Hail to the Lumbee. Photographer: Rob Carr/Getty Images
Hail to the Lumbee. Photographer: Rob Carr/Getty Images

It has been a rough year for the nation’s most popular sport. From anti-gay slurs in the locker room to what amounts to a slap on the wrist for a player who beat his fiancee unconscious to the recent embarrassment over an apparent effort to get potential performers to bid for the right to appear in the Super Bowl halftime show, the National Football League has had quite a run of bad publicity -- mostly of its own making. And with the new season almost upon us, the NFL would dearly like to change the subject.

I can’t help the league with any of these problems. But I am prepared to offer a solution to another long-standing challenge: what to call the Washington Redskins once inevitability takes its toll on the name.

My suggestion -- in all seriousness -- is that the team be called the Washington Lumbee, after the North Carolina tribe of that name. Before I explain my reasons, let me note the advantages from the point of view of the team’s traditionalist supporters. The name fits easily into the team's fight song. (“Hail to the Lumbee.”) The name honors an actual tribe, an important and accomplished one. A public association with the football team in the nation’s capital would provide a huge boost to the Lumbee’s cherished dream, so far denied, of official recognition by the federal government. And, for what it's worth, an actual Lumbee Indian, Sean Locklear, started four games for Washington in 2011.

Now -- who are the Lumbee? Why choose them as a model?

The Lumbee, located mostly in North Carolina, have long attracted controversy. Although tribe members insist that both archaeological and DNA evidence demonstrates their claim to American Indian ancestry, some contemporary observers -- including many American Indians -- disagree, insisting that the Lumbee are mostly a mixture of African and European blood.

The state of North Carolina, however, officially recognized the Lumbee tribe in 1885 and treated them as American Indians much earlier in its history. The Lumbee were considered neither black nor white. During the Jim Crow era, the heavily Lumbee county of Robeson maintained not two but three separate school systems -- one for whites, one for blacks and one for American Indians.

The Lumbee, for their part, have never quite gotten the recognition they deserve for their role in what has been called the Battle of Hayes Pond, a shootout with the Ku Klux Klan that took place 56 years ago.

James Cole, self-proclaimed grand dragon of the Klan in the Carolinas, found the Lumbees irritating because of their long history of mixing with other races. In January 1958, Cole’s followers burned crosses on several Lumbee lawns to warn them against “mongrelization.” Cole then scheduled a Klan rally for the night of Jan. 18 in a field near the town of Maxton, in Robeson County.

Even in the 1950s, people often cowered when the Klan came calling. The Lumbee chose a different path. They decided to confront the Klan and protect their homes and their families. The sheriff even warned Cole that if he proceeded with the rally, his life might be in danger. But backing down at that point would have meant a serious loss of face. So the event went off as planned.

The historian Malinda Maynor Lowery, in her book "Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South," picks up the tale: “Klansmen circled their cars in the center of the field and set up a small generator with a P.A. system and a light bulb. As Cole began to speak, he must have feared that the sheriff’s prediction would come true." One of the Lumbee shot out the lightbulb. Another "wrestled a Klansman’s gun from his hands." After that, "a deafening roar emanated from the Indian crowd; Indians began firing shots.”

The Klansmen were taken entirely by surprise. They were not prepared for resistance. “Cole took off running into the swamps," Lowery writes. "His panicked followers dropped their guns, jumped in their cars and drove in all directions, some straight into the ditches that surrounded the field.”

Popular opinion was with the Lumbee. North Carolina’s governor, Luther Hodges, was unequivocal: “The responsibility for the Maxton incident rests squarely on the irresponsible and misguided men who call themselves leaders of the KKK.” Life magazine ran an extensive photo feature under the headline “Bad Medicine for the Klan: North Carolina Indians Break Up Ku Kluxers’ Anti-Indian Meeting.” The magazine included a full-page photograph of two of the Lumbee displaying a captured Ku Klux Klan banner. The Klan never again touched Robeson County.

Which brings us back to football. Washington owner Daniel Snyder insists that his goal is to honor American Indians. Given the nation’s continuing agony over the issue of race, who finer to honor than the Lumbee?

And the new name -- assuming the tribe consents -- could have tangible benefits for the Lumbee. The tribe, although part of the National Congress of American Indians, has never been formally recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Why does this matter? According to the BIA itself: “Federally recognized tribes are recognized as possessing certain inherent rights of self-government (i.e., tribal sovereignty) and are entitled to receive certain federal benefits, services, and protections because of their special relationship with the United States.”

There is an administrative recognition process that the Lumbee have unsuccessfully pursued. The tribe has been unable to obtain the special act of Congress that constitutes another path to recognition.

But with the marketing and financial might of the Washington football establishment behind them, the Lumbee would surely have no problem achieving recognition. And in honoring the tribe, the National Football League would also be remembering a remarkable night in U.S. history, when the terrorists of the Klan faced determined resistance -- and fled.

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.