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Throwback: The truth about George Halas and the NFL’s ban on black players

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When the Bears wear their 1936 throwbacks, they will inadvertently pay homage to the NFL’s 12-year ban on black players. Historian Jack M Silverstein examines the ban and the role George Halas played in its creation.

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Photo illustration by Jack M Silverstein for Windy City Gridiron

The Bears made history this summer but we didn’t realize.

It happened at the team’s 100-year celebration event in June where, to honor a century of Chicago Bears football, the organization announced a new throwback jersey for the 2019 season. The jersey has a unique place in Bears history: it was worn for only one year, 1936. It looks nearly identical to other Bears jerseys throughout the 1930s with the key stylistic difference being four stripes on each shoulder.

The team’s hidden history-making moment came when Kyle Fuller and Tarik Cohen modeled the new uniforms for everyone in the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. As their teammates cheered them, as Bears fans applauded them, no one seemed to know what we were looking at:

Fuller and Cohen were, more than likely, the first black players to ever wear those jerseys.

That’s because 1936 was the third season of the NFL’s 12-year ban on black players, a ban in which our dear Papa Bear, George Halas, almost certainly played a central role.

By selecting these specific jerseys from this specific season, the team invites us to look back on that season. That has not been the case for other Bears throwbacks, which are discussed in terms of eras rather than specific seasons. The “Monster of the Midway” throwbacks — the navy with orange block numbers and letters — are promoted as representing the dynasty years of the 1940s, while the team’s orange jerseys are not so much throwbacks as homages to the various orange jerseys the team wore sporadically throughout its first four decades.

Even the other set of throwbacks the Bears will wear for one game this year are tied to an era: the 1960s, famous for their white helmet C.

But the 1936 ones with the four shoulder stripes, which we’ll wear against the Vikings on September 29 and the Cowboys on a Thursday night game December 5 — those are singular threads. When word of the jerseys leaked, the year of the jersey was quickly identified and became a part of the conversation around the jersey itself.

Team photo of the 1936 Bears. Halas is in the 2nd row, far left, in a suit. (courtesy of Pro Football Journal, http://nflfootballjournal.blogspot.com/2019/06/bears-throwback-to-1936.html)

“Our classic uniform in our centennial season was a one-hit wonder in 1936,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said upon the announcement. “Bronko Nagurski and his teammates wore these on their way to a 9-3 record. We can only imagine what the fans’ reaction was to the uniform way back when. We hope today’s fans like it; they’ll certainly be talking about it.”

The NFL has not buried the history of its 12-year ban on black players, not exactly. The league tells that chapter in its 1994 film “75 Seasons: The Story of the NFL,” and in an article on its website, “The Reintegration of the NFL.”

But the key erasure in both of these recollections are the names of the men who did the deed. The league has granted itself a single scapegoat for one of its most shameful periods: Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, an avowed, gleeful racist. I made it a personal policy about six years ago not to print the name of the Washington football team, but it’s appropriate here for the man who actually changed the franchise’s name in 1933 from the Boston Braves to the Boston Redskins — to avoid confusion, he said, with MLB’s Boston Braves.

This was a man who owned the last NFL team to integrate, who only did so in 1962 because of a combination of activist boycotts, journalistic measures and a threat from the U.S. Department of Interior to revoke the team’s lease at District of Columbia (later RFK) Stadium — who in the wake of these battles received protest support from the American Nazi Party.

So when the NFL wants to tell the story of its banishment of non-white players from 1934 to 1945, the league has its boogey man. And indeed, Marshall is credited as having led the initial ban at a pivotal owner’s meeting in February of 1933. I have no doubt that he pitched it, fought for it, reveled in it.

But Marshall was a pup then, the NFL’s shortest tenured owner, with only one season under his belt. There is no way he could have imposed his will upon the owners of the other six teams represented at the meeting, along with NFL president Joseph Carr. He would have needed a co-signer.

