MAY 24, 2012
WE’VE GOTTEN USED TO a certain kind of narrative about the integration of sports. In Remember the Titans, which chronicles the integration of T. C. Williams High School in Virginia, black and white youth use football as a way to break down their own racial mistrust, leading the entire community to see past race. In becoming a team committed to a single goal, they have no other choice but to trust each other and work together. Ultimately becoming brothers on and then off the field, the players teach their classmates and the entire community that success can come about only through racial unity — a lesson that everyone is able to learn rather easily by the film’s end. In other Hollywood films, too — Glory Road, Invictus, The Express — racial tension and misunderstanding are lessened through shared sacrifice, teamwork, and people learning about each other.
In answering the perennial liberal question “Why can’t we all just get along?”, the Hollywood sports film offers a laissez-faire solution to racism: Put everyone in the same uniform, let them duke it out for 90 minutes or so, and, eventually, we all will. It’s human nature.
In reality, though, the integration of American sports was anything but a natural or organic process. It was a struggle, a history of athletes and non-athletes carrying the mantle of civil rights on the field and in arenas, sidestepping the dangers of would-be-defenders and resistance from segregationists. Erasing the violence of integration and institutional racism, these films obscure the activism and organizing that facilitated the integration of American sports culture, from the collegiate realm up to the professional ranks. Nor did integration come about because of the singular efforts of heroic individuals like Herman Boone, Jackie Robinson, Ernie Davis, or Don Haskins. They were part of the larger struggle for civil rights in America.
In fact the integration of sports, like American integration in general, had many causes, and must be interpreted holistically, as Lane Demas does in Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football. Documenting “both a tedious, long struggle and a dramatic transformation,” Integrating the Gridiron challenges the “great man” theory of sports history, one that emphasizes the determination, personal fortitude, and athletic greatness of a few transcendent figures. Instead of individuals, Demas focuses on institutions. Light on heroes overcoming adversity (from avoiding would-be-tacklers to overcoming limited talent and resources) or rags-to-riches, pull-yourself-up-by-your-shoelace narratives, Demas offers a story of teams — college teams, the team of the black press, civil rights organizations. He tells a story of collective agitation that brought athletes and their allies together to change the sporting landscape forever.
“Neither a single ‘colorline’ nor a single integrating figure in college football emerged,” Demas writes; “instead, a tediously slow and arduous process spanned eight years and countless players.” Whereas public accommodations, American schools, and even baseball saw dramatic challenges to segregation during the 1940s and 1950s, football lagged behind the tide of integration. Successful challenges that led individuals to integrate specific teams never grew into a movement that was linked to iconic figures or dramatic challenges. There was no Little Rock or Greensboro moment for collegiate football.
Demas spends ample time highlighting the contributions of UCLA, which in 1939 had the first nationally recognized “Black team,” despite only having a handful of black players on the Bruins squad. “Football is the great equalizer,” argued Paul Zimmerman in the Los Angeles Times. “You have to throw racial prejudice out the window when a couple of gentlemen like Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington do the things they do.” The racial diversity of the team was widely noted and celebrated in the media. Referred to as the “chocolate bombers,” UCLA’s black players came to embody not just the team’s diversity but also the school’s openness and progressive attitude toward race.
The student government also took pride in their racially mixed team, praising UCLA’s effort to play (and ultimately beat) segregated teams. Even at UCLA, however, pride and celebration didn’t necessarily translate into inclusion and equity. Black players “couldn’t stay in the hotel or eat in restaurants” when the team played in the South, and weren’t able to participate in many social events on campus. UCLA athletes like Jackie Robinson, who didn’t show up to his own football banquet because of his difficult experience while at UCLA, and Woody Strode, among others, expressed a feeling of not being accepted by teammates, the campus at large, and the community as a whole. Subjected to discrimination from hotels and restaurants while on the road, ordered to “steer clear of social events” and faced with police harassment off-campus, UCLA’s black players did not play in an always welcoming integrating world. The hostility was also readily apparent on the field. Called a “black son of a bitch” by a teammate, Strode highlights the unwillingness to accept 2nd-class citizenship. “The bulldog came out of me. I climbed on top of Slats and started punching. The coaches stood around and watched for a little while. Finally they said, ‘That’s enough, Woody!’ and they came and pulled me off.” Integration, even at liberal UCLA, was a difficult process, especially for those gridiron pioneers of justice and their supporters.
Yet the visibility of African American players like Strode and Kenny Washington and the overall success of the Bruins encouraged other schools to follow suit, even as many all-white schools refused to play against teams with black members. These examples of progress were unable to play against Jim Crow schools. Black student athletes at schools like Boston College and Ohio State were routinely kept out of games against their southern counterparts.
