By Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler & Ray Halbritter
Last month, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu drew national praise for removing a set of Confederate monuments from his city. In justifying the move, the mayor recounted the horrific history of institutional racism, and he said that “centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place.” He went on to note that while “history cannot be changed (and) cannot be moved like a statue,” getting rid of those monuments was one way to try to begin a healing process.
In making a specific case for his city’s actions, Mayor Landrieu was articulating a more universal principle that transcends any one historical issue. As we continue seek a more perfect union, America must constantly look for opportunities to heal. And for Washington, D.C. one long-overdue opportunity is now before us: the opportunity to follow New Orleans lead and remove an offensive monument to the same kind of bigotry that the Confederacy revered.
This monument is, of course, the statute of the avowed segregationist George Preston Marshall, which stands outside – and unacceptably tarnishes the namesake – of RFK Stadium.
Marshall’s legacy is marred by discriminatory words and deeds directed at African Americans and Native Americans. During his day, Marshall was not only one of America’s most infamous segregationists, he also christened the Washington football team with the unholy and unacceptable R-word – a dictionary-defined racial slur.
Some might argue that the statue of Marshall should be in front of the stadium – and that the lower level of Fedex field should be named after him -- simply because he was the first owner of Washington’s football team. However, that simplistic portrayal of Marshall’s role in the NFL omits far more painful facts that should disqualify him from continuing to be venerated.
Marshall, for instance, openly supported the ban of African American players in the NFL. In fact, he was the very last team owner to permit an African American player on his team, and he only did so under the threat of sanctions by the federal government. Marshall’s racist beliefs drew support from the American Nazi Party, and he even went so far as to stipulate in his last will and testament that his foundation would not distribute any resources to schools or programs that promoted the intermingling of children from different races.
Marshall also chose to name his team after racial epithet as his team’s name. He made that decision at a time when the word was screamed at Native Americans as they were dragged at gunpoint off their sacred lands.
Marshall’s cynical move was fraught with long-term negative consequences. Thanks to this name, each Sunday during football season for Native Americans are stereotyped and cartoonized by a National Football League seeking to profit off this slur.
As an enterprise that dominates American culture and plays an instrumental role in influencing millions of fans, the NFL must come to terms with the fact that the time has come to let go of a hurtful slur. And the team should tear down its offensive monument to Marshall, a man who sought to separate the American people and to insult the country’s first inhabitants.
In recent years, Native Americans have been joined by a wide cross-section of Americans who have created historic momentum behind the national grassroots “Change the Mascot” campaign to end the promotion of the R-word.
This campaign has earned widespread support from civil rights organizations, religious leaders, leading retired and active athletes, top journalists, and Members of Congress from both parties who have spoken out in support of the Change the Mascot campaign. And three years ago, fifty senators even wrote to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging him to place the league on the right side of history by changing the Washington team’s name.
New Orleans is a reminder that we should not delay any longer. As Mayor Landrieu reminded us, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “wait has almost always meant never.” With the Washington franchise’s ownership expressing a desire to return to the city, the time is now for the league to act.
No matter how many evasive PR tactics or saccharine press releases the NFL may issue to try to distract from this issue, the league can no longer pretend to care about equality if it continues to allow this symbol of bigotry to scar our nation’s capital.
Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler is Senior Minister at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C.
Ray Halbritter is Oneida Indian Nation Representative and leader of the Change the Mascot movement.