George Preston Marshall's Strange Fruit

Julian JohnsonCorrespondent IMay 7, 2009

A Washington Redskins fan holds an American Flag on ESPN Monday Night Football September 11, 2006 in Washington.  The Minnesota  Vikings defeated the Redskins  19 - 16.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

-- Music and lyrics by Lewis Allan, copyright 1940

Let me establish my bona fides off the top: I had a Washington Redskins trashcan when I was ten years old. You heard me, a bright yellow, knee-high waste can with the team logo at that time—a profile of a reddish, prunish Indian in warpaint and headdress. 

I'm sure I wasn't the only kid on the block with one. Later came the Billy Kilmer No. 17 jersey, the Sonny Jurgenson autographed football and the burgundy and gold Redskin helmet stuffed under the trimmed tree on Christmas morn.

Times change. You learn a little history, maybe even become a History major in school. Meanings morph and become pregnant with complexities you'd never dreamed of. Surfing the chocolate milk to brewskie continuum meant never having to reflect on anything beyond box scores.

Like I said, times change.

What's in a name? Redskins.  I'd never really thought about what that word meant. It is ugly, yes it is, when you think about it.

A little history then: the Redskins were once the Boston Braves, that is until majority owner George Preston Marshall moved them to good old Washington, DC and changed the team's name to Redskins.

Why change the name from somewhat benign to strongly offensive, at least to Indians?  Because, George Preston Marshall was the most notorious racist in the National Football League.

According the Encyclopedia Britannica of the 21st Century, Wikipedia, one year after entering the league as an owner, Marshall engineered the re-segregation of a game that had "had a sprinkling of black players."

Sadly, George Halas of the Chicago Bears and Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, among others, were sweet talked by Marshall into going along with the re-segregationist program. And so they did.

From 1934 to 1945, black players who had once played in the NFL were turned into athletic UFO's: there were sightings, in the alleys and junkyards of pro ball, but the evidence was unreliable and unseen.

Most Redskins fans know that once the game became re-re-integrated in 1946 and teams began signing black players again, Massa Marshall did not follow suit. The Washington Redskins have the notorious distinction of being the last National Football League squad to draft and sign a black football player.

Ernie Davis of Syracuse—and The Express movie fame—refused to report to the team and demanded a trade after being drafted in the first round by the "Skins" in 1962. And who could blame him? The only reason that Marshall selected him was due to a threat by the Secretary of the Interior to revoke the team's 30 year lease at DC Stadium. Marshall had not changed.

The question is: when will the name?

In 1996, Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Capitals hockey team changed the name of his Washington "Bullets" basketball squad to "Wizards." Why? Because, Pollin believed it highly inappropriate to keep a name that tapped into the community's misery: a gun violence and homicide rate that led the nation at the time. 

Some thought it was simply good marketing strategy by Pollin for a failing franchise. Perhaps it was, but what's wrong with fusing profit with ethics? Why is the norm - the almighty dollar playing Lone Ranger to issues of conscience - okay?

I've loved the Redskins team, its players and coaches, cheered its NFC East and Super Bowl Championships for 40 years!

But I can't cheer that name. Not anymore. How can any black football fan - any fan period - cheer the Washington Redskins without failing to recognize what that name means? How can I?

How can I support this franchise knowing that the Redskins name itself is the strange fruit and demeaning legacy of a man and his belief system, signifying exclusion and extreme prejudice?

Until the the name of this team changes they won't get a dime out of me, not for a jersey or trash can, or even a dustbin—which is exactly where the Redskin name needs to be firmly placed.