The NFL's Jackie Robinson

He broke professional football's color barrier in 1946, yet even though he played alongside Robinson in college, few people remember the great running back Kenny Washington or the shameful history of segregation in the NFL
October 11, 2009

The actors took their marks, director Stanley Kubrick stood at the ready, and Woody Strode turned on the 100-yard stare he had deployed so effectively a decade earlier on the football field. By then, in late 1959, Strode had largely moved on from the frustration of his single season in the NFL. He and Kenny Washington, his teammate at UCLA, had broken the league's color barrier with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, and since then Strode had cashed in on the physique that once made Leni Riefenstahl beg him to model for her. He had gone to Canada and won a Grey Cup and spent off-seasons barnstorming as a good-guy pro wrestler. Now he was in the movies, preparing for the scene in Spartacus in which he and Kirk Douglas are ordered to fight to the death. Suddenly Strode heard the voice of another actor in the cast.

"Woody Strode!" said Laurence Olivier.

"Yes, sir?"

"I'm a fan of yours and Kenny Washington's."

"I don't know what I'm doing here in your business," Strode said.

"What you're about to do," Olivier replied, "I could never do."

What Strode does in Spartacus—he subdues a fellow slave in one of cinema's epic one-on-one battles but refuses to kill him and is instead finished off by a Roman general, played by Olivier—emblemizes the ferocious, tragic grace with which Strode and Washington made history. Today those feats go essentially unremembered. Their NFL careers were brief and, in Strode's case, personally unfulfilling; both men had passed their primes when the league finally admitted them. But together they were to the NFL what their UCLA football teammate Jackie Robinson would be to major league baseball one year later: pulling guards in the sweep of history.

Baseball, bless its pastoral soul, offers a tidy and reassuring desegregation narrative. It's a story that reflects how we like to think of ourselves, as a society forever improving if not perfecting itself, and it offers ennobling roles for whites as well as blacks. We know the archetypes: commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, overtaken symbol of the bigoted past; Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, patron of a new day; Robinson, who fulfills his potential once given the chance. Robinson is one of the first men we see when we visit Cooperstown, at the very portals of the Hall of Fame, in life-sized bronze paired with the words CHARACTER and COURAGE.

By rights the NFL should be able to celebrate a history of abiding enlightenment. Whereas organized baseball began excluding African-Americans in 1898 and kept them out for the next five decades, pro football's Shelby (Ohio) Athletic Club paid a black man, Charles Follis, to play for it in 1904. In 1920 the Akron Pros' black quarterback, Fritz Pollard, was the first great star of the league that would two years later rename itself the NFL, and he even served as his team's player-coach. (Not just a black NFL quarterback, not just a black NFL coach, but both at the same time!) At the peak of African-American participation, in 1923, six players suited up in the NFL. But as the pro game grew in popularity, the ranks thinned to just two in 1933. The following year the league began a stretch of 12 all-white seasons that, Arthur Ashe writes in his survey of the African-American athlete, A Hard Road to Glory, has to be "one of the blackest spots on the record of American professional sports.... All NFL records should properly show asterisks beside any records made during this era."

How did the league come to bleach itself white? No single explanation entirely satisfies. Pro football had no strong commissioner like Landis, who categorically barred blacks. But in 1933 the NFL restructured itself into two divisions of five teams each, with a season-ending title game, which led to more media attention and presumably a desire to emulate baseball and its commercially successful formula of large markets and all-white rosters.

Paul Schissler coached the Chicago Cardinals' Joe Lillard, one of the last two blacks to play before the ban, and after the 1933 season Schissler told the Brooklyn Eagle that the Cardinals had let Lillard go in the best interests of both club and player. "He was a marked man, and I don't mean that just the Southern boys took it out on him either," the coach said. "After a while whole teams, Northern and Southern alike, would give Joe the works." But Ashe and others speculate that owners were just as likely favoring white players in a shrinking labor market. The NFL had shed franchises as the Depression wore on, and surviving teams carried fewer and fewer players.

