Thomas G. Smith’s Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins “began as an inquiry into the environmental policies of the Kennedy administration” (p. 223) and was transformed into an examination of the integration of the Washington Redskins of the National Football League (NFL). The author covers such issues as the history of the organization from its days in Boston to the move to the nation’s capital and provides an overview of owner George Marshall’s business and political life from the 1930s to the 1960s. Showdown places special emphasis on the historical journey of black professional football players and the fight for equal participation in the NFL.
The story of George Marshall’s efforts to develop a Southern fan base through racial undertones is one of Smith’s most intriguing discussions. During his tenure as owner, no NFL team existed below the Mason-Dixon line. With that in mind Marshall utilized his radio station and savvy promotional skills to market the team to Southerners. Such tactics [End Page 181] included having the team band play songs like “Dixie” and “The Eyes of Texas,” along with replacing “Old D.C.” as their fight song with “Old Dixie.” Even more, nicknames like “Paleskins” and “Whiteskins” were attributed to the ball club due to the absence of African Americans (p. 150). In 1959, Marshall signed a thirty-year lease agreement to use Washington’s D.C. Stadium; however, the fate of the Redskins’ use of the venue rested on possible anti-discrimination laws. The stadium was built on federal land, and according to Stewart Udall, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the Redskins owner’s failure to employ black players would result in loss of the stadium. These particular politics shaped the “showdown” between George Marshall and Stewart Udall. According to the author, Udall simply informed the president of his intentions to deny Marshall use of the stadium. Due to federal pressure, the Redskins’ owner drafted Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy with the number one overall pick in the 1962 NFL draft. He later traded Davis to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell, an established black player.
Showdown adds to the scholarship of other historians like Charles K. Ross and Alan H. Levy, particularly around the issue of the NFL’s racial ban from 1933 to 1946. Interviews with several league owners reveal that there was a consensus that no such practices or agreements to exclude black players existed. According to Smith, several league officials believed preventing African Americans from playing in the league was for their own safety, as they could not restrain white players from engaging in illegal activities on the field. The Black press addressed these charges directly. Smith examines the role of two writers, Sam Lacy, who wrote for the Baltimore Afro-American, and E.B. Henderson. Both men used their platforms to encourage the integration of the NFL and called on blacks to boycott games. There were other vocal proponents of the integration of the Redskins. Shirley Povich of the Washington Post was highly critical of Marshall for his practices and was unapologetic for his critique of the team’s losing record throughout the 1950s. The author argues that this agitation laid the groundwork for John F. Kennedy’s administration to push integration in the NFL.
While the subtitle suggests President Kennedy played a major role in the desegregation of the Washington Redskins, it is in fact misleading. The author does not discuss this issue in great detail until the eighth chapter. This is not a slight at Smith, as subtitles often serve as a useful way to catch an audience. However, Kennedy is only a minor player in this narrative. As Smith notes, Stewart Udall was the primary actor in the federal government’s push for the integration of the Washington Redskins.
To complete this work, Thomas G. Smith culled material from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the Pro Football...