A coalition of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations took on a new issue Thursday: the name of the Washington Redskins.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of organizations including the NAACP, the ACLU and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, approved a resolution at its annual meeting in the District that called on the team to change its name and “refrain from the use of any other images, mascots, or behaviors that are or could be deemed harmful or demeaning to Native American cultures or peoples.”
Of the 85 organizations at the gathering, not one representative offered opposition. The resolution was approved to a round of applause.
“What affects one of us, affects all of us,” said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau.
He said African Americans are all too familiar with seeing themselves stereotyped and that the organization plans to do what it can to support the Native American groups that have taken the lead on the name-change push.
“Athletics are supposed to demonstrate the best of who we are,” Shelton said. Instead, the team’s continued use of a word that Native Americans have denounced as offensive treats them as “less than human,” he said. “We all hope they change it very soon. There is really no excuse for not doing so.”
In an emotional letter to fans in October, team owner Daniel Snyder described the name as a “badge of honor” and pointed to a nine-year-old poll showing that 90 percent of Native Americans were not offended by the team’s name.
“I respect the opinions of those who disagree,” Snyder wrote in the letter. “I want them to know that I do hear them, and I will continue to listen and learn. But we cannot ignore our 81-year history, or the strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country. After 81 years, the team name ‘Redskins’ continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come.”
The Redskins issued a statement Thursday night quoting letters from Native Americans who support keeping the name.
“The Washington Redskins hold these civil rights leaders in high regard, but we respectfully believe they are mischaracterizing decades of honor and respect toward America's Indian heritage that our name represents for generations of Redskin fans and Native Americans alike,” the statement said. “We understand these leaders hold their views deeply, but so do hundreds and hundreds of Native Americans who have written to us expressing an opposite point of view.”
In one letter, a woman writes that she has been a loyal fan for 22 years and “would find it offensive if you changed the name.”
The statement said, “We believe it is important to listen to and respect all sides on this issue, and that includes also listening to and learning from Native Americans and countless Redskin fans who, for generations, believe our name represents the strength, character and pride of our Indian heritage."
At Thursday’s gathering at the Capital Hilton, Ray Halbritter, the representative of the Oneida Indian Nation, addressed the group. The small New York tribe has launched a national campaign against the team’s name, running radio ads in Washington and every city where the team has played. Halbritter has also met with NFL officials to discuss the issue and last month, during a meeting of tribal leaders at the White House, thanked President Obama for saying if it were up to him, he’d change the name.
“Many have tried to pretend that the campaign to change the mascot is not a serious civil rights issue,” Halbritter told the group. But the NFL is arguably the single most powerful cultural force in America, and for many people, “their most explicit and direct contact with the very idea of Native American culture is the Washington team’s bigoted name.”
The resolution calls on the District, Maryland and any other local, state or government entity to “disassociate themselves from the Washington Redskins franchise and to end any preferential tax, zoning, or other policy treatment that could be viewed as supporting the franchise as long as it retains its current team name.”
Last month, within a two-day span, the D.C. Council approved a resolution that called for changing the team’s name and the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution defending the team’s right to choose its own moniker.
Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, which has issued a report on the harmful effects of using Native Americans as mascots, commended the Leadership Conference for its support.
“By recognizing the ongoing disparagement of American Indian and Alaska Natives and asking the NFL to change the name of the D.C. franchise, the Leadership Conference reconfirms its commitment to fighting for equal rights for Native peoples,” she said.
The Leadership Conference has been behind every major civil rights law since 1957, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.
Wade Henderson, president of the conference, described the team’s name as “damaging” not only to individuals, but also the entire nation.
“This is not someone else’s problem; this is everyone’s problem,” Henderson said. “Changing the name is the right thing do, regardless of how comfortable fans have become with it. And when Mr. Snyder does decide to put the slur away, I think he’ll discover a new market of consumers who recognize the dignity of all people and want to honor that with the sports teams they support.”