Whatever the reasons, the period from 1934 to '46 is a stain on the names of the NFL's founding families. "Among the NFL's decision makers during those 12 years were some of the most storied individuals in the history of the game," writes Andy Piascik in his recently released book, Gridiron Gauntlet. "Their commitment to apartheid was seemingly stronger than their commitment to winning championships. The Bears under [George] Halas did not employ a single black player in their first 32 seasons. The Giants began play in 1925 and did not sign any blacks until 1948. The Steelers were all-white from the day Ray Kemp was released [in 1933] until 1952." As for George Preston Marshall, owner of the Washington Redskins (page 64), Piascik writes: "He at least did not pretend there were no blacks good enough to make his team. Unlike the others, he was honest enough to admit that he simply didn't want them around."

Halas claimed to journalist Myron Cope in 1970 that "no great black players were in the colleges then," but such protestations are disingenuous and even slanderous. During the period of the NFL's segregation, a time when it was hard for them to win the favor of white selectors, no fewer than nine black players earned All-America honors, and not one got an NFL tryout. Northwestern coach Dick Hanley called Ozzie Simmons, a back at Iowa from 1934 to '36, "the best I've ever seen." In 1937 Grantland Rice named Jerome (Brud) Holland of Cornell a first-team All-America end. Other African-American stars included Julius Franks, a guard at Michigan; Bernie Jefferson, a running back at Northwestern; and Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, a quarterback at Syracuse. Scores more played in obscurity at historically black colleges.

The league instituted a 20-round draft in 1939, yet no team chose an African-American until 1949. Even with the advent of World War II, when the NFL was so shorthanded that a desperate Halas coaxed Bronko Nagurski out of a five-year retirement and owners considered signing high school players, blacks needed not apply.

The snubbing of Kenny Washington indicts the football establishment more than any other exclusion. Though he led the nation in total offense as a senior in 1939, and played 580 of a possible 600 minutes by doubling as the anchor of the defensive secondary, Washington was relegated to second-team All-America by Hearst, the AP, the UP and Grantland Rice, while the East-West Shrine Game passed him over entirely. Yet when Liberty magazine polled more than 1,600 collegians on the best player they had faced on the field, Washington was the lone man named on the ballot of everyone he played against. It is only fitting that Washington—of whom former UCLA teammate Ray Bartlett once said, "He could smile when his lip was bleeding"—gouged the first bricks out of the NFL's all-whites wall.

The story of the NFL's integration offers no comfort to the league, which would prove notoriously slow to trust blacks with the positions of greatest responsibility, on the field, along the sideline or in the front office. Nor does the story offer the angels or redemptive moments we'd like or expect. "Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life," Strode told SI in an unpublished interview before his death. "There was nothing nice about it. History doesn't know who we are. Kenny was one of the greatest backs in the history of the game, and kids today have no idea who he is.

"If I have to integrate heaven, I don't want to go."

Woody Strode grew up not far from the L.A. Coliseum, in what's now known as South Central Los Angeles but was then called the East Side. Just as he entered Jefferson High, his father, a mason with Native American blood, moved the family to Central Avenue, which ran like a high-tension line through the black community. As a high school freshman Woody spread only 130 pounds over a 6'1" frame, but he soon filled out enough for the Los Angeles Examiner to rave, "He haunts his end like a departed spirit, taking out four men on one play if need be."

Kenny Washington hailed from Lincoln Heights, where his was the rare black family among mostly working-class Italians. A woman who lived next door would regularly drag six-year-old Kenny to early-morning mass. His father, Edgar (Blue) Washington, was a rolling stone, playing Negro leagues baseball between intermittent jobs in Hollywood. He would collect from a studio, then disappear until his pockets went light. Kenny would write him out of his life and credit two others with raising him: his grandmother Susie, a grammar school custodian beloved for vetting the suitors of the daughters of her Italian neighbors; and his uncle Rocky, who would become the first black uniformed lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department.

