The NFL’s lack of African Americans from 1934-1945
How many fans know about Fritz Pollard, the African American player-coach who played and coached for six years in the 1920s? How many know that African Americans were ultimately banned from the NFL altogether from 1934 through 1945?
This is a complex subject, that required a great deal of historical research, and Johnson and Glauber did a commendable job of sorting through the different forces at work.
Initially, there were African American stars like Pollard, Paul Robeson (who was even more famous as a lawyer, singer, actor, and political activist), Inky Williams, Duke Slater, and others. There was also Native American participation, most notably in the legendary person of Jim Thorpe.
Yet soon thereafter, the number of African Americans and other ethnicities in the NFL dwindled and eventually reached zero in 1934. There appears to have been no official ban. Clearly, there was racism involved, but the nature of the ban and its enforcement is murky. There apparently was no formal rule, no single act of collusion that can be pointed to, but rather a consensus that emerged.
Certainly, George Preston Marshall was an outspoken public advocate of segregation, based on his belief that the American public would not support integrated sports, particularly in the southern United States. Especially at that time, Washington was viewed as a southern city, the Civil War notwithstanding. Segregation was a value-added business proposition.
The NFL effectively banned African American players from 1934 to 1946. Today’s fans may see this as ridiculous, and assume that other owners, such as George Halas, Tim Mara, or Art Rooney, could have simply ended the ban unilaterally. Wouldn’t they have had the support of Congress and the court system?
It seems simple today, but remember that in those days, racially divided policies were the norm in the United States, especially in the southern states. It was absolutely permitted to ban African Americans from sitting in certain lunch counters or the front of public buses or holding different jobs, so participation in the NFL could be viewed as an extension of that policy.
Marshall —situated in our nation’s capital — had special prominence, and was not at all out of line with the political norms of the 1930s. It remains open to speculation what would have happened had one of the owners challenged the ban at that time.
Johnson and Glauber tell us about integrated universities such as UCLA and Ohio State that were the forerunners of integrated professional football. Jackie Robinson, Washington and Strode starred in football at UCLA. Willis and Motley starred at Ohio State for Coach Paul Brown. For that reason, perhaps, the concept of high-level integrated football was not so shocking to the American public, and the transition to professional football was not so traumatic.
The Browns indirectly contributed to the integration of the NFL as well, because the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission established integration as a precondition for allowing the Cleveland Rams to become tenants. The NFL had already approved owner Dan Reeve’s request to move the team to Los Angeles (check!), but without an agreement to integrate the team, there would be no place for the team to play football (check!), and since there was never any formal rule against African American participation in the NFL, there was nothing George Preston Marshall or anyone else could do about it (check MATE!). The Rams’ story is contained in Chapter 13 and is absolutely brilliant.
Yet segregation and racism did not end in 1946. In particular, the segregationist history of the Washington team and George Preston Marshall is a shameful chapter in American history, but that is part of our national heritage as well. The Washington story, followed by Johnson and Glauber up to the present-day struggles of Dan Snyder, may be particularly relevant to Cleveland baseball fans who are going through similar issues involving the renaming of the franchise and changing of the logo.
Marshall’s football team in Washington, in fact, did not see fit to permit an African American football player until 1962. Particularly noteworthy is the part about how Marshall influenced Art Modell to fire Paul Brown (that’s on page 216, please check it out). It’s very difficult to imagine that Marshall’s intention was to honor anyone via the selection of the name of his football team, but in any case, he wound up on the wrong side of history by holding out for an all-white NFL as long as he did.
Ultimately the subject of integration came to involve the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, and even President John F. Kennedy, which finally caused Marshall to relent in 1962.
One aspect that is not explored in-depth in the book is the role of television and national politics. A major national TV deal was negotiated with CBS in 1961 after an initial attempt was rejected by the US Supreme Court. This author wonders if negative publicity surrounding the Washington team’s hiring practices might have created a glitch in the TV deal.
Another issue that could have been explored is the unprecedented loss of Democratic support in the South, with several Electors pledged to Kennedy voting for other candidates instead in the Electoral College. That may have eroded the influence of segregationist southern Democrats who had essentially cut themselves off from the mainstream Democrats. In other words, for the first time, Marshall could not count on the federal government to back him up. It might have been interesting had the authors pursued this angle a bit more.
Shameful though it may be, Marshall was richly rewarded, and in fact, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
Yet, according to Johnson and Glauber, Marshall was not totally one-dimensional. John Nisby, an African American Pro Bowl guard who was traded from Pittsburgh to Washington in 1962, never cultivated a relationship with Marshall and the front office, but Mitchell is quoted as saying that he was treated well by Marshall and that Marshall never came across to Mitchell as overtly bigoted.