He likely had several. Yet I would bet that there was one key ally that Marshall needed most. That would be the only man who attended both the meeting at Ralph Hay’s auto-shop in Canton, Ohio, Sept. 17, 1920, where the NFL was born, and the meeting 12 and a half years later and 77 miles southeast at the Fort Pitt Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 25, 1933, where the segregated NFL was born; the league’s reigning patriarch, defending champion owner and chairman of the rules committee; Marshall’s personal friend:

George Stanley Halas.

George Halas in a full page Tribune ad for his 20-part series on the history of the NFL. (photo from Chicago Tribune, January 18, 1967, via Newspapers.com)

Papa Bear and the ban

The Bears’ 1936 throwback jerseys are proving popular. I saw plenty of fans wearing them during the broadcast of the team’s first preseason game. The jerseys are advertised at the top of the Bears page on the NFL.com shop, with the Khalil Mack jersey listed as a best seller. I suspect they will be among the most popular Bears jerseys at games and at bars in 2019, the four shoulder stripes immediately distinguishing them from the standard road whites.

The 1936 season will be one of many seasons that the team highlights during its centennial campaign, with Bears fans spending more time than ever considering the life and history of George Halas.

That includes the league’s ban on black players, and an obvious question: what role did Halas play in the creation and continuation of the ban?

“What makes the NFL so unique is that it’s a full-fledged league and it starts off integrated,” says professor, author and historian Louis Moore, whose work includes the podcast The Black Athlete. “What you’re hinting at is the historical amnesia that we do have.”

From the league’s inaugural season of 1920 until 1933, black players not only played — they dominated. All-Pro halfback Fritz Pollard led the league’s first champions, the Akron Pros; the next year, he became player-coach. Tackle Duke Slater was among the most decorated players in the league of his day, honored in six seasons on an All-Pro team. End Inky Williams of Hammond earned All-Pro honors in 1923. Ten years later, the final full-time black player before the ban, Joe Lillard, led his Cardinals in rushing yards, passing yards, total yards and points.

And then suddenly, they were all gone. There was no press release. Nothing on paper. Over the years, the owners involved maintained that no such ban ever occurred. Halas in particular twice offered implausible explanations as to why the league had black players during its first 14 years and none for the next 12.

In an interview for the 1970 book “The Game That Was” by longtime Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope, Halas claimed that he didn’t know why black players were out of the league for 12 years, but speculated that, “Probably it was due to the fact that no great black players were in colleges then.” He also told Cope that there was no ban, “in no way, shape or form.”

And in an interview with the L.A. Times in 1976, Halas again said that he didn’t know why the NFL had 12 years of all-white football, but posited that, “probably the game didn’t have the appeal to black players at the time. Probably they didn’t realize the possibilities of the game at the time.”

Neither statement holds up. They strike me as either willful misdirection or fortunate forgetfulness on Halas’s part. The first one — about the talent level of black college players — is easy to debunk, starting with halfbacks Oze “Ozzie” Simmons of Iowa and Kenny Washington of UCLA.

Iowa back Oze Simmons in his breakout game against Northwestern, October 6, 1934. (photo from Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1934, via Newspapers.com)

Simmons’ first college season coincided with the first season of the NFL ban: 1934. His coming out party was October 6 in Evanston, when he gained 304 combined yards rushing and returning with one touchdown in Iowa’s 20-7 win over Northwestern. A writer days before the game described him as “reputedly the shiftiest open-field runner since Red Grange.”

The label was applied with more certainty after the game, with another writer calling him “a ball carrier who may earn a niche as the greatest this great league has seen since Red Grange.”

In 1935, Simmons led Iowa in rushing, and the Associated Press named him First-Team All-Big Ten and Second-Team All-America. Had he been born one year earlier, and with no ban in place, Simmons might well have worn those “one-year wonder” Bears jerseys with the four shoulder stripes.

Instead, after his collegiate career ended in 1936, he did not enter the NFL. He went to the Patterson Panthers of the American Association; in 1939, he even had to receive a four-month leave from his job with the Chicago Parks Department to continue playing.

