Fifty years ago this summer, Marie Young took time out from her normal civil rights activism to picket a football game.
A Washington Redskins game.
“We picketed a lot of places,” recalls Young. “But it usually wasn’t about football.”
The 1961 Redskins weren’t your usual football team. They were, in fact, the last segregated squad in the NFL.
At the time, Young was a lieutenant in Virginia’s Third Force, a group that had been founded a year earlier to fight for integration in schools in the Tidewater region and to eliminate the state’s discriminatory poll taxes.
But racism wasn’t limited to the classroom or the voting booth. And Young, now 89, recalls being at a small meeting at the home of an organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) when talk turned to the Redskins.
George Preston Marshall’s squad was coming to Norfolk, Va., to face the Baltimore Colts in a preseason game on the campus of Old Dominion University. The exhibition’s locale, like Marshall’s failure to hire any black players, fit with the owner’s longtime marketing plan to make his squad the team of the South. Foreman Field, ODU’s home stadium, had a segregated seating policy.
So the Third Force decided to add a sporting event to its protesting calendar.
“We were normally working on schools and voting. But we knew the Redskins didn’t have any black players,” Young says. “So we said we’d picket.”
The Redskins had been on civil rights protesters’ radar for a while by 1961. Every squad in the NFL except the Redskins had integrated by 1952. But Marshall wouldn’t budge.
In February 1957, for example, the NAACP went after Marshall by running a picket line outside the Philadelphia hotel where an NFL owners meeting was taking place.
The owners’ response to the protesters’ pleas for integration? They unanimously passed a resolution honoring the Redskins boss: “George Marshall, having completed 25 years in professional football, is the greatest asset sports has ever known with his honesty, integrity, and his perfect frankness in expressing what he believes.”
The Washington Post’s Shirley Povich, a longtime critic of Marshall, was appalled. “There are those who will contend that a more debatable statement has never been uttered in the entire history of the spoken word,” Povich wrote of the resolution.
But protests against Marshall’s racist ways peaked in the 1961 season.
There are a couple of reasons why that year was so pivotal. First, the team was scheduled to move into D.C. Stadium, a brand new venue on federal government land. And John F. Kennedy’s new interior secretary, Stewart Udall, decided that the stadium would be his way to force the Redskins to integrate.
In a 2002 interview, Udall, who died last year, told me that Marshall was one of the most despicable characters he’d ever met.
“The guy hated everybody but the whores,” Udall said.
But Udall figured Kennedy would be wary of getting into a public spat with the Redskins owner because of the team’s popularity in the South. So Udall took his Marshall plan to the president’s brother instead.
“I didn’t discuss [the Redskins] with the president,” Udall said, “but I went to Bobby [Kennedy], and the attorney general just told me, ‘Go get ’em! Make him do it!’ So I did.”
Before the 1961 season, Udall told Marshall that if the Redskins didn’t sign black players, they couldn’t play in D.C. Stadium.
But Marshall, with lobbying help from his partner Edward Bennett Williams and the NFL, talked his way into delaying the integration for a year. There was fear among civil rights observers that if the pressure let up, Marshall would just ignore his agreement and stay segregated.
Unluckily for Marshall, 1961 was a huge year for the civil rights movement. One example: The first Freedom Ride, a mission organized by CORE’s James Farmer to call attention to Southern states’ illegal failure to integrate public facilities. The riders took off from the bus station on New York Avenue NW in May of that year.
The Redskins became discussion fodder for activists across the country. Joe Jordan, a Norfolk lawyer and founder of Virginia’s Third Force, had a letter to the editor published in the Afro-American, a national paper with an overwhelmingly black readership, linking injustice in football to injustice everywhere.
“While groups of freedom riders head toward Jackson, Miss., Norfolk will have a noxious spectacle thrust upon it,” Foreman wrote a couple weeks before the Skins–Colts game. “The time is now for Norfolkians to act.”
Foreman also wrote to the Baltimore Colts and tried to get the team’s black players, including Johnny Sample, Joe Perry, and future Hall of Famer Lenny Moore, to sit out. After some back and forth, the players decided to suit up, and the local NAACP chapter agreed to ask its members not to picket, after being told that the segregated seating policies of Foreman Field wouldn’t be enforced for the game.
Young, however, was among a group of seven Third Force members who went ahead with their picket.
“I don’t remember getting any reaction from the white people,” says Young. “And it was all white people.”
The Afro-American’s Sam Lacy, the leading sportswriter in the black press, wrote several stories about the Norfolk protest in the weeks before the game. When the Colts routed the Redskins 41-7, Lacy, who grew up in D.C., couldn’t have had more fun in his write-up.
“As though the night was meant to hold some measure of poetic justice for the lily-white Redskins, players they wouldn’t hire if and when they had the chance accounted for five of the six touchdowns which humbled them,” Lacy wrote.
After the game, Colts management issued a statement to the press saying the team would never again schedule an exhibition game “where the question of racial difference is likely to arise.”
The Redskins christened their new stadium against the New York Giants on Oct. 1, 1961. More than 100 demonstrators from CORE and the NAACP showed up to continue what went on in Norfolk. According to the Washington Post, a smaller contingent from the American Nazi Party and a group calling itself the Fighting American Nationalists were also on hand to support Marshall’s segregationist ways.
On the field, the Skins lost to the Giants.
The 1961 Redskins went 1-12-1 and were outscored 392-174. The last segregated team in pro football also ranks as the worst team in franchise history. A year later, Marshall stuck to his deal with Udall and welcomed Bobby Mitchell, a black running back from Cleveland, to the Redskins roster.
Marshall died in 1969. His will set up a charitable foundation but stipulated that none of its money would ever go toward “any purpose which supports the principle of racial integration in any form.”
In February 2006, the 40th anniversary of the elimination of the poll tax in Virginia, several members of Virginia’s legislature introduced Joint Resolution 348. The proclamation commended Marie Young’s “lifelong dedication to civil rights” and praised her for “leading protests and picketing…against the Washington Redskins when the team had no African-American players.”
Like the 1957 NFL owners resolution hailing Marshall, the Young resolution passed without opposition.
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