RFK Stadium turns 50 years old this fall. To kick off the golden anniversary celebration, I wrote a column this week about the stadium’s first tenant, the 1961 Washington Redskins, which was also the NFL’s last segregated team.

Read all about it here.

George Preston Marshall, the Redskins owner, had ignored calls for him to integrate his squad for years before taking up residence in what was then called D.C. Stadium.

Just after the season opening loss to the Giants, Marshall told Sports Illustrated, “No one of intelligence has ever questioned my theories on race.”

But the Skins’ new home was built on federally owned land, which led the Kennedy Administration to get involved to force his hand. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall had written to Marshall earlier that year and told the owner that his team’s discriminatory policies were in violation of federal law, and if he wanted to use the stadium, he would have to integrate. Udall, who once told me that Marshall “hated everybody but the whores,” also let the owner know that if he broke the 30-year lease he’d signed with the government for the stadium in hopes of keeping the Redskins all white, the feds would sue him.

Marshall’s public response to Udall’s letter was scorn.

“I didn’t know the Government had the right to tell a showman how to cast the play,” Marshall told SI in 1961, and in the same interview called for a debate with President John F. Kennedy over the merits of integrating the Skins. “I’d like to debate that kid,” Marshall said of JFK. “I could handle him with words. I used to handle the old man [First Father Joseph P. Kennedy] in Boston.”

But Marshall’s racist ways didn’t just tick off the government.

For the column, I spoke with Marie Young, an 89-year-old Virginian, who is the last surviving member of a group of civil rights activists known as Virginia’s Third Force. The group picketed the Redskins in the summer of 1961 when Marshall’s team played a preseason game against the Baltimore Colts in Norfolk to call attention to the owner’s segregationist policies.

Marshall had some supporters back then, too. At the Redskins home opener against the Giants at D.C. Stadium that season, members of George Lincoln Rockwell‘s American Nazi Party marched outside to offer comfort to the team’s owner.

Marshall integrated the Redskins the next season.

To kick off the venue’s golden anniversary, the stadium will host the inaugural AT&T Nation’s Football Classic, an event described by promoters as “a black college football game held annually” here in D.C. The first rendition of the classic comes next Saturday and features Howard University against Morehouse College.

I doubt the Nazis will make an appearance at the 2011 game. But those attending the Howard/Morehouse contest might come across a reminder of the venue’s bad old days outside the stadium just the same: A statue honoring George Preston Marshall still stands there. Amazing.

Photo courtesy HMDB.org, Richard Miller

No one of intelligence has ever questioned my theories on race