Consider the story of Drake University’s Johnny Bright, one of the top running backs in 1950 (he broke the all-time rushing record as a junior). During the 1951 season, Drake was set to play Oklahoma A & M College (now Oklahoma State). Focused on elevating itself into the national spotlight, AM joined the Missouri Valley Conference. Hoping to dominate its opponents toward an eventual invitation to the Big 7 conference, Oklahoma A & M wasn’t in a position to bypass opponents. In Stillwater, Oklahoma, Bright faced an extremely hostile environment, with OAMC students taking bets about whether Bright would last the entire game and Oklahoma’s Coach Whitwork yelling “get that nigger.” Demas vividly describes what happened next:
On the game’s first play, Bright took the snap and handed the ball to Gene Macomber, who rounded the corner and proceeded up to the field for a short gain. As Bright stood behind the play and watched, OAMC lineman Wilbanks Smith ran up and landed a foreman directly to Bright’s face. After crumbling to the ground, Bright got up slowly. According to the Tulsa Daily World, Smith had ‘hit Bright with such force that his feet were off the ground. With his jaw shattered, Bright struggled to stay in the game. Twice against he was hit viciously, even without handling the ball. he attacks on Bright were so far removed from the ball that many of the 12,000 at Lewis Field did not even notice. … After the hit from Smith, Bright remained motionless for several minutes on the ground. Shortly thereafter, he had to be escorted off the field to the dressing room.
The public condemnation was widespread. Although Bright’s treatment was denounced as evidence of “dirty play” and “poor sportsmanship” rather than racism, the media coverage and organizing that resulted from the vicious attacks on Bright contributed to a cultural shift, whereby the struggle for equality and justice on the gridiron would gain momentum through organizations off the field.
A somewhat different narrative of the integration of college sports is provided by Charles Martin’s Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980, which focuses less on public outrage and social activism and more on the athletic successes of black student athletes. Focusing on the integration of the southern collegiate athletic programs and the symbolic power of sporting fields within the fight for civil rights, Martin explores “the shifting racial policies at historically white southern universities.” Providing a powerful historical narrative of how college football and to a lesser extent basketball are more than games, Martin illustrates the profound “role that college athletics played in reinforcing the traditional social structure and racial hierarchy of the South through the 1960s.”
Martin also documents the corollary in showing the importance of resisting football’s segregation as a challenge to the “racial hierarchy of the South.” From Texas Western, Maryland, Duke, and University of North Carolina, to Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, and Old Miss, Benching Jim Crow brings to life the decades of struggle needed to break the color line of Southern collegiate sports. But Martin locates these challenges on the field and on the court, arguing that the stellar performances of black athletes essentially forced Southern colleges to integrate. “Opportunism, self-interest, pragmatism, ambition, and occasionally even a touch of idealism motivated a variety of non-elite southern universities to recruit African Americans aggressively for their football and basketball teams by the mid-1960s,” writes Martin. “These schools clearly hoped to gain a competitive edge over their elite rivals by tapping a new source of talent.” More elite schools would follow suit “with all deliberate speed.”
Martin may be right that many Southern schools integrated voluntarily, but in at least one high-profile case, the force of self-interest was not enough. In Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins, Thomas G. Smith explores the racism of George Preston Marshall. Born in West Virginia in 1896, the year segregation was institutionalized with Plessy v. Ferguson, Marshall would convert his economic success and notoriety from his laundry business into the sporting world, becoming the owner of the Boston Braves in 1932, a team he ultimately moved to Washington in 1937.
An ardent segregationist, Marshall resisted integration both because of his own white supremacist ideology and to maintain support from southern segregationists. He who once said that the “only thing he ‘likes about Negroes is the color of their money'” and that his love for the Jews is especially great “when they’re customers.” “In ordinary conversation,” Ed Linn wrote in a 1957 piece for Sport Magazine, “Marshall refers to the Negroes in a manner which leaves little doubt that his objection to them [as players] is based along purely racial lines.”
Not surprisingly, in 1959, Marshall changed the lyrics to the Redskins fight song from “Fight for Old D.C.” to “Fight for Old Dixie,” and instructed the band to play “The Eyes of Texas” and “others songs with Southern appeal.” Marshall’s determination to court southern segregationists did not end with such gimmicks, but extended to his approach on the field: “Blinded by racism, Marshall refused to tap into the pool of African American talent … [and] went out of his way to select players from Dixie schools, bypassing not only blacks, but sometimes more qualified non-southern whites as well.” With tremendous depth and detail, Smith documents the intransigent racism, anti-Semitism, and foundational belief in segregation that ultimately left Marshall standing alone in the NFL.