That year, the world met Kenny Washington. In his senior season of 1939, the star UCLA halfback Washington unleashed one of the greatest years ever of college football: he led the NCAA in total yards and claimed to have played 580 of 600 total UCLA minutes.

Even folks who didn’t watch UCLA would have heard of Washington due to his postseason accolades. He was awarded the Douglas Fairbanks trophy as college football’s most outstanding player. The All-America voting proved unreliable that year (Washington landed on the Second-Team for the AP and UPI despite his records), but in another All-America poll that surveyed 1,659 college players, Washington was the only unanimous selection.

All of that should have punched his ticket high in the 1940 NFL Draft.

That draft was a big one for Halas. He acquired nine players who would help the Bears win four championships in the 1940s, including two future Hall of Famers (Clyde “Bulldog” Turner and George McAfee), two other future All-Pros (Lee Artoe and Harry Clarke) and the franchise’s all-time leader in receiving touchdowns (Ken Kavanaugh). Four of those players (Turner, McAfee, Artoe, Kavanaugh) were Washington’s fellow 1939 All-Americans. Halas acquired eight players at Washington’s position, back, including McAfee, Clarke and Ray McLean.

Yet in 22 rounds, neither Halas nor any of his fellow owners selected Washington, arguably the best college player of 1939.

As is obvious with the post-collegiate paths of Simmons and Washington, Halas’s quote in 1976 — that football didn’t appeal to black players in the 1930s and 1940s — doesn’t hold water either.

First of all, it’s not as if black players simply stopped playing football. Neither of the NFL’s final two black players before the ban left the league of his own volition: tackle Ray Kemp of the expansion Pittsburgh Pirates (later the Steelers) was released in October of 1933 midseason, re-signed in November, finished the year and never played in the league again. Meanwhile Lillard found himself with a pink slip despite being the best player on a moribund 1-9-1 Cardinals team.

Both men stayed in the sport. Lillard signed with the Westwood Cubs of a new west coast league and spent about a decade with a variety of teams. Kemp headed to Bluefield State College in West Virginia as the new head football coach, the start of a 39-year career as a coach and athletic director.

These were only two of the paths available for black football players during the NFL ban. There were all-black teams, like the Brown Bombers squad that Pollard coached, and where Lillard played for three years. There were all-star teams, like the Chicago Negro All-Stars led by a retired Slater.

And there were alternative leagues, including many integrated ones. In 1939, Lillard became the first black player elected captain of an integrated team in a major league, which he achieved with the Union City Rams of the American Pro Football Association. A year later, the Pacific Coast Professional Football League was founded, becoming home to black UCLA stars Washington, Woody Strode and Jackie Robinson.

Word of these other teams and leagues did not elude Halas. They couldn’t have. In 1938, he coached the Bears in an exhibition game at Soldier Field against an all-black all-star team, one that included both Lillard and Simmons as players and Kemp as head coach.

In January 1942, as waves of NFL players began entering the service to fight in World War II, Halas declared that the best football in the nation that year would be in the military leagues, including his alma mater, the Great Lakes Navy Blue Jackets in Waukegan. Two years after his statement, the Jackets were led by star back and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Marion Motley, who in 1946 would become one of pro football’s first four post-ban black players.

The first of those four was Washington, who officially re-integrated the NFL in March of 1946 when he signed a deal with the newly moved Los Angeles Rams, fresh from a stint in Cleveland. Like Marshall integrating his franchise in 1962, the Rams integrated in 1946 due to pressure from organizers, black journalists and rights to use a public stadium. His ex-UCLA teammate Strode joined him there in May of 1946, and the AAFC’s Cleveland Browns signed Motley and Bill Willis in August.

Those two Rams signings ended the 12-year ban. All told, 29 black players competed in close to 10 integrated leagues over those 12 years — including Lillard, Kemp, Simmons and Washington. It defies reason to think that Halas, a master of talent evaluation who hunted everywhere for players, didn’t know about them, or that he looked at their passion and interpreted it as that of men to whom the game didn’t “appeal.”

