When the Rams made the decision to move from Cleveland to Los Angeles in 1946, it created much buzz around the United States by making the NFL the first major professional sports league to feature teams on the west coast.
However, it wasn’t a smooth transition. The move west initially received backlash from the league, which aimed to prevent the upheaval of the franchise to another city. In fact, the NFL denied Rams owner Dan Reeves’s request to allow him to move his team to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
In response to that decision, Reeves threatened to leave the league and end his professional football business entirely unless he was permitted to relocated the team to Los Angeles. It wasn’t long after that a settlement was reached between both sides allowing him to move his team.
This proved to be just the tip of the iceberg for the Rams, because there was still another major hurdle to be cleared. There was a large public outcry in Los Angeles regarding the potential move, which came to a head in the public hearing involving Rams general manager Charles “Chile” Walsh and the Los Angeles Coliseum officials on January 15, 1946.
Following Walsh’s presentation of the proposed move, he fielded questions from the public that provided a prime opportunity for outspoken Los Angeles Tribune columnist Halley Harding to speak on the matter. Harding had a wide-ranging career background ranging from being an actor, a baseball player in the Negro leagues, a basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters and a major league manager.
He had also become a major proponent of civil rights in sports a few years prior to the Rams’ decision to move to Los Angeles. In 1940, Harding led a movement that helped establish an American Legion-owned boxing arena in Hollywood that was made available to African-American fighters. He was also heavily involved in the push to desegregate the Pacific Coast League.
Harding turned his attention to the NFL and put forth his most influential work in a his speech during the public hearing involving the Rams moving to Los Angeles. It detailed the public’s demand to break the unwritten 12-year ban of African-Americans from the NFL that had been set in place by Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall in 1933. Harding mentioned the likes of former UCLA star running back Kenny Washington, who at the time was playing for the Hollywood Bears of the integrated Pacific Coast Professional Football League.
He also spoke about the history of black players in the early years of the NFL such as Fritz Pollard and Sol Butler, the sacrifices that black soldiers made during World War II, and the physical contributions that black workers made along with their tax dollars that helped maintain the Coliseum. The Rams applied to play at the Coliseum, which gave its approval pending integration of the team.
Walsh, in response to the impromptu speech by Harding, stated that the Rams would be willing to give any player a chance to make the team and added that “Kenny Washington is welcome to try out for our team anytime he likes,” according to Gary Ashwill of Agate Type.
The Rams signed Washington to a contract about two months later on March 21. A few months later, the Rams added Washington’s UCLA and Hollywood Bears teammate Woody Strode per his request. The two were major football collegiate stars that played alongside Jackie Robinson forming the “Gold Dust Trio” at the university. The signings broke football’s color barrier that had been in place for 12 years.
Washington was a Los Angeles native, who was born in Lincoln Heights. He was a two-sport star at Abraham Lincoln High School in high school, leading his team to city section titles in both football and baseball. He continued to play in both sports at UCLA, but Washington made a greater impact on the football field, including setting the school record with 1,914 rushing yards that stood for 34 years.
Robinson had even called Washington “the greatest football player I have ever seen,” according to Sports Illustrated. Despite that, Washington was kept out of the NFL, forcing him to play in the Pacific Coast Professional Football League from 1941 to 1945. Strode was also born in the Los Angeles area and attended Jefferson High School.
The Rams’ decision to sign Washington and Strode made a far bigger impact in the NFL than ever anticipated by opening the door to many African-American players that followed behind them. It didn’t take long for other U.S. professional football teams to follow suit beginning with the Cleveland Browns of the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) signing Marion Motley and Bill Willis just a few months later.
This was a decision that was much larger than the game of football and brought much-needed attention toward the social injustice that many African-Americans were facing during that time period in the United States.
It may have just been a move that impacted the NFL, but it eventually gave way to the inclusion of African Americans in other major sports in the country. This has a played a critical part in helping shape the NFL to what it has become today, which is currently near 70 percent African-American in population.
What the Rams did was help pave the way for much-needed change in U.S. society for equality for all regardless of race or ethnicity. The historic importance of the integration of the NFL has been greatly underappreciated and to a large degree forgotten about the impact that it made early in the Civil Rights Movement. It was one of the first huge steps toward integrating the country by breaking down racial barriers on the gridiron.
Source: NFL.com, ESPN.com
Bob Garcia IV is a sports journalist from Southern California. He is also the Los Angeles Lakers beat writer for Sportsoutwest.com and About.com. He was a reporter for the award-winning newspaper, The Daily Sundial, at California State University, Northridge. You can follow him on Twitter, @bgarcia90.