SI Vault
 
Marshall Law
ALEXANDER WOLFF
October 12, 2009
The Redskins' intransigent owner, George Preston Marshall, kept the team in the nation's capital lily-white until 16 years after the NFL was integrated
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 12, 2009

Marshall Law

View CoverRead All Articles

The Redskins' intransigent owner, George Preston Marshall, kept the team in the nation's capital lily-white until 16 years after the NFL was integrated

Hours before the Los Angeles Rams played the Washington Redskins on Dec. 5, 1948, the attendant at the players' entrance to D.C.'s Griffith Stadium refused to admit the Rams' black running back, Kenny Washington. It wasn't until a team official was summoned to the gate that Washington was finally let in. Washington would never forget the incident, but it didn't surprise him: He knew that the sudden whitening of the NFL after 1933 had coincided with the ascension of George Preston Marshall to majority ownership of the Redskins.

In 1937, angered by meager support from fans and the press, Marshall had moved the Redskins from Boston to his hometown, D.C. The nation's capital was segregated then, and Marshall was determined to keep his team as white as the full-page newspaper ad he once ran for his laundry chain, empty except for small type at the bottom that read, THIS SPACE WAS CLEANED BY PALACE LAUNDRY. He ordered the Redskins Band to play Dixie before games and eventually changed a line in Hail to the Redskins, the team's fight song, from "fight for old D.C." to "fight for old Dixie."

From the NFL's reintegration in 1946 until Marshall was incapacitated by a stroke in 1963, the Redskins had just three winning seasons, yet the owner resolutely refused to change. Even as Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich made sport of how "the Redskins' end zone has frequently been integrated by Negro players," Marshall insisted, "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."

When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, the Redskins had just drafted 20 more white players in the aftermath of a 1-9-2 season. On March 24 Interior Secretary Stewart Udall notified Marshall that the new D.C. Stadium, for which Marshall had just signed a 30-year lease, was being built with public funds in Anacostia Park and therefore was part of the Capitol Parks system, which fell under Udall's jurisdiction. To play in the stadium, Udall declared, the Redskins would have to integrate.

Marshall reacted as defiantly as ever. "I didn't know the government had the right to tell a showman how to cast the play," he said. American Nazi Party members, with no evident sense of irony, demonstrated in D.C. with placards reading KEEP REDSKINS WHITE. With behind-the-scenes pressure from NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Marshall finally relented. Udall agreed to let the Redskins use the new stadium as long as they desegregated by the 1962 season. One of the first two blacks to suit up for the team, Bobby Mitchell, would wind up in the Hall of Fame. And with the Redskins under new management, he went to work in the front office when he retired as a player in 1968 and stayed for the next 35 years.

For years the Redskins played an annual exhibition game against the Rams in the L.A. Coliseum to benefit the Los Angeles Times's charities. "My father always played harder against the [Redskins] but wouldn't say why," Kenny Washington Jr. told SI. "After he retired he never went to another one of those games."

Marshall died in 1969 after six years in a vegetative state. In his will he left $6 million for the health, education and welfare of children in greater D.C., with the proviso that none of it be spent "for any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form."

1