NFL Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell was the first African-American player with the Washington Redskins. The Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate – fifty years ago in the early 1960s. In celebration of Black History Month, Pro Player Insiders is highlighting professional athletes who have helped pave the way for equality on and off the field.
The NFL actually had African-American players early in the 20th century; however, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, as the economic conditions worsened during the Great Depression, it became a pervasive view that a black player in the NFL was “taking the job of a white player.” By a “gentlemen’s agreement,” the NFL shut out black players for a period of 13 years.
After World War II, there was push back against discrimination, within the NFL and throughout the country. The year before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in major league baseball in 1947, there were two teams in the NFL that made the move to integrate, although for very different reasons.
The Cleveland Rams were preparing to move to California and were receiving pressure from fans and journalists in Los Angeles. They integrated as part of their move to become the Los Angeles Rams. At the same time, visionary owner Paul Brown, without any external pressure, chose to integrate the Cleveland Browns by bringing on two black players, Bill Willis and Marion Motley.
Between 1946 and 1961, the rest of the NFL followed suit, but the Washington Redskins were the last to integrate. The Redskins franchise was the most Southern team in the league, and the owner, George Preston Marshall, argued that his southern fan base wouldn’t tolerate it. He ultimately capitulated in 1962, and traded for Bobby Mitchell.
Mitchell had a major adjustment to make. He had been playing with the Cleveland Browns, who were the first team in the league to integrate. In addition, the Browns were a championship caliber team and Mitchell was playing alongside one of the greatest players in league history – Jim Brown. Washington had won only 1 game the previous year. Mitchell went to a team at the bottom of the league, with no racial diversity and an owner who openly campaigned against including black players for a period of 16 years.
When he arrived, Mitchell explains that Marshall told him, “I just want to tell you that I want you to be a good guy. And I already told you that I didn’t want you to ask for too much money. And I want you to stay out of politics, this is a political town. Just do for us what you did for Cleveland.”
Mitchell responded, “I’ll give you what I gave Cleveland,” but went on to add, “I didn’t know the amount of hell I was going to catch after that.”
Mitchell recounts stories, including being spit upon in one of finest restaurants in Washington, at the sixth annual Shirley Povich Symposium at the University of Maryland, which celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the integration of the NFL.
While Jackie Robinson has rightly received credit and attention for the trials he went through in major league baseball, the stories of the integration of the NFL are much less widely told, but just as critical in the growth of the sports and the civil rights movement in general.
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