Until now, I had resisted jumping into the whirlwind of commentary about the Washington Redskins’ nickname because it had appeared all the ground had been covered.
Perhaps it has. However, a historian reminded me recently that the importance of history is not only to remember what happened in the past but to examine its relevance to the present.
So, for better or worse, here goes.
I was fortunate to attend a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. in conjunction with the NFL’s 75th anniversary in 1994.
It was part of the Smithsonian Institution’s lecture series on the league’s history.
Among the participants were Bob Griese, Frank Gifford, Otto Graham and Marion Motley, all Hall-of-Famers.
Another participant was Bobby Mitchell, the Washington Redskins’ first African-American player.
Mitchell recalled how he was added to the Redskins’ roster only after D.C. Stadium, later to be renamed Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, was built with federal money on land owned by a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1961.
That was the leverage the federal government used against Redskins owner George Preston Marshall to eradicate the last vestige of segregation from the league.
If Marshall didn’t integrate, he would have to evacuate.
Pressure also came from a remarkable Washington Post sportswriter named Shirley Povich.
Peppering Marshall with barbs was a frequent feature of Povich’s columns in the (Washington) Post.
One delightfully witty lead about a Cleveland Browns victory over Washington read, “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”
Marshall deserved every bit of Povich’s sarcasm and then some. Here are some telling facts about Marshall.
He proposed to the woman who later became his wife as a group of black performers sang “Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginny” in the background.
Marshall required the Redskins’ marching band to play “Dixie” prior to the national anthem at each home game well into the 1960s.
He was quoted as saying, “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”
The original lyrics of “Hail to the Redskins,” the team’s official fight song, were written by Marshall’s wife. They said “Fight for old Dixie” at the point where fans now sing “Fight for old D.C.”
Another part of the original lyrics goes, “Scalp ‘em, swamp ‘em/We will take ‘em big score/Read ‘em, weep ‘em, touchdown/We want heaps more. “
When Marshall gave the Redskins their name, he made the head coach dress up in war paint and a feather headdress.
But it wasn’t enough for Marshall to be racist in life. He wanted his evil to extend beyond his 1969 death.
His will mandated that most of his estate be used to establish a foundation in his name and that no money from it should ever go to “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.”
How ironic it is that the 75th anniversary NFL event I attended took place in a building owned by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the very agency that forced George Preston Marshall’s hand.
Fight for old D.C., indeed!