"I had a black principal in my grammar school when I was a kid," Strode would recall. "On the Pacific Coast there wasn't anything we couldn't do. As we got out of the L.A. area we found these racial tensions. Hell, we thought we were white."

The two met in 1936 as freshmen at UCLA, which welcomed black football players. In the idiom acceptable at the time, a local sportswriter called them the Goal Dust Twins, a play on the two black children featured on the box of Fairbank's Gold Dust, a popular soap powder. "When I met Kenny, I swear he was nothing but a nice Italian kid," Strode wrote in his 1990 memoir, Goal Dust. "He had an accent that was half-Italian."

Washington—a.k.a. the Kingfish, after a character in the radio comedy series Amos 'n' Andy—stood astride the Westwood campus. During two seasons of varsity baseball he hit .454 and .350, far better than Robinson. Rod Dedeaux, the longtime USC baseball coach who scouted for the Dodgers, believed that Washington also had a better arm, more power and more agility than Robinson.

Though pigeon-toed and knock-kneed, Washington ran with power and a prodigious straight-arm. "He had a crazy gait, like he had two broken legs," Tom Harmon, a teammate with the Rams, told SI before his death in 1990. "He'd be coming at you straight, and it would look like he was going sideways." As a tailback in the single wing, Washington passed as much as he ran. In 1937, with five minutes to play and the Bruins trailing USC 19--0, he threw for two touchdowns in 29 seconds, then added what could have been the winner if Strode had held on to his pass at the one-yard line. The first scoring pass traveled 62 yards in the air. Afterward UCLA coach Bill Spaulding went by the USC locker room to congratulate his counterpart, Howard Jones. "It's all right to come out now," Spaulding called through the door. "Kenny's stopped passing!"

When the Washington State coach taunted him from the sideline with the n word, Washington went after him. Opposing players would sometimes pile-drive Washington's face into the lime used to line the fields; Strode and other Bruins would take names and settle scores on subsequent plays. But Strode remembered Washington's reluctance to play the same game: "If Kenny knocked a guy down, he'd pick him up after the play was over."

As the wingback in motion during Washington's senior season, Robinson helped free up Washington, who led the Bruins to an undefeated 6-0-4 season, including a scoreless tie with USC, which ended as UCLA's final drive stalled inside the Trojans' four-yard line. Years later it would be easy to read a pattern into both those dramatic games with USC: They seemed to prefigure a fate in which Washington would fall just short or lose out to the clock. When he left the Coliseum field as a Bruin for the final time, Washington received an ovation that sounded, as Strode put it, as if "the pope of Rome had come out."

Robinson, writing for Gridiron magazine in 1971, called Washington "the greatest football player I have ever seen.... I'm sure he had a deep hurt over the fact that he never had become a national figure in professional sports. Many blacks who were great athletes years ago grow old with this hurt."

Anticipating the snubs that would inflame the black press, Pittsburgh Courier columnist Wendell Smith wrote, "When the All-American teams are selected this year, the one with Washington's name missing can be called the 'un-American' team." Washington did play in the College All-Star Game at Soldier Field, scoring a touchdown, and afterward Halas asked him to stick around Chicago, saying he would "see what he could do," Washington recalled. A week later the Bears owner told Washington that he couldn't use him.

Similarly, New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Powers appealed to Giants founder Tim Mara and Brooklyn (football) Dodgers co-owner Dan Topping to sign him. Yet Washington went unselected in the NFL draft, prompting NBC Radio commentator Sam Balter to blast league executives in a broadcast j'accuse: "You know ... he would be the greatest sensation in pro league history with any one of your ball clubs ... [yet] none of you chose him."

Washington spent the next year coaching the UCLA freshmen and finishing up his degree, then joined the LAPD. As undergraduates he and Strode had earned spending money as porters on Warner Brothers movie sets, and Washington picked up several film roles. In the meantime Strode took a job serving subpoenas and escorting prisoners for the L.A. County DA's office, and after Pearl Harbor he joined an Army football team at March Field in Riverside, Calif. When they could, Washington and Strode played in a pro league that would have them, the Pacific Coast Football League (PCFL).

