Boycott Grapes; Xavier Viramontes; Offset, 1973; San Francisco. (Xavier Viramontes/Courtesy of American Friends Service Committee)

The United Church of Christ’s regional governing body has passed a resolution that calls on its members to do more than just speak against the name of the Washington Redskins — it asks them to boycott the football team.

The Central Atlantic Conference, which oversees 180 congregations with 40,000 members from Richmond to New Jersey, voted unanimously for a boycott of the team’s games and gear at its annual meeting Saturday in Newark, Del. The matter will now probably be brought to the national governing body of the church, which oversees 5,100 congregations with about 1 million members.

“I hope this debate will continue to draw attention to an unhealed wound in our cultural fabric,” Conference Minister John Deckenback said about the resolution’s passage. “Changing the name of the Washington NFL team will not solve the problems of our country’s many trails of broken promises and discriminatory isolation of our Native American communities. However, a change in the nation’s capital can send a strong message.”

The vote comes weeks after 50 U.S. senators signed a letter calling for a name change and during the same week that a California tribe paid for an anti-
Redskins ad
to run during television broadcasts of the National Basketball Association’s championship series in eight major cities.

Team officials did not respond to a request for comment. But 11 days before the vote, the team’s chief financial officer, Karl Schreiber, called Deckenback and had him speak to three men from the Blackfeet Nation who support the controversial name.

Boycott Coors; Coors Boycott Committee; Offset, 1978; San Francisco. (Coors Boycott Committee/Courtesy of American Friends Service Committee)

Team spokesman Tony Wyllie has previously said of the UCC: “We respect those who disagree with our team’s name, but we wish the United Church of Christ would listen to the voice of the overwhelming majority of Americans, including Native Americans, who support our name and understand it honors the heritage and tradition of the Native American community.”

In recent weeks, the team hired K Street lobbying firm McGuireWoods Consulting, a move that comes on top of the team’s work with crisis management expert Lanny Davis. Unlike previous times when the name has been challenged, the pressure in the past year has been unprecedented and has come from an array of people, including former players, sports commentators, civil rights groups, politicians and Native American leaders.

Before issuing a decision Saturday, voting members of the conference heard from Ray Halbritter, the representative of the Oneida Indian Nation in New York, which has been one of the more vocal opponents of the name.

“With your help, we can not only end this ongoing offense against my own heritage, but we can win a major victory for a more inclusive society,” Halbritter told those gathered. “This is our chance to relegate this language and iconography to the historical scrapheap and to usher in an era where mutual respect finally becomes the norm, rather than the exception.”

Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a statement that they were “proud that the United Church of Christ and its members are standing with us.”

The liberal United Church of Christ has been at the forefront of many social justice issues, earning it a reputation as “the Church of Firsts.” It was the first to ordain an African American, a woman and an openly gay man.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson called the boycott “a major escalation” in the push to change the team’s name.

Del Monte Profits From Apartheid; Rachael Romero San Francisco Poster Brigade Offset, 1978; San Francisco. (Rachael Romero /Courtesy of American Friends Service Committee)

“The first wave lit a spark,” he said. “Now, a fire is burning.”

The civil rights activist, who boasts of having walked more picket lines than any other national leader, said he believed that the UCC’s actions will spur other religious denominations to follow suit and ultimately force advertisers to withdraw their support and players to decide “if they will be a Redskin or not.”

“He can’t win this in the long run,” Jackson said about team owner Daniel Snyder, who has vowed never to change the name, “and it’s a fight not worth fighting.”

But the potential effect of a boycott remains far from certain. There are boycotts that have sparked social movements, with the Montgomery bus boycott among the most famous. Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger during a time of racial segregation and the boycott that followed was a pivotal event in the civil rights movement. Likewise, after millions of Americans stopped buying table grapes from 1965 to 1970, growers agreed to come to the bargaining table. Out of that boycott, the United Farm Workers of America was born.

Then there are boycotts that have had mixed results. After Chick-fil-A Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy voiced his opposition to same-sex marriage, calls for a boycott were quickly followed by an appreciation day that led to record sales for the fast-food restaurant. And a boycott of Nestlé for promoting the use of infant formula over breastfeeding to women in developing countries that began in the 1970s continues to this day.

Brayden King, an associate professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has conducted research on what makes a boycott effective. His findings: It’s not about the bottom line.

“What seems to be the driving factor in a boycott’s success is its ability to damage the reputation of the organization it’s targeting,” King said.

The Redskins, he said, are unique in that the controversy over the name has existed for years, yet it has not affected the team’s strong fan base, which is not likely to stop attending games. But if the momentum grows far beyond the UCC, he said, “Then they may begin to realize that the tide of public opinion has shifted and there is a serious threat to our brand.”

Jennifer Bing, the national coordinator for a traveling art exhibit on historic boycott posters, said the one thing modern movements have going for them is social media.

If information could have flowed as easily during the grape boycott, she said, “Maybe it wouldn’t have taken five years for those farm workers to see some of those demands met.”

Already, there are signs that other religious leaders also are thinking broadly about the team’s name.

Texas pastor Dwight McKissic asked the Southern Baptists to consider a resolution on the Washington Redskins at their convention in Baltimore this past week. A spokesman for the convention said it was rejected because as written, the resolutions committee “did not feel like it represented the collective values of the convention.”

McKissic said he was disappointed that a denomination that has worked to make amends for its failings during the civil rights movement would not follow one of the basic tenants of the faith: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

“You would not let your race be reduced to a mascot, so how can you let another race be reduced to a mascot?” McKissic said, adding that he is proud of the UCC’s efforts.

The Rev. Timothy Tutt, senior minister of Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ in Bethesda, spoke to his congregation about the name issue even before the resolution was proposed. In a sermon Feb. 2 — Super Bowl Sunday — he shared with members that his wife and two children are members of the Cherokee Nation and that their ancestors were forcibly removed from their Georgia farm.

“The ancestors of my children were then forced to march through the ice and snow of Illinois and Missouri into Oklahoma,” he said that day. “Along the way, 4,000 people died. All because they were here first. Because they were Native Americans. Because someone thought they were not as important as other people. Words matter. It matters what we call people. Because words and names and terms shape how we think of others. How we think of others determines how we treat them.”

Tutt said he views changing the name as “a matter of respect and kindness.”

The resolution’s author, Terry Provance, a retired minister who lives in Northwest Washington, said he has seen firsthand the power of social activism. In the late 1960s, he stood outside grocery stores, protesting Gallo wines in support of the boycott on table grapes. In the 1980s, he convinced the administrative body of his seminary school to stop investing in companies that did business in South Africa as part of a widespread protest against apartheid.

“If thousands and thousands and thousands of people do it, it adds up,” Provance said.

What he wonders now about the Redskins: “Who is going to be the first season ticket holder to return their tickets?”