Kenny Washington, No. 13, breaks out on a 68-yard run against Montana, October 21, 1939. Washington scored all three Bruins touchdowns in a 20-6 UCLA win. (Associated Press photo from San Bernardino County Sun, October 22, 1939, via Newspapers.com)

More than Marshall

Once the history of black players during the NFL’s ban is clear, two more questions about Halas come to the fore. First, did Halas ever push back against the ban prior to it being lifted? Second, and most crucially: was he involved in the creation of the ban itself?

For the first question, the answer is yes, he allegedly did push back — but his efforts were meek at best. Along with both being game-changing superstar collegiate backs at big-time schools, Simmons and Washington share something else: George Halas expressed interest in signing them.

“George Halas said, ‘Ozzie, I’d like to use you, but we have an unwritten rule in the National League, and that is blacks can’t play,’” Simmons told the Iowa City Press-Citizen in 1989.

If it seems hard to believe that Halas would flatly admit to Simmons that the league had an unwritten rule banning black players, he more or less did the same with Washington in 1940. Those were the days when the NFL champion played a college all-star team prior to the ensuing season. On August 29, 1940, the game was held at Soldier Field, as the champion Green Bay Packers played a collegiate squad featuring Washington, who scored one of the collegians’ four touchdowns and passed for another.

“George Halas kept me around for a month trying to figure out how to get me in the league,” Washington said in September 1970, less than a year before his death. “I left before he suggested I go to Poland first.”

I have not found Halas confirm either potential signing, though the NFL story on reintegration notes that “Halas tried unsuccessfully to persuade the other owners to lift the ban.” This strikes me as exceedingly generous to Halas, a singular voice and pole of league power. As both head coach and team owner, if he wanted to violate the ban, especially an unwritten one, I don’t know that he would have had to “convince” anyone.

The toughest sell would have been Marshall, who is widely credited for the ban. As Halas biographer Jeff Davis writes in his 2004 book “Papa Bear,” Marshall “urged his fellow owners” to realize that in the midst of the Depression, with white fans out of work, black players were “bad for business.”

But by 1939, Marshall’s Depression-backlash “bad for business” argument was out the window. The league was squarely on the rise, cracking the million fan mark in league attendance. Unemployment nationwide was under 9,000 for just the second time since FDR’s election in ‘32, and would soon drop precipitously as the U.S. entered the war and Americans entered the service.

So perhaps Halas would not have been able to convince his fellow owners in the mid-1930s to let him sign Simmons. But if he really wanted to sign Washington or, frankly, any other black star, I’m guessing he could have done it.

The 1933 owners meeting at the Fort Pitt Hotel in Pittsburgh, where the league’s unoffical ban on black players was born. George Halas is standing, third from the left, with George Preston Marshall to his left with his arm around him. (photo from The Pittsburgh Press, February 26, 1933, via Newspapers.com)

That raises a parallel question: why didn’t he do it? Let’s say, whether enthusiastically, begrudgingly or calculatingly, he agreed to the ban in 1933. He wouldn’t necessarily feel the same about it in 1939 and 1940. He’d seen Kenny Washington play. He was a master of the competitive edge, especially in player acquisition. He signed the Cardinals’ Paddy Driscoll for the 1920 championship against league rules. He signed Ed Healey away from the Rock Island Independents in 1922 for an unheard of $100. He led the controversial 1925 signing of Red Grange while the halfback was still in college.

“We put it in writing,” Halas wrote in his 1979 autobiography, about the Grange deal. “The last clause stated if any of us were asked about a contract we would declare none existed. … We tried to keep our arrangement secret ...”

So no, Halas was no stranger to aggressively pursuing players, even bending the league’s rules and mores to do it. Think about the Bears backfield of the 1940s. The names alone give opponents chills. Luckman, McAfee, Gallarneau, Nolting, Standlee, Famiglietti, McLean. Can you imagine Kenny Washington included in that bunch? Halas, who seethed over being “cheated” out of the 1920 title, as he saw it, would have had the 1942 title and a 1940-1943 four-peat. Forget 73-0 — we would have scored 100 points in the 1940 championship game.