Washington never failed to earn all-league recognition during his four minor league seasons, despite several knee injuries, including one in 1941 that kept him out of the service. Legend had it that he once stood in one end zone of Hollywood's Gilmore Stadium and heaved a football clear to the other. ("It was really 93 yards," Washington would confess.) By 1945, when he and Strode played for the Hollywood Bears, Washington found his former Bruins teammate with a touchdown pass that covered 62 yards, and he surpassed that with 65- and 67-yard strikes to another black NFL refusé, Ezzrett (Sugarfoot) Anderson. "You'd have thought it was a revival for black people," Brad Pye Jr., the longtime sports editor of the Los Angeles Sentinel, says of those PCFL games. "People would come on Sundays after church, all dressed up. Thirty to forty percent in attendance were black. Kenny was like a god. He did everything, and Sugarfoot Anderson could catch anything Kenny put up."

By the end of 1945 the future of the Hollywood Bears—indeed, the fate of the entire PCFL—hung on two developments. One was a vow by the fledgling All-American Football Conference (AAFC) to plant a flag in Los Angeles with a team owned by actor Don Ameche and called the Dons. The other factor was the decision by NFL owners, eager to checkmate the new league, to grant Cleveland owner Dan Reeves permission to move his Rams to L.A.

That city, however, was no longer the one Washington and Strode had known upon leaving Westwood. The war had fed the East Side's growth as blacks poured into Southern California to work in the defense industries that FDR barred from discriminatory hiring. Restrictive covenants kept blacks from settling in much of the L.A. basin, but the Double V campaign waged by the Courier—"victory over fascism abroad and segregation at home"—elevated expectations, especially among returning African-American troops.

Meanwhile, policies barring blacks from downtown hotels and Hollywood clubs had touched off a flowering along Central Avenue. Film stars lit out for the 4200 block, which included the Dunbar Hotel, the Club Alabam and the Last Word Café, to drink in the music and the vibe. "They had to come down there because we couldn't go over there," jazz pianist Gerald Wiggins would recall in 1993, savoring the irony. One night Stepin Fetchit pulled up in front of the Dunbar in a yellow Rolls-Royce with Mae West riding shotgun. Swing had given way to bebop, and the result was an empowering headiness among black Angelenos.

Operating along "the black Sunset Strip," as Central Avenue was known, L.A.'s African-American reporters now worked to secure the second V, targeting whites-only unions and bigoted housing policies. Edward (Abie) Robinson of the Sentinel and later the California Eagle was one of the most prominent of these crusaders. Herman Hill, West Coast bureau chief of the Courier, could count some two million readers of 13 editions nationwide. But the most fearless, outspoken and tenacious of all was a former pro athlete who served as sports editor of the Los Angeles Tribune.

William Claire (Halley) Harding wrote in a voice that jumped off the page. Sarcastic, conversational, self-congratulatory and self-aggrandizing, he never lacked for an opinion or a provocation. Harding called his Tribune column SO WHAT?, and the contrariness in the title captures him perfectly. "He was a loudmouth," remembers the Sentinel's Pye, who as a junior high schooler in 1946 made pocket change emptying wastebaskets in the Courier's West Coast bureau. "I used to pass by [his] office and hear him through the door. There was a boxing gym down the street and a pool hall around the corner—I could always hear him in there too. With 90,000 people in the Coliseum you could still hear Halley Harding."

As a kid in Rock Island, Ill., Harding would have known of Robert (Rube) Marshall, the second black pro footballer, who played for the local team, the Independents, as would two other pioneers, Sol Butler and Fred (Duke) Slater. Harding himself played football at historically black colleges Wilberforce, Wiley and Fisk. At Wiley he overlapped with Melvin B. Tolson, the renowned English professor and debate coach—played by Denzel Washington in the 2007 film The Great Debaters—whose team memorably defeated national debate champion USC in 1935. Tolson served as an assistant coach of the Wiley football team, which went 8-0-1 in 1928 with Harding at quarterback.