But Showdown is more than a book about a mean-spirited bigot whose politics did little for his win-loss record. Smith documents the ways in which a myriad of constituencies and organizations ultimately forced Marshall to integrate the Redskins. The players themselves are key to understanding the history of integration throughout the NFL and ultimately with the Redskins. According to Smith, whereas Major League Baseball saw the ascendance of Jackie Robinson as both hero and symbol of racial integration, football lacked a singular player the cause could rally around. There was no single figure that compelled a national movement.
Yet fans and communities alike had the opportunity to root for and learn about black players at a local level because of their participation in collegiate sports. Without a national star like Jackie Robinson to bring down the walls of segregated professional football, the game’s color line was challenged at the local level, resulting in a much more methodical and drawn-out process. During the 1930s and 1940s, popular players like Washington and Strode inspired demands for integration among their fans in California; Ohio players like Bill Willis and Marion Motley emerged as the faces of integration in the Midwest. New York’s Buddy Young captured the imagination of fans and the press in the East, contributing to the systematic erosion of football’s Jim Crow policies for professional teams there.
Described as “the fastest thing in cleats” by sportscaster Bill Stern and “the best running back I have ever seen” by his own coach, Young was what we would now call a game changer. As Smith reports:
In his first game against Iowa, he scampered 64 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. On his second carry, he ran for a 30-year touchdown. In all he gained 139 yards on seven carries — an average of 19.7 yards. Before the season concluded he had touchdown runs of 93, 92, 74, 64 and 63 yards. He averaged 8.9 yards per carry and scored 13 touchdowns.
Showdown also documents the power and importance of the black press. Halley Harding of The Los Angeles Sentinel represented dozens of black newspapers as part of their effort “to protest the ban against African Americans players in professional football.” Appearing before the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission in 1946, he argued the commissioners “should not lease their facility to any team until it agreed to field a qualified black athlete.” White journalists like Shirley Povich were also instrumental, using their columns to call out Marshall and his racist ways. “Marshall was easy to dislike. He bulled many people. He bragged about being big-league, but he deprived his players of travel comforts to save expenses while reaping huge profits,” Povich wrote. “He refused to let Negroes play for the Redskins and thus watched other teams pass him by while he presented the fans of later years with all-white losers.”
Povich was not alone in his condemnation of Marshall. In a 1956 opinion piece in the Baltimore Afro-American, Sam Lacey denounced Redskins fans from the black community: “Wonder whether those tan folks who flock to Griffith Stadium to see the town’s pro gridders in action are aware that theirs is the only team in the National Football League that has NEVER shown any inclination whatsoever to pick up one of the many colored players who each year become eligible for professional contracts,” he wrote. Learning that fans at home games burst out with rebel yells after the playing the Redskins fight song,” Lacey concluded that the Redskins should be renamed “the Washington Confederates or the Washington lilywhites.” Organizations like the NAACP and CORE played an important part as well, picketing Marshall’s home and Redskins games in D.C. and elsewhere. Eventually their work, along with that of the press, pushed the issue of the Redskins’ integration further into the mainstream.
Perhaps it was inevitable, given the symbolic power of the team’s location in the nation’s capital and the Kennedy administration’s efforts to cultivate support amongst the black community, that the federal government would ultimately become involved. In 1961 Stuart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, decided to challenge the Washington “Paleskins.” “George Marshall of the Washington Redskins is the only segregationist hold-out in professional football,” Udall wrote on February 28, 1961 in his weekly report to President Kennedy. “He refused to hire Negro players even though Dallas and Houston, Texas have already broken the color bar.” Not satisfied with a symbolic statement, Udall announced, “The Interior Department owns the ground on which the new Washington Stadium is constructed.” Shortly thereafter, Udall notified Marshall about a new provision to their lease stipulating a no-discrimination policy.
It’s important to note that, irrespective of Smith’s subtitle, the Kennedy administration does not deserve the credit for forcing the integration of the last segregated professional football team in the United States. The JFK administration may have finalized integration, but it was grassroots activism that made it possible. It was the organizing from civil rights organizations, the consciousness-raising from the press, and the commitment from black athletes that allowed the Kennedy administration to strike the final blow to Jim Crow in the NFL. The story of integration, in the end, can’t be told any one way, with any one hero or villain. Like all the greatest sports victories, it was a team effort.