Which brings us to the final, and most important, question. What was George Halas’s role in the creation of the ban?

And again, while no concrete evidence exists to show that he helped launch the policy, it seems impossible to think otherwise.

The 1933 owner’s meeting came at the height of the Depression, and the NFL was not immune. The Bears won the 1932 championship yet still lost $18,000. Halas had to take a series of personal loans just to maintain control of the team.

But the game and the league were also intrinsically flawed. So rules committee chairman Halas joined forces with first-year owner Marshall to lead a series of key rule changes in hopes of boosting scoring, fan interest and gate receipts.

“I decided we were playing dull football,” Halas wrote in his 1967 20-part history of football for the Tribune. “I proposed some sweeping changes and — with the enthusiastic backing of George Marshall, owner of the Washington Redskins — secured three urgently needed revisions for the ‘33 season.” These rules included hash marks to prevent teams from being pinned on the sideline after a play out of bounds and moving the goal posts to the goalline rather than the back of the endzone to create shorter field goals.

Halas and Marshall worked well together. And they were friends. When the owners and the league commissioner posed for a photo, the two men stood side by side, with Marshall’s arm around Halas’s shoulder. Marshall was, Halas wrote, “the canniest promoter and greatest talker to come into the league since Charles C. Pyle.” This was no small compliment, as Halas once called Pyle — Grange’s agent out of University of Illinois — a man of “unlimited vision.”

Everything that happened in that ‘33 meeting happened because of Halas and Marshall, including the ban.

Yet a deeper look at the numbers of black players in the NFL shows that the drop wasn’t just about the Depression. Nor about George Preston Marshall. There is a clear break between the 1926 and 1927 seasons.

Looking at it this way, the so-called “pre-segregation era” is seen not as one era, but two:

Sources: Pro Football Reference; “Early Black Professionals” by Joe Horrigan on PFRA; Outside the Lines by Charles K. Ross; “The Myth of the NFL’s Color Ban — Part 2” by Neal Rozendaal

As stark as these numbers are, they’re skewed even more by the great Duke Slater. He is the only player to span these two eras, having played from 1922 to 1931. Remove him, and the 1927-1933 group drops to four players with six seasons of experience.

Author, historian and Duke Slater biographer Neal Rozendaal noticed that too. In his excellent two-part essay “The Myth of the NFL’s Color Ban,” Rozendaal notes that the teams that signed black players in the league’s first seven years were mostly small market clubs. Pollard played in Akron, Hammond, Milwaukee and Providence. Williams was in Canton, Hammond, Dayton and Cleveland. Until 1926, Slater played all but one year for the Rock Island Independents.

“It was the desperate small market teams, teams that needed talent to compete on the field and a box office draw to survive off it, that signed most of these early African-American stars,” Rozendaal writes.

The change came during a league meeting in July 1927, with the league in “disarray,” Halas wrote. To “sort the men from the boys,” President Carr demanded that all teams pay $2,500 to secure their spot for the upcoming season. That move helped trim the league from 22 teams to 12, eliminating many of the small market clubs and thus limiting the opportunities for black players.

By 1933, the league was down to Kemp and Lillard. The ban, led by Marshall, merely codified a trend that was gaining strength since 1927, five years before Marshall and his group launched the Boston franchise and two years before the stock market crashed. History remembers him as the ringleader. His enablers were plentiful, and just as important.

“The danger of saying ‘Well, they’re men of their times,’ is that it allows us to ignore it and not deal with the consequences,” Moore says. “I think it’s better for us to say, ‘These people are complicit.’ … If we don’t attack these people who let it happen, then it just allows people to continue to do that. I don’t care what era it is: hold people accountable.”

Of the 11 men who attended the 1933 meeting, five were honored in the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963: NFL president Carr, team owners Curly Lambeau of the Packers, Tim Mara of the Giants, Marshall and Halas. Dr. David Jones of the Chicago Cardinals sold his franchise before the 1933 season to another early Hall inductee: Charles Bidwill of the class of 1967.