Through the late '20s and '30s, Harding was a kind of black sports Zelig, playing Negro leagues baseball after the college football season ended and basketball for Abe Saperstein's Savoy Big Five, the Chicago-based forerunner of the Globetrotters. When the NFL drew the color line, all-Negro pro football teams popped up, and Harding spent the mid-'30s with Pollard's Chicago Black Hawks and New York Brown Bombers. By the end of the decade he had landed in Los Angeles. In 1939 and 1940 he appeared in a couple of films with all-black casts, including Gang War, in which he throws a mean right cross during a barroom brawl.

On the afternoon of Jan. 15, 1946, representatives of the Rams and the Dons appeared before the L.A. Memorial Coliseum Commission to lobby for leases to a stadium that had never before hosted pro football. Commission president Leonard Roach, an L.A. County supervisor who enjoyed broad black support, had tipped off the black press that the meeting was open to the public. Just off a plane from Cleveland, Rams G.M. Charles (Chile) Walsh surely had no idea what the black man seated beside him had in store.

While minutes of the Coliseum Commission note that "Hally Hardin [sic], representing 30 colored newspapers," was present and delivered one of a number of "short talks" that day, they don't record exactly what he said. But from surviving accounts we do know that Harding set his sarcasm aside and stood and delivered like a Wiley College debater. He walked the commissioners through the NFL's early, integrated history. He highlighted pioneers like his old teammate Pollard. He invoked the Double V campaign and the contributions of black soldiers during World War II. He fingered Marshall as the handmaiden of Jim Crow pro football and appealed to Southern Californians' tradition of tolerance. And he declared it "singularly strange" that no NFL team had signed Kenny Washington.

After Harding sat down, the Sentinel's Abie Robinson told Ron Bishop, a Drexel communications professor, in 2002, "You could have heard a rat piss on cotton."

"Walsh was really shook up," the Courier's Hill later reported. "He turned pale and started to stutter. He denied any racial prejudice on the part of the Rams or the NFL. He even went to the league's rulebook. Halley and I answered by charging [that the rule barring blacks] was unwritten. The old supervisor [and commission member] Roger Jessup got up and asked whether the Rams would dare bar Kenny Washington."

"Of course not," said Walsh.

"I just want you to know," Jessup said, "if our Kenny Washington can't play, there will be no pro football in the L.A. Coliseum."

Attorney Lloyd Wright, representing the Rams, pledged at length that Washington or any other qualified African-American could play with the Rams. Roach urged the Rams and the black newsmen to further discuss the issue on their own. So a week later Walsh and Rams publicity man Maxwell Stiles ventured to Central Avenue to the Last Word, where at least a dozen black journalists lay in wait. Here the names of Washington and several other Hollywood Bears came up, but Walsh expressed concern that they were all under contract to the PCFL club. Harding replied that if the Bears wouldn't stand in their way, what impediment could possibly remain? The Rams conceded as much. Walsh promised to try to sign Washington and also expressed interest in Strode and another Bears end, Chuck Anderson.

Most historical accounts say the Coliseum Commission forced integration on the Rams. But in her forthcoming book, The Lost Championship Season, historian Gretchen Atwood makes the case that Harding deserves the primary credit. "Harding pushes Roach to put in writing the promise not to discriminate, and Roach does," Atwood says. "Both in the commission meeting and at the Last Word, every time Walsh says something vague like, 'We'll try out all qualified players regardless of race,' Harding responds with a demand for specifics, such as, 'O.K., when will Washington's tryout be?' Then when the Dons don't hire any blacks, Harding goes back to the commission and asks it to enforce the written nondiscrimination agreement. Roach isn't at this meeting, but the commission now says it has no record of any such agreement and won't tell a team who it can or can't hire. If it was the Coliseum Commission that forced the Rams to integrate, then how do you explain that the Dons had a lease in 1946 when they hadn't even given a black player a tryout? So in sports terms, Harding gets the goal and Roach the assist, not the other way around."

