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The NFL's Jackie Robinson
October 12, 2009
He broke professional football's color barrier in 1946, yet even though he played alongside Robinson in college, few people remember the great running back Kenny Washington or the shameful history of segregation in the NFL
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October 12, 2009

The Nfl's Jackie Robinson

He broke professional football's color barrier in 1946, yet even though he played alongside Robinson in college, few people remember the great running back Kenny Washington or the shameful history of segregation in the NFL

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"Walsh was really shook up," the Courier's Hill later reported. "He turned pale and started to stutter. He denied any racial prejudice on the part of the Rams or the NFL. He even went to the league's rulebook. Halley and I answered by charging [that the rule barring blacks] was unwritten. The old supervisor [and commission member] Roger Jessup got up and asked whether the Rams would dare bar Kenny Washington."

"Of course not," said Walsh.

"I just want you to know," Jessup said, "if our Kenny Washington can't play, there will be no pro football in the L.A. Coliseum."

Attorney Lloyd Wright, representing the Rams, pledged at length that Washington or any other qualified African-American could play with the Rams. Roach urged the Rams and the black newsmen to further discuss the issue on their own. So a week later Walsh and Rams publicity man Maxwell Stiles ventured to Central Avenue to the Last Word, where at least a dozen black journalists lay in wait. Here the names of Washington and several other Hollywood Bears came up, but Walsh expressed concern that they were all under contract to the PCFL club. Harding replied that if the Bears wouldn't stand in their way, what impediment could possibly remain? The Rams conceded as much. Walsh promised to try to sign Washington and also expressed interest in Strode and another Bears end, Chuck Anderson.

Most historical accounts say the Coliseum Commission forced integration on the Rams. But in her forthcoming book, The Lost Championship Season, historian Gretchen Atwood makes the case that Harding deserves the primary credit. "Harding pushes Roach to put in writing the promise not to discriminate, and Roach does," Atwood says. "Both in the commission meeting and at the Last Word, every time Walsh says something vague like, 'We'll try out all qualified players regardless of race,' Harding responds with a demand for specifics, such as, 'O.K., when will Washington's tryout be?' Then when the Dons don't hire any blacks, Harding goes back to the commission and asks it to enforce the written nondiscrimination agreement. Roach isn't at this meeting, but the commission now says it has no record of any such agreement and won't tell a team who it can or can't hire. If it was the Coliseum Commission that forced the Rams to integrate, then how do you explain that the Dons had a lease in 1946 when they hadn't even given a black player a tryout? So in sports terms, Harding gets the goal and Roach the assist, not the other way around."

Atwood believes a comment made years later by Rams backfield coach Bob Snyder—that the team signed Washington at the insistence of the Coliseum Commission—is a convenient official story. "I think Snyder believed that, but I also think Chile Walsh was sick of Harding's constant pressure. And because of the public statements Roach and Jessup made against racial bias, Walsh and the Rams could pass the buck if anyone objected to the signing—basically, shrug and tell other NFL owners, 'Hey, our hands were tied, we needed the lease to the stadium.'"

The Rams' press release on March 21, 1946, announcing Washington's signing includes this disclaimer: "The National [Football] League has never had a rule against the use of Negro players and no precedent is being set in the signing of Washington." But that's belied by the reaction of other NFL owners. "All hell broke loose," Snyder told Mike Rathet and Don R. Smith, authors of The Pro Football Hall of Fame Presents: Their Deeds and Dogged Faith, in 1984. "There was objection to it—you can bet your butt on that."

The Tribune gloried in the news of Washington's signing. One article exulted, "Yesterday Tribune sports editor Halley Harding's one-man crusade against the National Football League's patent, if unwritten, law against Negro players paid off in full."

In his column Harding wrote, "Of course Kenny hasn't got a whole lot of years on the gridiron ahead of him, but we'll string along with him for our money's worth, never having been robbed yet. Another Negro is about to sign on the dotted line in the same office, but while the details are being worked out, mum's the word."

That other black player, Strode, came to terms a couple of months later. The Rams had asked Washington to choose someone to room with on the road, and he nominated his old running mate. The Rams grumbled about Strode's marriage to Luana Kalaeola, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, Strode said later, "but Kenny had power at that point, and he said, 'I want my buddy.'"

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