Friday, September 14, 2012
Breaking the Color line in the NFL
Halley Harding, the voice that wouldn't be silenced
Before they broke the color barrier in their respective sports, Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the athletic fields of UCLA; both excelled at football and baseball.
Washington drew crowds when he played semi-pro ball in the 1940s. His Pacific Coast Football League team was often billed as Kenny Washington and the Hollywood Bears. But by 1946 it looked like he'd never make it to the NFL.
Enter Halley Harding, a sportswriter on the Los Angeles Tribune. He and fellow African-American journalists took an activist role. They led pickets against the all-white Los Angeles Angels of baseball's Pacific Coast League; one day Harding marched up to Oakland Oaks manager Johnny Vergez, who had threatened to quit rather than grant a tryout to an African-American ballplayer, and challenged him to a fight.
In 1946, the upstart AAFC promised to add a Los Angeles franchise owned by actor Don Ameche, prompting the NFL to allow the Cleveland Rams to relocate to Southern California. When the Rams appealed to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission for a lease, Harding showed up at the hearing to deliver a pointed, moving, and ultimately persuasive speech. African-American tax dollars helped build and maintain the Coliseum, Harding argued; its tenants should not be allowed to discriminate. A few days after Halley Harding rose to speak, the commission placed a precondition on the new tenants. Before they would be allowed to lease the Coliseum, the Rams would have to integrate.
No black had played in the NFL since 1933. But in the spring of 1946, to meet the condition imposed on them, the Rams signed halfback Kenny Washington and his wide receiver teammate Woody Strode. The two would room together when they played on the road that year.
The signing of Washington and Strode marked the beginning of the end of segregation in the NFL. The battle still had to be waged against folks such as Washington Redskins owner George P. Marshall, who led the team owners wanting to keep blacks out. In 1971 a reporter asked Woody Strode about his experience as the first black man in thirteen years to play in an NFL game. "If I have to integrate heaven," said Strode, "I don't want to go."
Next NFL game you watch, raise a glass to Strode, to Washington, and to the man who started this ball rolling: the sportswriter whose voice just wouldn't be silenced, Halley Harding.