• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Racist Redskins

Despite these pitiful performances, the team still drew crowds large enough that Marshall (this should sound familiar) grew dissatisfied with old Griffith Stadium, which had stood since 1911 where Howard University Hospital is today, and began clamoring for a new park. Since the District of Columbia was administered by Congress in those pre–home rule days, this meant negotiating with the federal government. In due course, an arrangement was made for the construction of a 54,000-seat stadium at East Capitol and 22nd streets, on land owned by the Department of the Interior. Marshall signed a thirty-year lease.

Here, finally, was his error. The Kennedy administration hit town, and with it, a young and aggressive and very liberal-minded secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall of Arizona. Udall was a classic New Frontiersman. He was a gunner in World War II, a college basketball player at the University of Arizona, a self-described “Jack-Mormon” who did not follow his religion’s bans on alcohol and caffeine, and he was committed to integration. (He was also the brother of Morris “Mo” Udall, who served in Congress for many years and ran for the presidential nomination in 1976.)

Udall wasted no time in seeing his opportunity to force Marshall’s hand. Smith quotes from a memo the secretary sent to the President on February 28, 1961, just five weeks into the new administration’s tenure:

George Marshall of the Washington Redskins is the only segregationist hold-out in professional football. He refuses to hire Negro players even thought [sic] Dallas and Houston, Texas have already broken the color bar. The Interior Department owns the ground on which the new Washington Stadium is constructed, and we are investigating to ascertain whether a no-discrimination provision could be inserted in Marshall’s lease.

When such clauses were duly introduced, Marshall responded with a combination of bravado and apoplexy. He wanted a sit-down with Kennedy: “I used to be able to handle his old man,” he said, referring cryptically back to his Boston days. He asked rhetorically: “All the other teams we play have Negroes; does it matter which team has the Negroes?” During the summer of the Freedom Rides, the Redskins drama intensified. The American Nazi Party marched outside the new stadium, carrying placards saying “Keep Redskins White!” The NAACP and CORE picketed the stadium and Marshall’s house. Marshall insisted that the government had no right to tell him how to run his business. One wonders what Senator Rand Paul, among others today, might have said. By now, in any case, 70 percent of professional players are African-American.

In the end, Showdown, which is thoroughly researched, briskly written, and does a fine job of filling in this bleak episode in our cultural history, loses a bit of the momentum it has gathered because there is no great showdown, no Hollywood moment. Marshall saw that his hands were tied. Pete Rozelle, the NFL’s new, young, and PR-conscious commissioner, brokered a deal between Udall and Marshall by which the team was given until 1962 to start fielding black players. In the 1962 draft, the Redskins (who had won a single game in 1961 and lost twelve) chose the African-American Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, from Syracuse. Marshall promptly traded him to Cleveland—but for Bobby Mitchell, another black athlete, so Mitchell became the first black Redskin (quickly joined by others). Davis contracted leukemia and died within months.

With Mitchell and the others, the Redskins started winning some games. They didn’t get really good again until the 1970s, under coach George Allen—the father of the former (and perhaps future; he’s running again) Virginia senator of the same name, the one who referred in 2006 to his Democratic opponent’s videographer as a “macaca.” Allen Sr. was close to President Nixon and had coached at Nixon’s alma mater, Whittier College. He even let Nixon call a play in a 1971 playoff game. It lost thirteen yards.

The team won three Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s, which made it one of the strongest franchises of that era. Under current owner Daniel Snyder—who bought the team in 1999 from the son of the previous owner, the flamboyant media tycoon and racehorse owner Jack Kent Cooke—success has been limited, to put it politely. Fortunes may be changing—the team is 3–1 so far this year as I write. But some things will not change. The team and its fans still often point to a 2004 survey by the Annenberg Center, which found that by a margin of nine to one, American Indians took no offense at the name Redskins.2 They have bigger problems to worry about. I admit to a mild curiosity about whether they’d feel differently if they knew the name was dreamed up by the sport’s most overtly racist figure, who even in his will (he died in 1969) stipulated that the Redskins Foundation that was to be created with most of his estate not direct a single dollar toward “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.”

  1. 2

    See National Annenberg Election Survey, September 24, 2004, at www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org. 

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print