D.C. Stadium And The Civil Rights Movement

The bully pulpit worked.

Washington’s D. C. Stadium will be gone within two years but it should have been designated as a historical site defining the Civil Rights era. President John F. Kennedy’s Interior Department in 1962 forced the local NFL team to desegregate. Cleveland traded Bobby Mitchell to Washington in a deal for a top draft pick that was initiated by the Kennedy Administration. Cleveland got the NFL rights to Syracuse University running back 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 for Baseball’s American League’s Senators to replace Griffith Stadium along with Marshall’s team. That stadium forced Marshall’s hand as President John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall pushed Marshall and made him obey legislation that prohibited discrimination in federal facilities. D. C. Stadium was a federal facility. Udall gave Marshall an ultimatum, either hire Negro players or find somewhere else to play.

Marshall got a 30-year lease with the federal government only after selecting Davis and making the Mitchell deal. Marshall was the last owner in the National Football League to desegregate his team. The NFL banned black players from 1934 to 1945 and there was some thought among NFL historians that Marshall’s purchase of the Boston franchise in 1932 and his influence on other owners led to the policy. Marshall moved the 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”. The song also ended with the opening for Dixie. John F. Kennedy’s White House bully pulpit and a new stadium forced a change in Washington’s NFL team segregation policy.

John F. Kennedy