"Redskins Told: Integrate or Else"
In 1961—as America hummed with racial tension—the Washington Redskins stood alone as the only team in professional football without a black player on its roster. In fact, in the entire twenty-five year history of the franchise, no African American had ever played for George Preston Marshall, the Redskins' cantankerous principal owner. But that was about to change.
On March 24, 1961, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall warned Marshall to hire a black player or face federal retribution. A crew-cutted, youthful, athletic Arizonan, Udall in many ways embodied the image of a vigorous, can-do New Frontiersman. As a three-term Democratic congressman in the 1950s, he had won respect as a hard-working legislator who supported liberal causes, including the preservation of the environment and civil rights. When named Interior secretary by John F. Kennedy, he seized the opportunity to promote racial equality by pressuring the Washington "Paleskins," as he called them, because he "considered it outrageous that the Redskins were the last team in the NFL to have a lilywhite policy."
If Marshall did not integrate his team, threatened Udall, then the government would withhold the use of the Redskins' home playing field, D.C. Stadium—a publicly financed and newly built 56,000-seat arena located on public terrain at Anacostia Flats. Marshall had recently signed a thirty-year lease to play all home games at D.C. Stadium, and as the "landlord" of the parks system, the Interior Department could deny use of the stadium to any entity practicing discriminatory hiring policies.
Realizing that racial justice and gridiron success had the potential to dovetail or take an ugly turn, civil rights advocates and sports fans alike anxiously turned their eyes toward the nation's capital. There was always the possibility that Marshall—one of the NFL's most influential and dominating pioneers—might defy such demands from the Kennedy administration to desegregate his all-white team. With slicked-down white hair and angular facial features, the nattily attired, sixty-four-year-old owner presented a formidable visage in 1961. He had a well-deserved reputation for flamboyance, showmanship, and mercurial behavior. And, like other Southern segregationists,
Marshall stood firm against race mixing. "We'll start signing Negroes," he once boasted, "when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."
With its abysmal record of 1 win, 12 losses, and 1 tie the previous season, the Redskins had a real opportunity to improve themselves by making a competent selection. The player draft rules for the fledging American Football League (AFL) and the older National Football League (NFL) were the same: teams would "draft" or select players in inverse order of their won-lost records. In other words, teams with poor winning percentages, like the Redskins, would be given an opportunity to select talented college players before teams with higher winning percentages. The AFL's Oakland Raiders had first pick in 1961, with the NFL's Redskins to follow two days later.
As the two stubborn and strong-willed titans, Udall and Marshall, clashed over federal desegregation efforts, Americans waited in great anticipation for the start of the December 1961 draft. Washington could draft Ernie Davis, a powerful Syracuse University running back who had become the first African American to win the
Heisman Trophy. Drafting Davis might mean later losing him to the rival AFL for more money. The team could select Davis and trade him for two or three less-talented white or black players; or it could bypass Davis entirely to select a white player. It seemed unlikely that Marshall would defy the government and renege on his agreement to hire black players, but he was difficult to intimidate and unpredictable to boot. No one, including a well-intentioned presidential cabinet member, he said, could tell him who to hire for his private business. With the possibility of noncompliance in mind, on December 1, Udall issued a final warning to Marshall to honor his pledge to desegregate the team. The draft, he said, "is the showdown on this."
From Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins by Thomas G. Smith. Copyright © 2011 by Thomas G. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press.