The NFL would also add three franchises in 1933, two of which were launched by Bert Bell (Class of 1963) and Art Rooney (Class of 1964). Those eight men — Bell, Bidwill, Carr, Halas, Lambeau, Mara, Marshall, Rooney — steered the league in various capacities for most or all of the 12-year ban. With the exception of Marshall, each man is revered in league history. Several are held in the same regard by his respective franchise as Halas is here. In 2019, the Cardinals, Bears, Giants and Steelers are all owned or co-owned by the same families that owned them in 1933. The name “Lambeau” has evolved into iconography. Bert Bell has an MVP award named after him.

Each of them was central to the ban. One Pro Football Researchers Association article in 1988 assigned responsibility to Marshall, Halas and Rooney, adding that Carr sanctioned it. Lambeau upheld it — the Packers didn’t integrate until 1950, months after he left the franchise. Bell upheld it — the Eagles didn’t integrate until 1952, 12 years after he left the franchise. Pollard pegged it to Mara and Halas; the Mara family’s Giants didn’t integrate until 1948, while Halas’s Bears didn’t integrate until 1952.

“He, along with the Mara family, started the ball rolling that eventually led to the barring of blacks,” Pollard said about Halas in 1971.

And then there are Bidwill and Rooney, who released the league’s final two black players before the ban. In both cases, the owners skirted responsibility by letting their head coaches take point. When Bidwill’s Cardinals released Lillard, head coach Paul Schissler declared in 1935 that Lillard had to go because his very presence made not just him a “marked man” among white players, but the Cardinals a “marked team.”

“How the rest of the league took it out on us!” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported Schissler saying. “We had to let him go, for our sake, and for his too!”

Lillard, then a member of Pollard’s all-black Brown Bombers team, scoffed at that.

“The pro league, and the way they are supposed to hand out the bumps, is a joke,” he said. “Why, I never got hurt in the pros like I did when I was in college. It’s a business in the league, and they let you be.”

As for Rooney, he let his racist coach Jap Douds make the decision to cut Ray Kemp.

“Art Rooney was a man of utter good will,” Kemp said in 1978. “But through the years, Rooney has given complete authority to his coaches. The coach didn’t want me on that team, and so I was let go.”

Pollard claimed to his dying day that Halas stripped him of league opportunities. The two men share a history. They were born in Chicago, a year apart. They were high school foes and NFL pioneers. According to Pollard, after their teams played to a scoreless tie in the 1920 championship leading to Pollard’s Akron team becoming league champion, Halas stopped scheduling the Bears against Pollard’s teams.

“George Halas used me to get every goddamn thing he could,” Pollard said in 1976. “Then after he used me and got power, he raised the prejudice barrier. If George Halas was still like he was then, he wouldn’t have allowed a black player in Chicago because he was prejudiced as hell.”

“He’s a liar,” Halas responded in the same article. “At no time did the color of skin matter. … If you had red blood, I was for you.”

Yet the fact remains, Halas’s Bears did not have any black players before the ban, did not challenge the ban, and then had another six seasons after the ban before debuting a black player. The enforcement of the ban was not the act of one man. They never are.

“It’s a slap in the face when they know they’re good enough,” Moore says. “And I think that’s part of the history of Black America. You know you’re good enough but you don’t get the opportunity because you’re black.”

***

“If George Halas was still like he was then…”

That statement from Pollard stands out to me.

Because history is not so simple. If Halas did not change in spirit, he certainly adjusted in practice. He also set racial benchmarks that pushed the league toward a better future.

In 1949, Halas’s Bears became the first NFL team to draft a black player, picking Indiana University back George Taliaferro. Taliaferro never played for the Bears — he signed with the L.A. Dons instead — and the Bears finally integrated in 1952, drafting halfback Eddie Macon of the University of Pacific.

“I want you to be my Jackie Robinson,” Macon in 2005 recalled Halas telling him in 1952.

A year later, Halas brought in Willie Thrower, the league’s first black modern quarterback. Halas later broke ground when he assigned the league’s first interracial roommate pairing in training camp, with Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo.

