Hours before the Washington Redskins stepped onto FedEx Field on Monday night to play the San Francisco 49ers, a group of African American, Latino and Native American leaders stood with their backs to the stadium and said the time had come for the team to change its name.
The news conference, attended by representatives of CASA of Maryland, Blacks in Government, the Prince George’s County chapter of the NAACP and other groups, marked a rare showing of solidarity on a divisive issue that has sparked a national discussion about race and language.
“This is an American issue,” Hakim Muhammad, of the Coalition of Prince George’s County Leaders and Organizations, said Monday. “When you have a name that is disparaging to any nation of people, it affects all of us. Period.”
Zorayda Moreira-Smith, of CASA of Maryland, said it was “unacceptable” and “disgusting” that this was still an issue in 2013. She questioned how people would react if the team’s name reflected a slur against any other race.
“That would not be okay,” she said. “That would cause a riot, chaos. Everyone would be upset. So, why is it okay when it’s called the Washington Redskins?”
One protester connected the issue to Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday and the national debate over immigration reform. “Who you calling ‘illegal,’ Pilgrim?” the sign held by Asantewaa Nkrumah-Turesign said.
Last month, team owner Daniel Snyder described the team’s name in a letter to fans as a “badge of honor,” and he has said he will never change it. NFL executives have met with different groups to discuss the issue, but Commissioner Roger Goodell has said that, ultimately, the decision is Snyder’s to make.
Muhammad said the “historic” collaboration among the groups was just the beginning of an ongoing campaign to educate the public.
Others have already voiced opposition to the team’s name. This month, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, issued a statement urging Snyder to “recognize the hurt he is causing to Native Americans and the harm such stereotypical portrayals do to our nation’s ideals of inclusion and respect for all citizens, regardless of their racial, ethnic or religious background.” Before that, President Obama raised questions about the team’s name and the National Congress of American Indians spoke out against it.
Blacks in Government, which represents thousands of African Americans who work in the federal government, has called on Obama to ban Redskins paraphernalia from all federal property. Matthew Fogg, who drafted the resolution, said he has heard of Native Americans who are considering filing equal employment opportunity complaints after seeing the team’s gear in their workplace.
Monday’s news conference comes just days after the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the group formed to promote diversity in hiring in the National Football League, released a statement urging players to stop using the “N word” following two recent racially charged incidents, one involving a Redskins player.
Those pushing for the Washington team to change its name have long compared the “R-word” to the “N-word.” At the news conference, several people held signs, including one that read “ ‘Redskin’ and N----- are both racist words.”
When his turn came to speak, local radio personality Jay Winter Nightwolf called on fans to think about the history of the word, one that has been traced to when bounties were paid for the skins of American Indians.
“I know you love your team, and I know you just got to have it,” he said, comparing fan allegiance to a drug. “But it’s time to kick the habit.”
Nightwolf and several others have been having discussions with African American religious and community leaders from around the region.
“Fact is that very often things are allowed to live on because we remain silent,” the Rev. Graylan Hagler told a group who gathered in the basement of Northeast United Church of Christ last month. “It’s time for us to break any silence and just raise up the issue the way it needs to be raised up so that people are made to think about it and made to come to an understanding.”
Before the meeting was over, Hagler would start gathering names from religious leaders for letters that will soon be sent to Snyder and Goodell. He also introduced two speakers: Suzan Harjo, the Native American who was the lead plaintiff in the 1992 lawsuit to remove the team’s federal trademark protection, and Ray Halbritter, the representative of the New York tribe that this year launched a national radio ad campaign against the team’s name and met with NFL executives on the issue.
“I know I don’t have to tell you. You know this,” Halbritter said to many nods. “Symbols matter. Words matter.”
Harjo reminded those in the room how Native Americans stood with African Americans and Latinos in the 1960s to help eliminate the racist characters “Sambo” and “Frito Bandito.”
“We can’t do it ourselves,” she said of the effort to change the team’s name. “We’re such a small population that we need people to amplify our voices. We need people to take this up as their own issue because it’s affecting you as well.”