The Forgotten Four
By Jesy Odio '15
Published Aug 28, 2014 8:00 AM
A new documentary tells the story of the African Americans who ended the NFL's color ban.
Bruin Jackie Robinson is widely recognized for integrating Major League Baseball. But two other UCLA alumni, who had already broken the 13-year old-color ban in the National Football League (NFL), have mostly been unsung. Until now.
This fall, a documentary on cable network EPIX celebrates Bruins Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, along with first two first African Americans to play in the All-America Football Conference. The four changed football forever.
Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football features Washington and Strode, along with Marion Motely and Bill Wills. “It’s a piece of American history that no one knew about,” says producer Ross Greenburg. “There were a lot of reasons for that. For one, the NFL and the AAFC were not the predominant leagues in professional sports back then. Major League Baseball was.”
Washington, Strode and Robinson were all part of UCLA’s 1939 football team-- then the most racially integrated team in history—and all three went on to abolish racial segregation in sports: But the nation seems to recognize only Robinson.
It is true of course that when Jackie Robinson put on jersey number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he made history as the first African American to play in the major leagues. But a year earlier, Washington and Strode had signed a contract with the Cleveland Rams, which had relocated to Los Angeles, with the condition of taking in at least one African American player.
Washington had led UCLA to its first undefeated season and played in the College All-Stars Game against the Green Bay Packers, but he was not drafted immediately after college. Once he was drafted into the Rams, he insisted on bringing along Strode.
Before the documentary makes its world premiere on cable on Tuesday, September 23, UCLA hosted the Los Angeles premiere on September 9 in a sold-out Royce Hall. Following the screening, a panel including Olympic gold medalist and UCLA alumnus Rafer Johnson, former NFL Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb, UCLA civil rights scholar Paul Von Blum, and producer Greenburg discussed the impact of the past on the current state of sports in America.
At UCLA, the perspective on sports and equality remains unchanged. UCLA football coach, Jim Mora, hangs a picture of Washington and Strode outside his office. “There’s a very pioneering spirit here,” says Mora. “We are always looking to break barriers. That’s what UCLA is all about. We don’t judge people on race, religion, or gender—we judge them on achievement and attitude.” .