How Stewart Udall Desegregated The NFL

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Washington owner George Preston Marshall was a holdout.

It is Black History Month and in 1962, there was a very significant change in the National Football League. President John F. Kennedy’s Interior Department forced a team to desegregate. Cleveland traded Bobby Mitchell to Washington in a deal that was initiated by the White House. Cleveland got the NFL rights to Syracuse University running back and 1961 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis. The Washington owner George Preston Marshall, who never hid his racial views, did not hire any Negro players for his team. The federal government had decided to build a multi-purpose stadium in Washington. The stadium forced Marshall’s hand as Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall told Marshall there was a law that prohibited discrimination in federal facilities. D. C. Stadium was a federal facility. Udall gave Marshall an ultimatum, hire Negro players or find somewhere else to play. Marshall’s team did play a few games in the new stadium in 1961 and Marshall wanted to move into D. C. Stadium on a full-time basis.

Marshall got a 30-year lease with the federal government only after selecting Davis and making the Mitchell deal. Marshall was the last NFL owner to desegregate his team. The NFL banned black players from 1934 to 1945 and there was some thought among NFL historians after Marshall’s purchase of the Boston franchise in 1932, he had influence on other owners that led to the policy. Marshall moved his Boston franchise to Washington in 1937. Marshall’s team ran onto the field with the song, “Hail to the Redskins” playing. That tune included a lyric “Fight for Old Dixie” which was eventually changed to “Fight for Old D.C”. Marshall is a Pro Football Hall of Fame member. Udall and a stadium forced a change in Washington’s NFL team’s segregation policy. The NFL was completely integrated.

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Stewart Udall