The myth of the causes of the NFL’s 1934 color ban has been recited over and over so many times that I feel it needs proper refuting. To be clear, despite the catchy, controversial title to this post, I’m not disputing that the color ban in the NFL from 1934-1945 actually existed…I mean, clearly it did. The myth of the NFL’s color ban has to do with why it existed and, more specifically, how it came into being.
A Depressing Ban
“Forgotten Four” (a recent documentary that I blasted for its shallow, slanted portrayal of the history of African-Americans in pro football) discussed the NFL’s 1934-1945 ban on African-American players, and it made the same missteps that another recent documentary, “Third and Long,” did. In my review of “Third and Long,” I had this to say:
“The speakers go on to evaluate the eventual 1934 color ban using all kinds of well-worn post-hoc analysis. They blame George Preston Marshall. They blame the Great Depression…they’re simply advancing an already established narrative. But it’s the wrong narrative.”
Lo and behold, “Forgotten Four” falls into the same trap, blaming the Great Depression and George Preston Marshall for the institution of the 1934 color ban. Let’s think about this for a second.
First, the Great Depression. The popular theory is that white players didn’t want African-Americans taking their pro football “jobs” once the Depression hit, so that was an impetus for driving black players out of the league. Bear in mind, NFL “jobs” in the 1930s weren’t the full-time, high-paying jobs they are today…Duke Slater made no more than $175 per game during his career, and trust me, playing football in the 1920s and 1930s meant that he earned every penny of that. Still, I’m sure that salary probably looked pretty good during the Depression, so at first it seems like the whole theory could make sense.
But those of you who love U.S. history know that the Great Depression started with the fall of stock prices in September 1929, culminating in the stock market crash on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929. So here’s the question that none of these pro football historians have been able to adequately address: if the Great Depression started in September 1929 with the fall (and subsequent crash) of the stock market, why did it take until September 1934 for NFL owners to institute the color ban? Why did it take a full FIVE YEARS after the start of the Depression for white players to get jealous enough of black players to rip these coveted jobs out of their hands?
Redeeming George Preston Marshall (Well, Somewhat)
Now let’s move on to George Preston Marshall. Marshall and three partners founded the Boston Redskins franchise in 1932, and the following year his three partners left, leaving Marshall in control of the Redskins franchise in 1933. Marshall was famously opposed to African-Americans in pro football – after the color ban was lifted in 1946, Marshall’s Redskins were the last team to integrate, remaining whites-only into the 1960s.
“Forgotten Four” repeats the frequently-stated theory that Marshall walked into the NFL – as a second-year owner, mind you – and single-handedly forced a color ban on the entire league in 1934. It’s a convenient narrative. I mean, we already know that Marshall was prejudiced against African-Americans, so the fact that he appeared on the scene just before the color ban came into effect has to be more than coincidence, right?
Well, don’t get me wrong…I sure don’t think Marshall was opposed to the ban. I’m sure he was happier than a pig in slop over the development. But was he the reason it took effect?
Charles K. Ross wrote a landmark book in 2001 on the history of African-Americans in pro football. His book, titled Outside The Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League, seems to be the text from which all the subsequent theories blaming Marshall for the 1934 color ban are derived. But here is the relevant snippet of Ross’ text, with emphasis mine:
“George Preston Marshall was likely the driving force behind the color ban…to avoid offending Marshall, southern white players, and fans, NFL owners may have tacitly agreed to shun black athletes.”
Is it me, or does that seem more like a speculative theory than a verifiable fact? This sounds more like Ross was just spitballing and throwing out something he saw as a possibility. But ever since 2001, lightweight “historians” have been using this quote to blame Marshall for the 1934 color ban like it’s a verifiable fact. And if you repeat something enough times, people start to just assume it’s true.
Consider this: Marshall believed his segregationist policies were justified; he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. On the contrary, he believed his position to be virtuous. When Marshall was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his Hall of Fame bio actually listed the prolonged segregation of the Redskins as one of his attributes! He certainly didn’t shy away from his position…he truly felt his exclusion of African-Americans was the “right” thing to do.
With all that in mind, despite all the talk from revisionist historians who conveniently put the blame for the 1934 color ban at Marshall’s feet, I haven’t seen a single reference from Marshall’s lifetime in which he acknowledges (or where it is even suggested) that Marshall played a leadership role in instituting the color ban. Now, maybe it’s out there. But I’ve done a lot of research on this era of football and I haven’t come across anything – not a single thing – to suggest that Marshall was the key figure behind this, a statement now passed off as absolute truth.
Don’t you find it odd that not a single original source from Marshall’s lifetime credits him as being behind the 1934 color ban? I mean, think about it – if Marshall spearheaded the movement to exclude African-Americans from the entire league, why wouldn’t he have ever once taken credit for it? This isn’t a guy who shied away from openly acknowledging his segregationist beliefs…again, as someone who felt that segregation was virtuous and right, he was quick to “take credit”, so to speak, for his segregationist policy with his own team, the Redskins. Why, then, wouldn’t he proudly claim his lead role in instituting the 1934 color ban, if that’s indeed how it all went down? Why did he never, ever come out and say, “Yeah, that NFL color ban? My idea.”
I want to be clear here…I’m not saying that Marshall wasn’t prejudiced against African-Americans. I’m just saying that the common tactic of pinning the color ban all on him alone doesn’t necessarily have basis in fact anywhere that I’ve seen. I’m all for blaming Marshall for the things he was actually responsible for, but putting the color ban entirely on his shoulders is nothing more than making him a lone scapegoat for something everyone involved with the league at that time should be ashamed of. It’s a pathetic, blatant misrepresentation of history that “Forgotten Four” producer Ross Greenburg deliberately advances simply because he feels his story needs a clear antagonist.