Atwood believes a comment made years later by Rams backfield coach Bob Snyder—that the team signed Washington at the insistence of the Coliseum Commission—is a convenient official story. "I think Snyder believed that, but I also think Chile Walsh was sick of Harding's constant pressure. And because of the public statements Roach and Jessup made against racial bias, Walsh and the Rams could pass the buck if anyone objected to the signing—basically, shrug and tell other NFL owners, 'Hey, our hands were tied, we needed the lease to the stadium.'"

The Rams' press release on March 21, 1946, announcing Washington's signing includes this disclaimer: "The National [Football] League has never had a rule against the use of Negro players and no precedent is being set in the signing of Washington." But that's belied by the reaction of other NFL owners. "All hell broke loose," Snyder told Mike Rathet and Don R. Smith, authors of The Pro Football Hall of Fame Presents: Their Deeds and Dogged Faith, in 1984. "There was objection to it—you can bet your butt on that."

The Tribune gloried in the news of Washington's signing. One article exulted, "Yesterday Tribune sports editor Halley Harding's one-man crusade against the National Football League's patent, if unwritten, law against Negro players paid off in full."

In his column Harding wrote, "Of course Kenny hasn't got a whole lot of years on the gridiron ahead of him, but we'll string along with him for our money's worth, never having been robbed yet. Another Negro is about to sign on the dotted line in the same office, but while the details are being worked out, mum's the word."

That other black player, Strode, came to terms a couple of months later. The Rams had asked Washington to choose someone to room with on the road, and he nominated his old running mate. The Rams grumbled about Strode's marriage to Luana Kalaeola, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, Strode said later, "but Kenny had power at that point, and he said, 'I want my buddy.'"

Kenny Washington had already undergone five knee operations when he made his NFL debut at age 28. Now a running back on a T formation team, he could no longer mystify defenses as a tailback who might run or pass. He fared best in the second of his three seasons, when he finished fourth in the NFL in rushing yardage, led the league with 7.4 yards per carry and ran 92 yards from scrimmage for a score shortly after being knocked unconscious by a Chicago Cardinals linebacker.

"Kenny was just a shell of himself when he played for the Rams," says the Sentinel's Pye. "If you could have seen him with the Hollywood Bears...." Angelenos seemed to know that. Upon his retirement in 1948, the 80,000 fans who came out for a tribute did so to honor his entire career.

When the Rams hit the road that first season, management checked the white players into one hotel and peeled off a hundred dollars for each of the black players to find lodging elsewhere. This wasn't always because of Jim Crow; Washington and Strode liked the autonomy. "In the black section of Chicago, we'd never seen so many black people in our whole lives," Strode recalled. "Bob Waterfield and about five players came down looking for us because they'd made arrangements for us to move back to their hotel. We're in a cellar [of the Persian Hotel] where Count Basie's playing, it's integrated and all the white people are having a ball. We're sipping Tom Collinses, and Waterfield said, 'You sons of bitches!' The team was too embarrassed to bed check us because we'd been shoved out of the family. And when the white players came to get us, we said, 'No way, we're gonna stay segregated.' That's why I say it was never [an issue among] the athletes."

On offense, Strode, then 32, played only enough to catch four passes; on defense, he was put "in the butcher shop on the defensive line at 200 pounds," Strode said. "It was a joke ."

Harmon, his old teammate, confirmed this. "Woody was one of the greatest defensive ends I ever saw, but he never got a chance to prove it because of that fool coaching staff. In practice you could never get near him. You never saw a man in better shape."

