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NFL fully desegregated in 1962 [UPDATED]

Published 6:21am Thursday, October 18, 2012 Updated 8:26am Thursday, October 18, 2012

Minnesota Vikings stars Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin, had they been members of the Washington Redskins in 1962, could very well have received racial threats.

Fifty years ago the Redskins were the last NFL team to desegregate and allow African Americans to be part of the team. The Ku Klux Klan protested outside the stadium in the nation’s capital. They were unhappy the team had integrated.

That year the Redskins had only three non-white players who included wide receiver Bobby Mitchell, guard John Nisby and fullback Ron Hatcher.

Today the Klan is a shell of its former self. Racist groups, however, still remain in selective parts of the country.

“The integration of the Washington Redskins in 1962 was brought on by the combined efforts of the NFL’s commissioner and a member of President Kennedy’s cabinet,” said Ryan Basen who writes for the New York Times. “It was a historic moment in the life of the nation’s capital which had blossomed from a relatively small and segregated city populated primarily by federal employees to a large and diverse metropolis.”

On a mild autumn Sunday in Washington, a half-century ago, Mitchell dominated the St. Louis Cardinals. The 27-year-old wide receiver for the Redskins caught seven passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns. Washington won the game 24-14.

Mitchell, even though he led the NFL in catches and yards receiving, was refused service in some Washington restaurants. If people find this shocking, don’t forget that discrimination was still commonplace in many areas of the country in the early 1960s. Black players for the Minnesota Twins were not allowed to stay in whites only motels during spring training in Florida.

Mitchell, now 77, expressed his views with Times writer Basen during a recent interview.

“You’re performing for a group of people and you’re not sure if they want you,” said Mitchell. “I had a lot of mixed emotions back in 1962.”

A half century ago the Redskins were owned by George Preston Marshall who was born in segregated West Virginia. He attended segregated high schools in Washington. His family counted a Confederate flag among its heirlooms.

“Marshall viewed the Redskins as an entertainment vehicle he could market in the south and to Washington socialites,” said Basen. “As for integrating his team, Marshall said that many fans preferred watching white players and would reject the Redskins if they had a black player.”

Despite moves toward integration throughout the 1950s, Washington, like its football team, was far from racially harmonious.

“The Truman administration barred discrimination in federal hiring in 1950,” said Basen. “The law took three years to fully enforce. During that time, most private restaurants and theaters desegregated. In 1951, Catholic schools desegregated. Public schools began desegregating three years later.”

In February 1957, the NAACP picketed outside a Philadelphia hotel where NFL owners were honoring Redskins team owner Marshall for his service to the league. Pickets called for Marshall to desegregate. Five years later their efforts succeeded.

Integration of pro football began in 1946 when the Los Angeles Rams signed running back Kenny Washington and receiver Woody Strode. The Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference signed offensive tackle Bill Willis and running back Marion Motley.

In 1949, only three of the 10 NFL teams had black players. By 1955 the Redskins were the lone holdout in the league which had expanded to 12 teams. The Minnesota Vikings were formed in 1961 and had African American players on the roster.

Nearly 20 years after Marshall’s death, in 1969, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory when the Redskins beat the Denver Broncos 42-10.

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