Sunday, February 28, 2010

Black History Month

As Black History Month concludes Past Interference salutes someone whose six-decades-old contribution to the National Football League still reverberates today.

Over 60 years ago Jackie Robinson shattered Major League Baseball's color line, an event so important it transcended sports. Playing courageous and brilliant baseball Robinson proved the utter falsity of the racist beliefs that had kept blacks out of Major League Baseball for so long while paving the way for the Civil Rights movement to come. Arguably the most important athlete of the 20th Century Robinson's virtually a sainted figure in our history now right up there with Martin Luther King, Jr and Rosa Parks. And deservedly so.

But this post isn't about the great Jackie Robinson. (This is a football blog.) Now contrast Jackie's status as an icon with the virtual anonymity of the man who broke the National Football League's color line...a year before Robinson did the same for baseball. There's no mystery about this. The NFL's popularity in the mid-1940's in no way compared to that of professional baseball (it would take over another decade for that to change). Also, the NFL's color line had only been in place for 13 years while baseball had been banning African-Americans for over half a century before Jackie Robinson. But while the NFL's reintegration was not the seismic event that baseball's was, the man who broke football's color line deserves honor and recognition all the same. His name was Kenny Washington and given the nature of the game he no doubt experienced a kind of physical brutality from racist competititors that even Robinson never had to endure. But this post isn't about Kenny Washington either.

Obviously Jackie Robinson didn't singlehandedly desegreate Major League Baseball. For reasons both idealistic and financial Dodgers GM and President Branch Rickey signed him and gave him the opportunity to make history after getting permission from the team's board of directors. By contrast, the L.A. Rams had no interest whatsoever in signing Washington or any African American. So why'd they make the move?

In the standard histories of the NFL that I've read, the L.A. Rams signed Washington as a necessity in order for the newly relocated Rams to be able to obtain a lease to play in the city-owned Los Angeles Colisuem. Officials for Los Angeles County and the Coliseum Commission essentially forced the team to do the right thing. But I should have known that was too simple a story. If history's shown us anything it's that social and political change never comes about from the top down. The people themselves have to make their government act. In a still-segregated nation no government official was on their own going to force a football owner to sign a black player. What if the team balked and went elsewhere? So who pushed L.A. to sign Washington?

It wasn't one person alone but after reading up on the subject it appears that the man who deserves most of the credit is a guy by the name of William Clare (Halley) Harding. Halley Harding was a sportswriter for an African American weekly newspaper, and he was also what a later generation might unsympathetically describe as "militant". Harding did whatever he could to use his forum and his standing in the community to promote the cause of equality for blacks. Recognizing the opportunity the Rams move to his city created, Harding showed up along with the rest of the press for a meeting between Rams officials and the Coliseum Commission where the Rams sought a lease to play football at the city's stadium, the Coliseum. The meeting was open to the public and so Harding took the opportunity to not only attend but to make several impassioned speeches highlighting the contributions of African Americans to Los Angeles, the U.S. of A., and the NFL itself prior to 1933. Taken aback the Rams' representative, "Chile" Walsh, denied any prejudice on the part of the Rams or the NFL. A white commission member, Roger Jessup, then asked point blank if the Rams would bar local legend Kenny Washington from the Rams. Walsh said they would not. Jessup informed him that if Washington didn't play for L.A. the Rams wouldn't be playing there either.

At a later meeting between Walsh and local black sportswriters Harding and others pushed for specific promises from Walsh to sign black players. Pressure from Harding also got the L.A. County Supervisor, Leonard Roach, to put in writing the promise not to discriminate. And so Roach and Jessup later got their share of credit for the Kenny Washington signing. But according to historian Gretchen Atwood,

"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.'"

So there you have it. Roach and Jessup acted but it was Harding who got them to act. It must be noted that All-American Football Conference's L.A. Dons signed a lease with the Coliseum that very same year yet their lease conspicuously failed to include any commitment whatsoever to sign black players, something you'd expect if Roach and the Commission were the ones truly responsible for forcing the Rams to integrate. No, it was Halley Harding who raised the necessary hell and applied the proper pressure to help break once and for all the NFL's 13-year-old color line. He deserves the lion's share of the credit for making it happen and now Past Interference salutes Mr. Harding's long-ago effort.

Postscript: The Gretchen Atwood quote above along with a good bit of the information in this post came from the great Sports Illustrated article by Alexander Wolff linked to above. It's well worth your time to read it.

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