for 1961.
For the Redskins, the 1961 season was a nightmare. Blacks boycotted games and picketed the stadium with signs reading: "People who can't play together, can't live together." Udall and other Cabinet officials honored the pickets. President Kennedy refused an invitation to attend the opening game at the new stadium. The new facility was attractive, but ticket prices were the highest in the NFL and attendance was modest. Worst of all, the Redskins' record was "unsullied by victory" until the final game of the year. Counting the previous season, the team of "Nordic supremacy" went 17 straight games without a win.
Fans and writers heaped abuse upon Marshall and his coaches. "The Redskins end zone has frequently been integrated by Negro players," Povich wrote, "but never their lineup." Although some fans continued to defend Marshall's right to exclude blacks, others believed that African-American players, especially a fleet running back, would improve the team. As the NFL draft approached, Udall gave Marshall a final warning. The draft, he declared, "is the showdown on this" and he expected Marshall to keep his promises made earlier in the year.
The first black Redskins
In mid-December, Marshall divulged that on the day of the NFL draft he had secretly traded the rights to Davis to the Cleveland Browns. The Browns, who wanted Davis to join the league's leading rusher, Jimmy Brown, in their backfield, gave the Redskins two black players, Bobby Mitchell, an established running back, and Leroy Jackson, a No. 1 draft choice. Several weeks later, the Redskins added another experienced African-American athlete when they acquired offensive guard John Nisby from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Stricken with leukemia in the summer of 1962, Ernie Davis would never play an NFL game. As for the Redskins' players, Hernandez never signed a contract, Hatcher and Jackson rarely played, but Nisby and Mitchell became stars.
Redskins' fans generally cheered the acquisition of Mitchell as the speedy offensive weapon so badly needed. He had performed especially well against the Redskins. In the past season he had scored three long touchdowns against the Redskins in Cleveland. In one game in 1959 he gained 232 yards rushing on only 14 carries. Redskins' players also were pleased to obtain the experienced veterans. Quarterback Norm Snead recalled that the players, virtually to a man, considered the color barrier "ridiculous." Mitchell and Nisby, he remembered, were talented players and "great human beings" who were "received enthusiastically and with open arms." Nisby recalled that on one occasion a group went to a Virginia nightclub. When the black players were refused admittance, their white teammates left.
Aware of the Redskins' discriminatory policy, both Mitchell and Nisby approached their new team with some apprehension. "I honestly feel good about coming to the Redskins," Mitchell told reporters. Later he described the move as being "traumatic" because he had to endure "verbal abuse" and "a great deal of racial discrimination from the fans and the Washington community."
Although he was a pioneer of sorts, Mitchell downplayed comparisons with Jackie Robinson. "I wasn't quite as tough as Jackie," he declared. The racial slurs "affected me greatly -- and I haven't forgotten them." Less sensitive, Nisby found "little difference playing with the Redskins and playing with the Steelers."
Both men differed in their views of George Marshall. Mitchell recalled being treated well by the owner. Marshall was "a nice man" who "never came across to me as a bigot or showed any behavior in that manner." Nisby was less charitable. "I never appreciated the man at all, because of the stand that he took on blacks prior to my arrival here. My relationship with the front office wasn't really that great."
The Redskins ended the season with their best record in years: five victories, seven losses, and two ties. Mitchell led the league with 11 touchdowns, and caught 72 passes to earn selection to the Pro Bowl. He had several distinguished seasons and later was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and eventually became assistant general manager of the Redskins. Nisby had three successful seasons with the team and then was released. In 1963, Marshall suffered a debilitating stroke and turned over control of the team to Edward B. Williams and Jack Kent Cooke. Marshall died in 1969. In his will, he left a sizable bequest to establish a foundation, named in his honor, to help improve the lives of disadvantaged youngsters of all races who resided in the Washington area.
Successful desegregation of the Redskins won praise for the Kennedy administration. Sportswriters dubbed Udall "coach of the year" and the "most valuable player" in the NFL. Herblock congratulated him for the Redskins' scalp and commemorated the event in a cartoon. Other writers, losing their perspective, called the desegregation of the Redskins an achievement comparable to James Meredith's successful efforts to enroll at the University of Mississippi. "The integration success story of the Kennedy administration," wrote Boston Globe columnist Wilfrid Rodgers, "didn't take place in Mississippi but here in the backyard of the nation's capital."
Equating the desegregation of a professional football team with the integration of southern schools and universities is extravagant. Indeed, many critics have assailed the New Frontier for its lack of vigor in the pursuit of civil rights. Assessing JFK's civil rights record, black leader F.L. Shuttlesworth wrote that "where so little has been done for so long, any little may appear to be large." And Sen. Kenneth Keating (R-N.Y.) called the action against the Redskins a clever subterfuge to distinguish the administration's feeble civil rights record. "I cannot help but feel that Governor Faubus and his cohorts need a little more attention than George Preston Marshall and Company," declared Keating. "The Redskins may be tough on a football field, but the administration apparently has decided that they are easy targets in the political arena."
The administration's move against the Redskins, however, was more than a political ploy and civil rights tokenism. During the early months of 1961, blacks hailed the desegregation of the Redskins as part of the administration's overall commitment to fight racial discrimination through strong executive action. The magazine Ebony listed the desegregation of the Redskins as one of many civil rights achievements of 1961. More progress toward racial equality was made in 1961, the magazine declared, "than any other year in the last decade." The Chicago Defender praised Kennedy for "opening a New Frontier of human dignity." And the Afro-American gave special thanks to Udall: "Of all the New Frontiersman, none has been more forthright and determined to change the racial status quo."
Kennedy, to be sure, was not fully committed to civil rights. He reneged on campaign promises for fear of alienating white southern congressmen. Foreign policy also took precedence over civil rights. Yet, unlike the Eisenhower administration, the New Frontier took positive steps to combat racial injustice.
One of those modest successes was the desegregation of a professional football team in the nation's capital.
Thomas G. Smith is a history professor at Nichols College in Massachussetts. This essay was first published in the Journal of Sport History.