Strode learned of his release while lying in bed one morning, when several of Washington's mob-connected friends from Lincoln Heights came by with the news. One of the wise guys—"the biggest bookie in Hollywood," Strode said—reported overhearing Reeves and Snyder in a bar on Sunset Boulevard ("drunk on their asses," in Strode's telling) bragging about how they'd let Strode go. "[The bookie] said, 'We don't like the way they did it. We want to know if you want to fight it.' I could have started a war."

Both Chile Walsh and his brother Adam, the L.A. coach, resigned after the Rams, NFL champions in 1945, went 6-4-1 in 1946. But even if the season had been a disappointment on the West Coast, to a man watching from Brooklyn it had been a triumph. As a teammate of Charles Follis's with the Shelby Athletic Club at the turn of the century, Branch Rickey had been impressed by Follis's even temper in the face of taunts and cheap shots. Now, Rickey said to himself, if blacks and whites could play a game of violent collisions in close quarters without major incident, the Dodgers could surely call up Jackie Robinson to the majors. Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers the following season.

Strode went on to play two seasons in Canada and spent five years in Italy doing spaghetti Westerns and action films. On screen he exuded an equipoise that one critic praised as "an effective counterpoint to the noise and confusion around him." By the time he died of lung cancer in 1994, he had made more than 100 movies, including Sergeant Rutledge and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. His last film, The Quick and the Dead, was released in 1995.

After retiring, Washington worked as a distributor for a grocery chain and a whiskey distillery. He served as a part-time scout for the Dodgers, in whose system his son, Kenny Jr., played several seasons. In 1971, after Washington became ill with congestive-heart and lung problems, Strode hurried back from Italy to his old friend's hospital room in the UCLA Medical Center. He wanted to take Washington to Rome, to show him a place full of people like the neighbors back in Lincoln Heights. But Washington was too far gone and knew he was best left to contemplate the Bruins' football practice field, which he could see from his window.

Washington was 52 when he died. In his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Waterfield said, "If he had come into the National Football League directly from UCLA, he would have been, in my opinion, the best the NFL had ever seen."

In what kind of peace is that supposed to leave a man? Pastor L.L. White addressed the question in his eulogy, invoking St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians: "You live in a world of crooked and mean people. You must shine among them like stars lighting up the sky."

Pete Fierle oversees education programs for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He knows well the obscurity that shrouds the story of the game's reintegration in the modern era. "My 11-year-old son could tell you Jackie Robinson's name but not Kenny Washington's or Marion Motley's," Fierle says. Thus, the Hall hangs most of the tale of pro football's desegregation on Paul Brown's addition of Motley and Bill Willis to the Browns in 1946. Those events came after the Rams' signings of Washington and Strode, but they are stories of principle, vision and courage. It's a narrative more in the Rickey-Robinson mold and, Fierle points out, easier for visitors to get a handle on.

Problem is, Motley and Willis didn't integrate the NFL. They integrated the AAFC. Washington and Strode integrated the NFL. League owners remained reliably reactionary even after the NFL champion Minnesota Vikings lost Super Bowl IV to the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs, who fielded more black starters than white. Not until Doug Williams led the Redskins to a Super Bowl title in 1988 did a starting black NFL quarterback become less than remarkable. And not until a renegade owner, Oakland's Al Davis, hired Art Shell in 1989 did the NFL get its first black head coach since Pollard.

The sad fact is, the NFL's journey to integration didn't have to take place at all. If only the league had left well enough alone, its history would be a proud one. Instead those 13 years of segregation—ended only when the NFL gave ground grudgingly to a howling sportswriter and a public servant—diminish the league to a level of a small-minded steward of some waiting room or lunch counter.

That gracelessness wasn't lost on the key players. "They didn't take Kenny because of his ability," Strode said. "They didn't take me on my ability. It was shoved down their throats."

Now on SI.com

Hear a recreation of Halley Harding's speech to the Coliseum Commission at SI.com/bonus.

"Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life," Stro de said. "If I have to integrate heaven, I don't want to go."

Robinson, writing for Gridiron magazine in 1971, called Washington "the greatest football player I have ever seen."

