Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. But it wasn't until 1962 that the last NFL franchise integrated — the Washington Redskins.
As Thomas G. Smith writes in his new book, Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins, Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was quite happy running the last segregated team. "He loved being a holdout because he loved the attention," Smith told weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan. "His excuse for being the only holdout [was] the Redskins are the South's team and the South is segregated. So is the nation's capital, and this is my primary audience."
But the Redskins' history of racism predates their time in Washington. They were created as the Boston Braves, just like the original Beantown baseball team back in the days when a town's sports franchises often had the same name. In 1933, the team moved into Fenway Park. Marshall also hired a new coach that year, a member of the Sioux nation named Lone Star Dietz, "and to honor Dietz, so he said, he renamed the team Redskins," recalled Smith.
The players and coach Dietz were also forced to wear war paint and act out Indian-style dances on the field. Smith said that made it difficult for the players to perform in the game: "They became physically so tired that they couldn't perform well, and it was embarrassing and humiliating and they hated it."
Racial discrimination damaged the Redskins performance on the field for another reason. Many of the prime draft picks were African-Americans, and because the Redskins were perennially bad Marshall often had the first slot in the draft. But year after year he would pass up future Hall of Famers like Jim Brown and Jim Parker for white players. Many of them would never make a name for themselves – not to mention the 'Skins.
By the early sixties, the civil rights movement was gaining strength, and Washington became a majority black city in 1960. Smith said pressure started building from the black fan base and the media, including Washington's premier sports columnist, Shirley Povich.
None of that was enough to push Marshall across the color line. The leverage finally came in 1961 as the Redskins prepared to move into the brand new D.C. Stadium, later renamed for Robert F. Kennedy.
The stadium was on federal land, so President John F. Kennedy's interior secretary, Stewart Udall, was effectively D.C. Stadium's landlord. He gave Marshall an ultimatum, according to Smith, "If you do not hire a black player, you will not be able to use this new stadium." Marshall refused, Udall backed off, and the Redskins did play in their new stadium for the 1961 season.
"But if you don't integrate in 1962, you will not be able to use the stadium." Smith said that's the line in the sand Udall drew as the next season approached. He told Marshall to sign or trade for a black player, turning the 1962 draft into a showdown. Marshall refused to draft an African-American, so he sent coach Bill McPeak to do it for him.
The Redskins drafted Syracuse back Ernie Davis as the first pick in the 1962 draft. Davis was traded, but the Redskins eventually signed five African-Americans, including future Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell.
Mitchell maintains that he never had any issues with George Preston Marshall, but faced much hostility from fans. Mitchell, the Redskins' first African-American star, stayed with the team for decades, eventually rising to the position of assistant general manager before retiring in 2002.
LAURA SULLIVAN, Host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. The NFL season kicks off Thursday, and the league has come a long way from the segregated sport it once was. But some teams almost didn't come around. In fact, it took a threat from John F. Kennedy's White House before the Washington Redskins added black players.
T: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins." Author Thomas G. Smith has a simple explanation for why in 1961, the Redskins were the only team left in the NFL without a single African-American player.
THOMAS G: Because they had a bigot for an owner.
SULLIVAN: That'll do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SULLIVAN: Now, in the league's earliest days, there were a few black players, even one black head coach, but not on George Preston Marshall's Redskins. Marshall was a master promoter. He brought some innovations to the fledgling league. His team was the southern-most in the NFL, and he introduced the pro game to many fans in the South.
SMITH: And he used his influence with other NFL owners to establish the racial ban. And that stood in place until 1945. And the turning point was World War II, I think. After World War II, owners realized gosh, we just fought a war to free humankind from tyranny and yet here in America, we've got segregation and racism. And that's a contradiction in our ideals.
SULLIVAN: One thing that's interesting about the Redskins during this time period where all the other NFL owners sort of gave in, but he didn't - and during that time period, the Redskins were terrible. I mean, they were a really bad football team. Did - and so did he give any kind of reasoning for this?
SMITH: No. And he loved being the holdout because he loved the attention. And his excuse for being the only holdout is, the Redskins are the South's team. And the South is segregated; so is the nation's capital, and this is my primary audience. And if I integrate the team, I will lose my large radio network and later, television network. So it was, in part, a business decision, but it was clearly racism.
SULLIVAN: What was it that finally made him cave?
SMITH: Well, I think the losing started to get to him, and he started to get bad publicity. And African-Americans, by 1959, 1960, 1961, as the Civil Rights Movement started to gain momentum, they started boycotting games. He began to realize that he is going to have to cave on this issue.
SULLIVAN: When did he finally do that?
SMITH: When the Kennedy administration - in particular, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall - sent him a letter, saying: If you do not hire a black player, you will not be able to use this new stadium, publicly owned, which the Department of the Interior is the landlord of. You want to play in this stadium? Hire a black player.
SULLIVAN: So that - this turns into the 1962 NFL draft, which became somewhat of a showdown between the Interior secretary, Stewart Udall, and the head of the Redskins. What happened?
SMITH: Marshall didn't even attend the draft because he knew he had to back down. So he sent his coach, a guy named Bill McPeak, but he gave instructions to draft a black player. And that black player was Heisman trophy winner Ernie Davis. But as it turned out, he traded him for the draft rights to another black player, named Leroy Jackson, and an established player, Bobby Mitchell of the Cleveland Browns.
SULLIVAN: Well, Bobby Mitchell became a huge star. I mean, he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. How did George Marshall treat him?
SMITH: George Marshall treated Mitchell pretty well. And Marshall made him the highest paid player on the team. And he had pretty much no problems with his white teammates - especially quarterback Norm Sneed, a Southerner from Wake Forrest who welcomed him.
SULLIVAN: So he had a pretty good experience, then, on George Marshall's team.
SMITH: Yes and no. Marshall treated him OK; the fans did not. They were pretty hostile - many of them - yelling out racial epithets to him. He was barred from certain restaurants. In one restaurant he went into, a customer spit on him.
SULLIVAN: Wow. So George Preston Marshall died in 1969.
SULLIVAN: Was he ever sorry for the way he treated black players?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SMITH: I don't think so. People who defend him in saying oh, George was just being eccentric, I think there are three - kind of smoking guns. One is, any sportswriter who talked to him, when he mentioned African-Americans, the sportswriter could tell within five minutes that he was a racist, just from the language he used. Secondly, he never hired a black player from 1932 until 1962, when he was forced to. And third, his will was just unbelievable. When he died, he left $10 million to a private foundation that had a rider that said this money is supposed to go to needy children on one condition: that no money promotes integration.
SULLIVAN: Thomas G. Smith is the author of the book "Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins." He joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. And you can read an excerpt from the book at our website, npr.org. Thomas, thanks so much.
SMITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.