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'The Forgotten First': Remembering Black Players Who Broke The NFL's Color Barrier

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

We'd like to introduce you to four men who changed American history. Now, most of us have read about Jackie Robinson, how he broke baseball's color line in 1947. But these four men did the same thing in pro football one year earlier, their names - Marion Motley, Bill Willis, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington.

How good was Kenny Washington?

KEYSHAWN JOHNSON: He was the first African American All-American in UCLA's history in 1939. You know, he went on to become the first African American player to end the ban on Blacks being able to play in the National Football League.

MARTINEZ: Super Bowl champion wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson is one of the authors of a new book, "The Forgotten First," which tells the story of those four men. And when we spoke, he reminded me that there were Black players in the then-fledgling NFL before 1933.

JOHNSON: Fritz Pollard was the first Black player in the NFL, but then there was a hiatus for about 12 years prior to Kenny Washington and Woody Strode and Marion Motley, Bill Willis getting drafted into the National Football League - at the time, Professional Football. And so that story needed to be told, that it was the breaking of the color barrier for real, you know, because there were so many people that were against having Blacks play professional football in the NFL.

MARTINEZ: Why? Why were they against it?

JOHNSON: I mean, you get bigots. You know, you think about George Preston Marshall, who owned the Washington Redskins. And he was basically a center of the attention to keep Black players out of the NFL from about - I don't know - 1934 to about 1945. And he wanted to do that until other people stepped up and said, no, no, we're not doing that - till the politicians in Los Angeles got in the way of things and said, no, let's change the way we think.

MARTINEZ: So the times between 1934 and 1946, do you believe there was an unspoken agreement to keep Black players out - because there wasn't anything written down anywhere, right?

JOHNSON: It is like it is in today's sports world. When it comes to certain issues, it's like this unspoken rule we don't need to say or nothing. You think about the kneeling down and all that Kaepernick stuff, no one would sign him. They made every excuse that Kaepernick couldn't play anymore. But that wasn't the case. They just didn't want to deal with the backlash and the politics of losing money for their organizations. And I think when you think about the teams back then, it was teams that didn't want to deal with it.

MARTINEZ: What did change was the decision by the Cleveland Rams to move to Los Angeles. They asked to play in the LA Memorial Coliseum and needed the OK from a taxpayer-funded commission that runs the stadium. Remember; this was 1946. A Black sportswriter named William Harding stood up at the commission meeting and asked if the then-all-white team would sign any Black players. Witnesses say Harding's words left Rams general manager Charles Walsh shaken. He signed Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. Soon after, Marion Motley and Bill Willis signed with the Cleveland Browns. The NFL's color line was broken again.

Why do you think over the years, Keyshawn, that these stories aren't more widely known the way Jackie Robinson's story has become part of the fabric of not just sports history in America, but just our history as a country?

JOHNSON: Well, I think that was one of the main reasons to create this book is so we can bring light to the situation because, growing up, they're only teaching you what they want to teach you. They're only giving you the textbooks and the information in which they want to give you. They're going to give you the information on Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson. But they're going give you the information on Kenny Washington and Woody Strode and Bill Willis and Marion Motley? No, they didn't. So therefore, you didn't know.

When we walk into our schools, it's about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and maybe Malcolm X if they're not afraid. That's what it is. And this is the reason that people like myself bring light to things of this nature. And it's unfortunate that where we were over the last 18 months or even a little bit further out had to dig this sort of stuff up to bring light to it. Jackie Robinson wasn't the only African American athlete that had to be accepted in a sports society. These four gentlemen certainly paid a major price, and they laid the foundation down. And so when you look at that, that's something in itself.

MARTINEZ: One more thing, Keyshawn - today Black players make up the majority of the NFL. Over 50% of the NFL's players are Black. What's the legacy of these four men that you wrote about in your book?

JOHNSON: I would define it as putting a lot on the line so that I could have gotten drafted to be the No. 1 overall pick when I did. And then now in 2021, there'll be another player that'll be drafted No. 1 overall that potentially could be African American. But if it wasn't for them, those things wouldn't be possible.

MARTINEZ: Keyshawn Johnson, co-author of "The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis, And The Breaking Of The NFL Color Barrier." Keyshawn, thanks a lot.

JOHNSON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.