"You'd have thought it was a revival for black people," Pye said of integrated PCFL games in Los Angeles.

After Washington signed, the Tribune declared, "Halley Harding's one-man crusade paid off in full."

If blacks and whites could play a violent game, Rickey realized, surely the Dodgers could call up Robinson.

Marshall Law

The Redskins' intransigent owner, George Preston Marshall, kept the team in the nation's capital lily-white until 16 years after the NFL was integrated

Hours before the Los Angeles Rams played the Washington Redskins on Dec. 5, 1948, the attendant at the players' entrance to D.C.'s Griffith Stadium refused to admit the Rams' black running back, Kenny Washington. It wasn't until a team official was summoned to the gate that Washington was finally let in. Washington would never forget the incident, but it didn't surprise him: He knew that the sudden whitening of the NFL after 1933 had coincided with the ascension of George Preston Marshall to majority ownership of the Redskins.

In 1937, angered by meager support from fans and the press, Marshall had moved the Redskins from Boston to his hometown, D.C. The nation's capital was segregated then, and Marshall was determined to keep his team as white as the full-page newspaper ad he once ran for his laundry chain, empty except for small type at the bottom that read, THIS SPACE WAS CLEANED BY PALACE LAUNDRY. He ordered the Redskins Band to play Dixie before games and eventually changed a line in Hail to the Redskins, the team's fight song, from "fight for old D.C." to "fight for old Dixie."

From the NFL's reintegration in 1946 until Marshall was incapacitated by a stroke in 1963, the Redskins had just three winning seasons, yet the owner resolutely refused to change. Even as Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich made sport of how "the Redskins' end zone has frequently been integrated by Negro players," Marshall insisted, "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."

When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, the Redskins had just drafted 20 more white players in the aftermath of a 1-9-2 season. On March 24 Interior Secretary Stewart Udall notified Marshall that the new D.C. Stadium, for which Marshall had just signed a 30-year lease, was being built with public funds in Anacostia Park and therefore was part of the Capitol Parks system, which fell under Udall's jurisdiction. To play in the stadium, Udall declared, the Redskins would have to integrate.

Marshall reacted as defiantly as ever. "I didn't know the government had the right to tell a showman how to cast the play," he said. American Nazi Party members, with no evident sense of irony, demonstrated in D.C. with placards reading KEEP REDSKINS WHITE. With behind-the-scenes pressure from NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Marshall finally relented. Udall agreed to let the Redskins use the new stadium as long as they desegregated by the 1962 season. One of the first two blacks to suit up for the team, Bobby Mitchell, would wind up in the Hall of Fame. And with the Redskins under new management, he went to work in the front office when he retired as a player in 1968 and stayed for the next 35 years.

For years the Redskins played an annual exhibition game against the Rams in the L.A. Coliseum to benefit the Los Angeles Times's charities. "My father always played harder against the [Redskins] but wouldn't say why," Kenny Washington Jr. told SI. "After he retired he never went to another one of those games."

Marshall died in 1969 after six years in a vegetative state. In his will he left $6 million for the health, education and welfare of children in greater D.C., with the proviso that none of it be spent "for any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form."

PHOTOBETTMAN/CORBISGROUND GAINERS After playing together in the 1939 UCLA backfield, (from left) Strode, Robinson and Washington would play pioneering roles in the nation's two biggest sports. PHOTONFL PHOTOS/APMIXED BLESSINGS Age and injuries kept Washington (13) from being an NFL star; Strode (below, with Douglas), ever the supporting actor, shone in Spartacus. PHOTOJ.R. EYERMAN/TIME-LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] TWO PHOTOSNEIL LEIFERHEIL TO THE REDSKINS Neo-Nazis appealed to Marshall (opposite page) not to sign black players in 1961. PHOTOTHE CHICAGO CRUSADERUNSTOPPABLE Harding's fearless campaigning was a key to the NFL's decision to finally end its segregation.

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Eagle (-2)
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