The Washington Redskins franchise gave black Washingtonians plenty of reasons to loathe them. They were marketed as the “Team of the South.” The band played “Dixie,” a nod to Old South nostalgia.
There was no mention, of course, of the lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan or any of that unseemly business of denial of an education and basic human rights. But there didn’t need to be. The message was clear. The Redskins were the last segregated National Football League team.
But when the team finally relented in 1962, and began signing black players, the tide began to turn. These players became the team’s ambassadors who turned around the image of a franchise that didn’t want or deserve the support of the region’s black residents.
Fast forward 50 years and the transition is complete. A new Washington Post poll found that two-thirds of African Americans have a favorable view of the team and four in 10 feel that way “strongly.” Less than half of white fans have an overall favorable view of the franchise.
The early black players—Bobby Mitchell was the first—were embraced as barrier breakers, similar to those staging sit-ins, going to jail while protesting and staging so-called Freedom Rides down South.
”A lot of us at the time were fighting for integrating cafeterias, schools and other places and Bobby was integrating the Redskins, so we rooted for him,” said Steve Thompson, owner of Georgina’s (aka Players Lounge) in Congress Heights, told the Post.
Residents cooked dinner for the players, invited them into their homes and lined up to shake their hands.
And why wouldn’t they? These young men could have been their sons or brothers, just looking for an opportunity to get ahead.
Then, professional football players still lived and walked among the people. They didn’t make loads of money. And those players, despite their semi-rock-star status, were just as susceptible as other black people to the racial slights of the day.
When Lonnie Sanders arrived a year after Mitchell, he and another black player went apartment hunting in Northwest.
“We looked in a place called the Executive House on 16th Street back in ‘63,” Lonnie Sanders, now 69, told my colleague Chris Jenkins. “A woman told us: ‘We don’t have any vacancies.’ Well we left, saw some other couple go in, a white couple. They gave them a place to stay. We wound up staying in Southwest.”
But it wasn’t just that initial wave of Redskins that made an impression with black residents. Who can forget that magical run in 1988 when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. Temporarily, because of Williams, the Redskins--for many black people--became a national team.
Here’s a telling fact from the Post poll: 10 percent of black sports fan consider Williams the greatest sports figure in the city’s history. Less than one percent of white fans named Williams.
Times have certainly changed, and many of the biggest barriers have been broken. Black quarterbacks and coaches are no longer an oddity. And a black man now resides in the White House.
Certainly, there are unresolved issues of fairness and equity in our society. But the goodwill the Redskins now enjoy with black fans harkens back to an earlier more nostalgic time when our communities were closer, when solidarity was needed just to survive and when a pro player you didn’t know might stop in for dinner.
Those memories seemed to have tamped down the hate that existed prior to 1962, when the team was still pining for the gentility of the Old South--where batons, police dogs and venom ruled the day.