John Lewis joined Faleomavaega's fight to change the Washington NFL team’s name
Washington, D.C. — When they met in the late 1980s, in Del. Eni Faleomavaega’s office on Capitol Hill, they jokingly called themselves The Poor Kids’ Club. It was Faleomavaega from American Samoa; Suzan Shown Harjo, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, from El Reno, Okla.; and Rep. John Lewis from a sharecropping family in Alabama’s Pike County.
They challenged one another to see who came up the poorest. Whose family had newspaper or precious Sears catalogue pages as wallpaper? Who had the luxury of two-by-fours for a bench in the outhouse?
But the richness of those meetings over many years arose in 2013, when legislators, led by Faleomavaega (D) and endorsed by Lewis (D-Ga.), crafted a bill that would cancel the federal regulation of trademarks using the Washington pro football team’s name, and would prevent the registration of future trademarks of the name, because of its opprobriousness. The bill, H.R. 1278, was called the Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act.
“The impact was that members of Congress stepped forward and said, ‘We think this is what the law should be and this is what Congress intended,’ ” Harjo, the lone surviving member of The Poor Kids’ Club, told me Sunday. “That was a pretty important statement.”
The bill failed to get a hearing in the House. But with his signature on it as an icon of the civil rights movement, Lewis, who died Friday at 80 after a six-month battle with cancer, legitimized the decades-long fight of native people against their image being misrepresented and degraded in sports.
Lewis was in Faleomavaega’s office when they started drafting the bill.
“It meant so much to all of us,” Harjo recalled.
Harjo was elated last week upon hearing something she and others worked for since the 1970s had finally come to pass: the removal of the racial slur that was the name of the pro football franchise for 87 years.