Saturday, June 28, 2014

It’s how the team was named that matters

Eugene Talmadge, the governor of Georgia from 1933 to 1937 and again from 1941 to 1946, was an overt racist. Although the unemployment rate for blacks in Georgia was twice as high as it was for whites, Talmadge refused to allow blacks to go to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Georgia. He fired University of Georgia regent Walter Cocking when the latter raised questions about the disparity between black and white schools in Georgia. When the rest of the regents overrode Cocking’s firing, Talmadge fired three members of the board and replaced them with three of his cronies.

Eugene Talmadge
Talmadge often bragged that the African American boys called him "mean Lugene." Talmadge said that he liked the "nigger" well enough in his place, and his place was at the back door, with his hat in his hand and saying, "Yes, Sir." Talmadge confessed to having flogged at least one African American. On his death bed, he told his Baptist preacher that the black race was created inferior by God. He said the white race was on top, the yellow race next, then the brown and red races, and at the very bottom, the blacks who were created to be servants to all other races.

Talmadge acted aggressively to enforce Jim Crow. His response to two federal court orders decided in 1946 illustrates his attitudes. In Morgan v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation on busses engaged in interstate commerce was unconstitutional. Talmadge pledged that there would be no more interstate bus travel in Georgia, only intrastate. Passengers would have to get off the bus before entering Georgia and buy a ticket good only for transit through Georgia. When they had crossed Georgia, they would get off and buy a ticket to the other state.

On March 8, 1946, the federal district court ruled in Albright v. Texas that political parties could no longer exclude African American voters. Admitting African Americans, about a third of the state's population would begin the end of total control of state government by Talmadge and other white supremacists. Talmadge announced plans to call a special session of the state legislature to overturn all the state's election laws. His plan was thwarted in part because eliminating all election laws would also eliminate the county unit system, a convoluted voting scheme that allowed him to remain in office even though he might not win the most popular votes in an election. Instead, he ran for governor on a platform of white supremacy.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

One of Talmadge’s closest running buddies was a fellow by the name of George Preston Marshall, who shared Talmadge’s racist beliefs. In fact, when Marshall died in 1969, his will directed that the bulk of his estate be set up as a foundation that bore his name. He attached, however, one firm condition: that the foundation, operating out of Washington, D.C., should not direct a single dollar toward "any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form."

George Preston Marshall
Marshall, born in 1896, became financially successful through his ownership of a chain of laundries in Washington, D.C. In 1932, he and three partners were awarded an NFL franchise for Boston and he named his team the Boston Braves because the team shared a stadium with the old Major League Baseball team, Boston Braves. Marshall’s partners sold their interests to Marshall after one season and, thus, in 1933 he moved the team’s home to Fenway Park so he could name them the Redskins. He thought Redskins was funny, just as he thought the war paint and feather headdress he made the head coach wear were funny.

This is a man who proposed to his wife against the backdrop of a group of black performers he’d hired to croon "Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginny" as he popped the question ("Massa and Missus have long since gone before me / Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore"). Who ordered the Redskins marching band to play "Dixie" right before "The Star-Spangled Banner" prior to every game — up into the 1960s. And who reportedly instigated the banning of black athletes from the NFL from 1933 until 1946.

I say "reportedly" because the league’s owners at the time always kept it a deep secret, but Thomas G. Smith, who wrote a 2011 book about all this, got as close as a person could get to putting Marshall at the center of the ban. The league had blacks before 1933 only because people didn’t care much about pro football then, not nearly as much as they did about baseball. But in 1933, at someone’s instigation, the owners got together and agreed on the ban. Certainly, Marshall was the biggest racist of the bunch.

Most famously of all, Marshall was the last owner to accept a black player — fully 15 years after the ban was lifted. And his team drafted an African-American then (in 1961) only because it was forced to by the government — the then-new stadium that later becamel RFK Stadium was built on Department of Interior land, which permitted the Kennedy administration to order the lessee (the team) to adhere to federal nondiscrimination policies. In other words, Marshall wasn’t merely a standard-issue racist of the time, like H.L. Mencken or countless others. He, like his buddy Talmadge, was diseased. He seethed with hatred of nonwhite people. And "Redskins" is his handiwork.

In the ongoing debate on whether the team’s name should be changed, the argument should be framed around the name’s origin and the racist who decided to attach the moniker to his franchise. When seen in this light, a name change is long overdue.

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