Editor’s Note: I couldn’t possibly come up with the right words to discuss the passing of Jim Brown. But I know someone who can and you do too. Kareem Abdul Jabarr. (BD)
Last week, Jim Brown, my close friend for over 50 years, died. To me, it felt like a sudden power outage when an entire city goes dark and silent. Jim’s lifelong pursuit of civil rights, regardless of the personal and professional costs, not only illuminated the country. He lit a path in my life that I have been following ever since I met him.
Dozens of news stories have recounted his biographical highlights. But I wanted to bring you something more personal. Here is an excerpt from my book, Becoming Kareem, in which I describe attending the Cleveland Summit that Jim had organized. I was only 20 years old then, famous for playing basketball at UCLA, but still in search of how I could use my fame to benefit the community as much as myself.
In the front row: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and me.
I felt disconcerted about my fame because I didn’t yet know what to do with it. I had a lot of political opinions and now I had a national platform. But I didn’t just want to ramble on about injustice or I wouldn’t be taken seriously. I would be dismissed as just another whining college kid.
Fortunately, that changed in May when football great Jim Brown, who was now a Hollywood actor, invited me to join a group of black athletes and activists in Cleveland to discuss Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted. At twenty, I would be the youngest person at what would become known as the Cleveland Summit. The meeting was to determine whether or not we would publicly support Ali in his refusal to be drafted. This was by no means a rubber-stamp committee. Several of the participants had been in the military. Brown himself had belonged to the Army ROTC and graduated from Syracuse University as a second lieutenant. Attorney Carl Stokes, who in a few months would become the mayor of Detroit, making him the first black mayor of a major U.S. city, had served in World War II, just like Coach Wooden.
The summit was not even supposed to happen. It had started as a simple phone call to Brown from Ali’s manager, Herbert Muhammad. Muhammad wanted Brown to help convince Ali to drop his refusal to be drafted to avoid the severe loss of income that could financially wipe Ali out, not to mention the public outcry. Muhammad was torn between his religious convictions, which were the same as Ali’s, and his desire to protect his friend from ruin. Ali was only twenty-five, so two years in the army wouldn’t drastically affect his boxing career. To Muhammad, Brown seemed like a good choice to convince Ali because he had been an outspoken activist for years, so Ali would listen, but Brown also was partners in the company that promoted Ali’s fights, so he had a financial stake in having Ali fighting.
But Brown took his role seriously. He invited me and the rest of the summit members to sit as a jury in assessing Ali’s sincerity and commitment. Every athlete responded by immediately agreeing to come at his own expense. I was excited to finally be part of the political movement in a more direct and active way. I also wanted to help Ali if I could because he made me feel proud to be African-American.
On June 4, 1967, we gathered in the offices of the Negro Industrial Economic Union (NIEU), which soon became the Black Economic Union (BEU). Brown was the co-developer of the BEU and I volunteered at the BEU Los Angeles chapter. Despite our admiration for Ali, we grilled him for hours. Many on the group had come with their minds already made up to persuade Ali to accept his military service. The discussions became pretty heated as questions and answers were fired back and forth. Pretty soon, though, we all realized Ali was not going to change his mind. For two hours he lectured us on Islam and black pride and his religious conviction that the Vietnam War was wrong.
We were all well aware that in the early days of the Vietnam War, kids who could afford to go to college were exempted from the draft, which left poor kids, many of them black, forced to go fight. Ali argued that it was a war against people of color fought by people of color for a country who denied them their basic civil rights.
In the end, he convinced us and we decided to support him. Bill Russell summed it up for all of us, “I envy Muhammad Ali. … He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people possess. He has absolute and sincere faith. I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I’m worried about is the rest of us.”
We did our best at that Cleveland Summit to support Ali’s legal fight and to publicize the injustice of the draft, but we knew how powerless we were against those promoting the war. Nevertheless, I was thrilled that I was finally doing something important rather than just complaining. That feeling of wanting be part of a movement to ensure justice and opportunities for all Americans hasn’t left me since. In January of 2017, 50 years after the summit, Jim Brown and I joined several other athletes and activists for a “Words to Action” symposium at San Jose State University’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society, and Social Change. Together we discussed with the audience ways to become more politically active.
Being at that summit and hearing Ali’s articulate defense of his moral beliefs and his willingness to suffer for them reinvigorated my commitment to become even more politically involved.
The great thing about great men is that long after their light has dimmed, their deeds still light our way.