Keyshawn Johnson’s history lesson started with a question. In 2020, Bob Faither, a Newsday reporter, wanted to write a book about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, whose 1946 Los Angeles Rams signings broke an effective ban on black players in the NFL.
Faither thought he would ask Johnson, who had been an outspoken member of the Jets in the late 1990s when Faither covered the team, about them. Johnson, like both players, is originally from Los Angeles, although he played college football at USC long after Washington and Strode were top players on the same 1939 UCLA team as Jackie Robinson.
Yet Johnson said he had no idea of their importance as two of four black players to break the NFL’s color barrier. He did not even know that the NFL owners had reached a gentlemen’s agreement not to sign black players that lasted from 1934 to 1946. The ban, Johnson learned, was only broken after businessmen and reporters in Los Angeles pressured the Rams to sign Washington and Strode in 1946. Bill Willis and Marion Motley join the Cleveland Browns the same year.
Johnson’s lack of awareness was a sign of how little the NFL had done to celebrate players. But that will change on Saturday, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame hands out its Pioneer Award to players’ families at its annual consecration ceremony.
It wouldn’t have happened without Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied Hall for the honor and wrote “The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and the Breaking of the NFL Color Barrier,” which was released in 2021.
In a phone interview, Johnson and Glauber talked about why the history of the so-called Forgotten Four remained largely unrecognized, the effects of the NFL’s racist past, and the impact of giving the pioneering four players their due.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and condensed.
Keyshawn, you wrote you didn’t know about Washington or Stroud even though you played college football at the same Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum they knew when they went to UCLA
KEYSHAWN JOHNSON You know, when you think about it growing up, when you talk about African American communities or black schools, there are only four blacks that are talked about in the story: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman. I mean, it’s pretty simple. Jackie Robinson in sports. Jesse Owens in sports and a little bit of Arthur Ashe sprinkled in. There is no real plunge into history. And when we get to college, you rinse and repeat all over again. They will teach us all about the history of whites.
So when Bob brought this to my attention, it piqued my interest because it was in my backyard, a few blocks from where I grew up. I wasn’t aware of it because it wasn’t talked about. There is a monument at the Kenny Washington Colosseum. But I don’t know if it’s up there at the Rose Bowl. I just don’t remember ever seeing it and I go to a lot of games there.
One of the most interesting sections of the book was the discussion of the implicit ban on signing black players. You point to George Preston Marshall, the segregation owner of the Washington franchise, who spearheaded the ban, but you notice that the other owners got along well with him.
JOHNSON It never happens with just one guy. You can’t call everyone racist, but when you tolerate and ignore and turn your head the other way, you are just as guilty. You are as guilty as those who started it. So it is today in professional sports and politics. Same stuff, different years.
For decades, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson and faced the ugly legacy of that league’s color barrier. Why did the NFL take so long to do the same?
JOHNSON At the time, baseball was the number one sport in America when Jackie Robinson was making his business. While in football you had Fritz Pollard [Pollard was the first Black head coach in pro football and won a championship as a player for the Akron Pros in 1920.] and then a hiatus at a time when college football and baseball were the greatest. The league tends to get a lot of things wrong and then tries to correct them later, so it’s not out of the realm that it just might have flown over their heads.
BOB GLAUBER This isn’t a particularly fair story, banning black players. And now, black players make up about 70 percent of the entire NFL roster. The league did not cover itself in glory with this story.
That said, when we went into the league and looked for analysis and opinion, starting with Roger Goodell, he owned it. He said, “That story is true and we can’t change it and we have to accept it.”
The four players have had divergent careers: some have lasted longer. Some actually lasted quite briefly. Do any of their personal stories resonate stronger with you, Keyshawn?
JOHNSON It’s just about how they have been treated by some of their teammates, both good and bad. Those stories always stay with me. How people like George Preston Marshall treated people vindictively, yet they were still capable of owning a team and wanted black players to serve him. For me, it’s mind-boggling. At the same time, these players still have to fight it and not let it possess them or take their spirit away to do the things they want to do, which is to play professional sports. Motley was practically fired, could not play or coach in the National Football League, but continued to fight. That perseverance, that mental toughness is what matters to me.
Race remains a central tension in the NFL with the lawsuit of Brian Flores claiming he was discriminated against in hiring, racial bias in the concussion deal, and criticism that there are few owners of black teams. So will these four Hall of Fame award-winning players change the dynamic?
BELIEVERS This just seems like an emotional conclusion to their story because the Hall of Fame is honoring them. But for me it’s really the beginning of a greater awareness of who they were, what they did and why they were so important because they’re not household names like Jackie Robinson. I don’t know if they will ever want to be. But they should be.