And that’s lazy filmmaking from such a decorated documentarian.
The Exceptionalism of One, or the “Marshall the Lone Racist” Theory
In “Forgotten Four”, Khalil Gibran Muhammad of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture had an interesting quote about how “we’re always looking for that one, that archetype.” Muhammad made that quote in reference to Jackie Robinson and why we have elevated his singular accomplishment in shattering baseball’s color ban above the “forgotten four” doing the same in pro football. That’s an incomplete picture…there are other perfectly understandable reasons why the two accomplishments are not treated the same (specifically, because they weren’t the same). But that’s probably a discussion for another post.
What Muhammad doesn’t realize is that while his “exceptionalism of one” theory falls short of fully explaining why the sporting public doesn’t equate the “forgotten four” with Jackie Robinson, it actually perfectly explains why the inaccurate history of the color ban as stated elsewhere in the documentary continues to be advanced. It’s much easier for NFL owners of that era to force George Preston Marshall to fall on his sword, so to speak, and take full responsibility for the 1934 color ban than it is to acknowledge that they had any hand in it.
After all, Marshall’s legacy with respect to African-Americans isn’t salvageable…that ship has sailed. So it’s a simple remedy to simply pin the whole thing on Marshall and wipe your hands of it. And the public (and even historians, who should be thinking more critically than that) eats it up, because, well, “exceptionalism of one.” It fits a simple narrative – one lone, vilified racist bullying a bunch of well-meaning, timid NFL owners into following his corrupt agenda. And Greenburg has his antagonist.
Was George Halas Racist, Too?
Woody Strode’s son told a story in “Forgotten Four” that perfectly aligns with this theory. He said that in 1940, George Halas wanted to break the color ban and sign Kenny Washington. The younger Strode alleges that Halas went to Marshall to ask permission and Marshall told him no, so the color ban was upheld.
I don’t like profanity or swearing, because I generally find it to be lazy. But in this rare instance, I’ll use it because it’s truly the most effective way of expressing myself. What the younger Strode (and every pro football historian in the documentary, apparently) would have you believe is that, to excuse the expression, George Halas was George Preston Marshall’s bitch.
You can imagine the great Halas meekly saying, “Um, excuse me, Mr. Marshall, I hate to bother you, but this Kenny Washington player is really good. Would it be okay, I mean, can I pretty please sign this Washington guy to my team?”
And you can see Marshall responding, “No, Halas! I told you before…no blacks in this league! Now shut up and shine my shoes!”
He’s George freaking Halas! You’re telling me that I’m supposed to believe that this great tower of strength in NFL history didn’t have the clout to get this done? That’s what they want you to believe…that this whole color ban was Marshall’s idea and that everyone else was an innocent victim caught up in it.
But more than that, the film almost casts Halas as a hero, fighting (unsuccessfully) against the tide of prejudice. It’s an interesting narrative…but does his attempted signing of Washington in 1940 mean he was all for integration?
Here’s something to consider. Duke Slater was an all-pro lineman for the Rock Island Independents from 1923-1926, widely regarded as one of the top linemen in the entire sport. When the Independents went bankrupt in 1926, Slater was signed by the Chicago Cardinals, a team that wasn’t exactly on solid financial footing themselves (the Cardinals nearly went bankrupt as well in 1928).
Yet when Slater became a free agent in 1926, the Chicago Bears didn’t come calling. The Green Bay Packers didn’t come calling. These teams knew how good Slater was…they’d played against him on numerous occasions. Slater was a four-time all-pro and one of the top linemen in the league. So why didn’t Halas and the Bears pursue him?
It’s not like Halas was afraid to aggressively go after players he wanted. In 1922, the Rock Island Independents had two great tackles – Duke Slater and Ed Healey. After the season, Rock Island’s franchise was in dire financial straits, so Halas bought Healey’s contract from the Independents for $100. It is considered by many to be the first “acquisition” (some would call it a trade, others just a flat-out sale) of a player’s contract in NFL history. Yet Halas didn’t make a move to acquire Slater, a similarly great player.
Halas didn’t make a move to acquire Slater in 1922 when he picked up Healey, and he didn’t make a move to acquire him in 1926, either. This despite the fact that Slater was from Chicago and would have relished a chance to play in his home town. Of course, there was a key difference between Healey and Slater…and all you need is a mirror to spot that one.
Despite being a founding member of the NFL in 1920, the Bears didn’t have a black player until Eddie Macon in 1952. As a white guy, I’m not going to go so far as to call Halas a racist, because I don’t feel I have the standing to make that kind of reputation-tarnishing claim. But Fritz Pollard didn’t have any such reservations; Pollard, to the day he died, swore that Halas and New York Giants owner Tim Mara were racists who blackballed him from the league and were driving forces behind the color ban.
Maybe Pollard’s right, and maybe he’s not. But how does our view of NFL history change if Pollard was right? I can tell you that neither the Chicago Bears (who proudly sport a GSH patch on their jerseys to this day) or the larger NFL want Papa Bear viewed that way. So “Forgotten Four” obliges, and Halas and Mara are not only cast as two of the bullied, victimized NFL owners who succumbed to Marshall’s discriminatory ban (which, naturally, was all his idea), but Halas is even portrayed as someone who nobly stood out above the era’s other NFL owners in the fight for racial equality, solely because he contemplated signing Washington (yet didn’t). All in all, that’s not a bad deal for the owner of a Bears team that was segregated for over three decades from 1920-1951.
To Be Continued…
I briefly posited the real reasons for the color ban of 1934 in a post long ago, but it really requires a bit more elaboration. Let’s make this a two-parter. I’ll see you next time…and thanks for reading.
Filed under: General