“He was just a great man,” Sayers wrote about Halas in his foreword in Davis’s biography. “He founded the National Football League and brought it through the Depression and everything else. Just a great man.”

Bears chairman George McCaskey respectfully declined an interview for this story. Instead, through a team spokesman, he sent me a four-page excerpt from the Chicago Bears Centennial Scrapbook, a tome published this summer by longtime Bears writers Don Pierson and Dan Pompei.

While the excerpt does not point the reader toward a definitive conclusion about Halas’s involvement in the ban, the authors certainly don’t back away. Included are the accusations from Pollard and Halas’s “liar” quote, and acknowledgement that while Marshall may have led the ban, “he was not alone among team owners.”

In a more damning and honest critique than I was expecting given that the book is a team product selling on the team store, Pierson and Pompei write:

“If (the ban) was no more than coincidental with the prevailing social discrimination of the times, the Bears went along.”

I appreciated Mr. McCaskey’s gesture to me in having the team send the PDF. He certainly did not have to do that, and it reinforced my feelings that he seems like a decent man who works to see that the organization represents the fanbase, the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois with class. I’ve yet to hear a bad word about him. Current and former players seem to both respect him and legitimately enjoy his company.

In 2018, McCaskey followed the lead of five Bears players to make the franchise the NFL’s first to maximize the league’s then-new social justice initiative, giving more than $813,000 to five Illinois organizations.

All of this is to say that George McCaskey is not his grandfather. I wanted to ask him about that. I wanted to ask him if the team had considered anything other than fashion when they chose those 1936 throwbacks. I wanted to know if they’d discussed the downside of wearing jerseys tied to a single season in which their own founding father was central to banning black athletes from their league.

Time and again, we hear two arguments made about racism in bygone days. The first is that a given symbol represents only the good, not the bad. Obviously that sentiment is at play in the seemingly never-ending debate about the Confederate flag, but more pertinent was this summer’s here-today-gone-today announcement from Nike of shoes adorned with the United States flag of 1776. Criticism from Colin Kaepernick — whose own story has echoes of Pollard, Lillard, Kemp and others — allegedly led Nike to reverse course and literally pull shoes from stores.

That is one argument about how to treat the racism of “back then.” Here is the other:

“I wasn’t even alive then! I had nothing to do with it.”

That is true.

Yet when it comes to racism of the past, white America cannot have its cake and eat it too. No, you weren’t alive then. No, you had nothing to do with it. But others were. And others did.

George Preston Marshall was one of those others, but George Halas was one of them, too. So were his fellow NFL luminaries Mara, Lambeau, Carr, Bell, Bidwill and Rooney.

Eight decades later, we should have no fear in saying so.

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Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls. He is the proprietor of the Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.

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UPDATE: September 9, 2019

Thank you to the Rev. Jesse Jackson for embracing this story. On Sunday, Sept. 8, he and his co-host Santita Jackson invited me onto Jackson’s radio show to discuss the story. Among those joining us were Jim Rose of ABC Chicago and Chris Broussard of Fox Sports.

The full show is here, on Rev. Jackson’s Facebook page.

Jackson also wrote about my article in a column for the Chicago Sun-Times, here.

For more discussion, visit the excellent Bears podcast 79th and Halas, who I recorded with the night before the Jackson show. Listen here, starting at 1:19:04.

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UPDATE: September 25, 2019

At just before 10 p.m. last night, as the team prepares for the Vikings game and the debut of the 1936 jerseys, the Bears released a video acknowledging the history of the jerseys. The team will auction game-worn jerseys from Sundays game and donate proceeds to five organizations chosen by the members of the team’s social justice committee: Trey Burton, Chase Daniel, Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan and Mitchell Trubisky.

In today’s press conference, reporters asked Matt Nagy about the jerseys and the team’s video. Nagy applauded the announcement and credited players with bringing the history of the jerseys to the team’s attention. (Start video at 3:37.)

The team’s announcement video is below, with more explanation from the team here.

UPDATE: December 5, 2019

Jack was a guest on CLTV where he discussed the impact from his article.