On March 24, 1961, a cloudy, mild Friday in Washington, the new Kennedy administration found itself busy with problems abroad and at home. While the president warned of Soviet-inspired trouble brewing in Southeast Asia, at the Interior Department, Secretary Stewart L. Udall took on an issue in the District that for years had defied resolution -- integrating the Washington Redskins.
The Redskins were the only one of 14 National Football League teams not to hire black players -- and their owner, George Preston Marshall, was bent on keeping his team all white. Perhaps Marshall's most famous critic was Shirley Povich, longtime sports editor of The Washington Post. Povich often referred in print to the Redskins' colors as "burgundy, gold and Caucasian." In a column, he observed that "Jim Brown integrated the Redskins' end zone three times yesterday."
Povich's variations on the theme year after year became a demand for justice. By the time the administration had begun taking on targets of discrimination, Povich had defined Marshall as a bigot -- one who was operating merely a few city blocks from the seat of government.
That March morning, Udall sent a messenger-delivered letter to Marshall at his Ninth Street NW office. Udall warned Marshall that if he did not integrate the team, the new District of Columbia stadium might not be available to his Redskins that fall.
The structure was located on land leased from the National Park Service. Just a few days earlier, Udall had attached an anti-discrimination amendment to rules governing the use of national parks. His threat directed at Marshall made front-page news.
Marshall reacted with an anger to be expected from one who was reaping large profits by keeping his team all white. He said he would be happy to "debate the matter" with the president. Marshall hoped to stand his ground even against the federal government because of a financial empire he had constructed partly on his racist views.
As perhaps the first owner of a professional team to market regionally, Marshall had taken advantage of the absence of any NFL teams south of Washington and built a highly profitable Southern radio network that aired Redskins games. Marshall had sold his all-white team as "the team of the South."
What Marshall wanted among NFL owners he usually got. He had amassed power within the league since helping found the franchise in 1932, then buying out his partners and eventually moving the team from Boston to Washington in 1937. Marshall liked to promote his radio network by playing exhibition games throughout the South every season.
Marshall had team officials draft as many players as possible from Southern colleges. The team's popular song that he commissioned, "Hail to the Redskins," included the line "Fight for Old Dixie" (later changed to "Fight for Old D.C."). Marshall was on record as saying, "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."
"I didn't know the government had the right to tell the showman how to cast the play," Marshall told Post sportswriter Dave Brady shortly after receiving Udall's letter. "I'd like to debate the president. I could handle him with words. I used to be able to handle his old man," Joseph P. Kennedy, whom Marshall said he had known in Boston. Marshall declared that he would add no black players for the team's first season in the new stadium. Although more than five months remained before the first league game, Marshall noted that the draft of college players already had been completed and announced, "Our roster is closed."
Fourteen years after Jackie Robinson had broken major league baseball's color barrier, Marshall remained stubbornly biased. And his team clearly suffered. Including exhibition games, the hapless Redskins of 1961 would manage to stretch their winless streak to a preposterous 28 games dating from the second game of the 1960 season.
But the owner proved a more difficult opponent than his players. The week after he had sent his letter, Udall proposed that the Redskins had plenty of time to trade for a black player for the 1961 season. Marshall scoffed.
"Marshall thinks we don't mean business, but we do," Udall said that July. "This guy's making a big mistake if he thinks our department merely is trying to get some publicity out of this thing. We're quite serious." Udall said that the Redskins' 30-year stadium lease would go into effect with the first game Oct. 1, and that if Marshall maintained the "status quo" -- clearly meaning no black players -- the Interior Department would initiate a fight to bar the Redskins from using the stadium starting with its second home game.
"We're following the law," countered Marshall, calling Udall's remarks "vague."
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle sensed a showdown that would negatively affect his league, which was beginning to challenge baseball as the national sport. Rozelle's concept of a world championship game that would become known as the Super Bowl was just a little more than five years from reality. The Redskins were an embarrassing anachronism.
Rozelle conferred with Udall -- and with Marshall. Rozelle's powers of persuasion would be hard to overstate. In one of his keenest accomplishments, Rozelle got Marshall to line up with the rest of the league.
On Aug. 14, 1961, Marshall signaled formally by letter to Rozelle that "the Redskins have no policy against hiring of football players because of their race," and added that he hoped to draft and sign Ernie Davis of Syracuse and Larry Ferguson of Iowa, both black running backs, for the 1962 season if they were available.
Udall, in a statement, commended Rozelle for his mediation and said that he would take Marshall at his word. "If the Washington Redskins management follows through in implementing this new policy, this should resolve the issue," Udall said.
The Redskins' disastrous '61 season ensured that the team would have the first pick in the college draft. Heisman Trophy winner Davis made it clear he wanted no part of Marshall. But Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown coveted Davis. So it was that on Dec. 4, 1961, the Redskins drafted their first black player, Davis, and on Dec. 14 traded him to Cleveland. The sad part of the story was that Davis was stricken with cancer and died, never playing a down for the Browns.
But in the trade the Redskins received future Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell and rookie Leroy Jackson, who would become their first black players. (Fullback Ron Hatcher, an eighth-round draft choice, actually became the first black player to sign a Redskins contract, although he did not play until late in the season. John Nisby, a black offensive lineman, would be acquired in a trade in 1962.) In their 25th season in Washington, the Redskins finally fielded an integrated team.
To this day it amazes both Mitchell and Udall that it took so long to happen.
"I've never been able to shake the fact that we're talking about the 1960s," Mitchell said recently. "I can't believe there was a professional team in the '60s that had no blacks. In that sense, it [still] sets you back a little bit."
Mitchell, now the Redskins' assistant general manager, said that former Redskins coach Bill McPeak introduced him to Marshall and smoothed their relationship. " 'Whatever you've heard, I'm glad to have you here,' " Mitchell recalled Marshall saying to him. "Bill McPeak told him, while I was sitting there, that the team had played five or six close games the previous year and he said, 'If we had Bobby Mitchell, I believe we would have won them.' Marshall seemed to like that. All he said to me was, Glad to have you, stay out of politics, it's a political town, and be a good guy."
Udall, now 82 and practicing law in Santa Fe, N.M., has his memories, too.
"It's strange that there should have been an owner or sports figure in this country at that time who thought it would be fair and equitable to have a non-black team," he said. "[Marshall] was a tough S.O.B. Some doubted he would yield. He had styled the team as a Southern team; that was part of the appeal of his lily-white team.
"But I had an emotional commitment on this issue," he said, noting a role he had taken in Arizona school desegregation in 1951. He also had the law on his side, having made certain with Interior Department lawyers that he could bar Marshall, who died in 1969, from the stadium because it had been built on federal property. "Once they said I had the authority," Udall said, "I didn't waste a minute."