Skip to main content

JFK, Obama: Redskins needs to change

By Thomas G. Smith
November 14, 2013 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kennedy administration in 1961 asked Redskins team owner to lift its racial ban
  • Thomas Smith: 50 years later, President Obama said team name should be changed
  • He says diehard fans use history and tradition to defend offensive name and logo
  • Smith: Public opinion calls for racial sensitivity; current owner will have to respond

Editor's note: Thomas G. Smith, professor of history at Nichols College, is author of "Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins" (Beacon Press, 2011).

(CNN) -- History does not necessarily repeat itself, but sometimes it makes echoes. An echo from 50 years ago reverberates today over the flap regarding the Redskins nickname and logo.

Disturbed by the Redskins quarter-century ban against African-American players, the Kennedy administration in 1961, with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall spearheading the effort, instructed team owner George Preston Marshall to lift the racial ban or face federal sanction.

Marshall had signed a 50-year contract to play home games in the newly constructed D.C. Stadium scheduled to open in 1962. The federal government controlled the land on which the stadium sat, and as landlord it would deny use to any employer who practiced racial discrimination.

Thomas G. Smith
Thomas G. Smith

Marshall was initially defiant. He would never yield to the government's demand. The Redskins had a long history and tradition of "no black players" that resonated with its fervent fan base. If he signed black players, white fans might retaliate by not buying tickets and merchandise.

Didn't the Kennedy administration have more important issues to deal with than whether the Redskins had a black player? And why blacks in particular? Why not other ethnic groups? Why not a female player?

The move to integrate the Redskins was liberalism run amok, said traditionalists. Troublemaking socialists were trying to tell a business owner how to run his business.

Redskins nickname: On the way out?
Support grows to change Redskins name

But the federal threat of withholding use of D.C. Stadium and mounting public pressure from sports journalists, opinion shapers, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and the black community, including Jackie Robinson, eventually caused Marshall to jettison the team's sacred lily white tradition and hire black players.

At the time, few Americans, including Udall himself, considered the Redskins nickname racially insensitive. In fact, Udall played high school football and basketball for the St. Johns, Arizona -- you guessed it -- Redskins. In the 1930s when Udall went to high school and in the early 1960s when he headed the interior department, racial stereotypes were commonplace.

African-Americans were referred to as "darkies" and "colored," and Native Americans as "redskins." On TV Westerns, "Indians" were sometimes portrayed as noble characters, but "redskins" almost never were.

Over the decades, most Americans have come to learn that names like "darkies," "colored" and "redskins," not to mention the N-word, are considered racially offensive and hurtful. The Washington Redskins made a partial concession to racial sensitivity in the early 1960s when they cleaned up the demeaning language in their fight song, which read, in part, "Scalp 'um, swamp 'um, we will take 'um big score."

Unlike George Marshall, Dan Snyder, the present-day owner of the Washington football team, is no racist. Nor are the vast majority of the team's fans. But he, and perhaps most fans of the team, refuses to acknowledge that the nickname and logo are offensive.

Like Marshall, he is being pressured by the President of the United States and the commissioner of the NFL to consider a name change. Like Marshall, he is defiant. He will "NEVER" give up the name. Fans of the team defend the name and logo on the basis of history and tradition.

But a half century earlier, diehard fans were using history and tradition to defend a system of racial segregation in the South. American Nazis paraded outside D.C. Stadium carrying signs reading "Keep Redskins White." Just like then, current defenders of tradition blast liberals for interfering in an issue that is none of their business. Traditionalists claim the nickname honors Native Americans. But the name is no more ennobling than slurs for Jews, Irish, Japanese or other Asians.

Some fans ask why focus on the Redskins in particular? Because names like Chiefs, Indians (minus Chief Wahoo) and Braves (minus the tomahawk chop) are not demeaning. "What about the Irish of Notre Dame?" one of my college students asked. "That's not offensive or demeaning," I replied, "but what if they were named 'the Drunken Irish'?" "That would be even better," he said. That answer got a laugh but no one really took him seriously.

Just as in George Marshall's day, public opinion is mounting for racial sensitivity. A president has become involved. Native Americans have filed a lawsuit against the trademark. Representatives of the Oneida nation have met with officials of the NFL to protest the nickname and logo. On Wednesday Oneida Indians thanked President Obama for supporting a name change. Journalists like Christine Brennan of USA Today, Bob Costas of NBC Sports, Peter King of Sports Illustrated, and Maureen Dowd of The New York Times and others have advocated for a nickname change.

The echo is loud and clear. Eventually the Washington team owner will hear it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Thomas G. Smith.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT