Monday, October 10, 2011

Political Venue: The History of RFK Stadium, Part Four

Colored players need not apply

An intractably racist owner, a presidential administration committed to equal rights. The Redskins and the government were on a collision course. Curly R's special series on the history of RFK Stadium continues.

Part One: Faded Glory
Part Two: Government Intervention
Part Three: Football and Race
Part Four: A Complex Relationship
Part Five: Ernie Davis, Bobby Mitchell and Ron Hatcher
Part Six: Wednesday
Part Seven: Thursday
Part Eight: Friday


Washington's rising new multipurpose venue was at the center of a complex federal-local government partnership, one that thirty-five years later would be a factor in thwarting Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke's efforts to keep the team in the District once RFK was no longer a viable NFL stadium. District of Columbia Stadium would be built on federal parkland, Anacostia Park, a reclaimed spit of land at the far end of East Capitol Street. Managing the stadium and the revenues from its use would be the DC Armory Board, a branch of the DC government created by Congress in 1949 to administer federally owned properties in the District for non-military and commercial uses.

Although the stadium was to be managed by the District, the ultimate authority on its use, or nonuse, was the US Department of the Interior, the federal government entity responsible for administering US parkland resources. Stewart Udall, John Kennedy's Interior Secretary, shared Bobby Kennedy's concern for the Redskins' resistance to integration, and as Interior Secretary, had the authority to back his concern with action.

In March of 1961, as DC Stadium was rising and the Redskins were planning their inaugural season in that new home, Secretary Udall wrote a letter to owner George Preston Marshall, alerting him to certain recent civil rights laws, and the penalties of prosecution for violating them.

Whatever response George and the team offered were not sufficient, for five months later in August of 1961, Secretary Udall wrote a second letter, this one to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. This letter was right to the point: Department of Interior would consider using its authority to prevent the Redskins from using DC Stadium if they did not hire black players. And not just any black players, talented black players, ones that would not simply ride the bench as tokens of compliance.

The Redskins owner shot right back, swearing the Redskins had no hiring bias, it was simply that the Redskins had not yet come across the black players they wanted. To bolster his argument that the Redskins did not actually have a no-blacks policy, George publicly displayed interest in Syracuse star tailback Ernie Davis, a player who happened to be black. And the Redskins had the number one overall pick in the upcoming 1962 NFL Draft, to be held in December.

The government relented and approved the Redskins use of DC Stadium for the 1961 football season.

Political Venue: The History of RFK Stadium continues tomorrow with part five, Ernie Davis, Bobby Mitchell and Ron Hatcher.

RFK Stadium: Dudley Brooks / Washington Post photo from here via here.