Dr. Jessica Johnson: Jim Brown’s legacy with civil rights

As sports articles have been honoring the football legacy of Jim Brown in the wake of his passing at age 87 last month, many tributes have included the famous 1967 photo of the Cleveland Summit, also known as the Ali Summit.

This picture featured Brown, who had then retired from the Cleveland Browns, and Muhammad Ali, along with other prominent Black male athletes including the Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell and UCLA star center Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This meeting was initially set up to discuss economic opportunities for the athletes in possibly backing Ali to fight exhibition matches during the Vietnam War, a government deal that would have resulted in Ali’s draft-dodging charges being rescinded. The athletes met at Brown’s Negro Industrial and Economic Union offices.

Ali biographer Jonathan Eig documented that the athletes present would have benefited financially by receiving a portion of the proceeds from Ali’s fights if they could persuade him to get back into the ring. Ali refused, and Brown and the other athletes offered their support in Ali’s stance against the war. Their solidarity showed the significant influence Black athletes were utilizing in strategically fighting to impact change during the civil rights movement.

I include Brown in my “Sports and Civil Rights Era Protests” segment in the African American sports history class I teach in the spring. One of the assignments in this section is for students to watch the film “One Night in Miami,” which depicts a fictional account of the hotel meeting at the Hampton House with Brown, Ali, Malcolm X and Sam Cooke after Ali won the heavyweight crown in an upset victory over Sonny Liston in 1964. At the time of our class viewing, Brown was the only surviving main character, and I told my students that only he knew what actually transpired in that room.

In looking back on Brown’s life, he’s no doubt a legendary Hall of Famer and considered by many sports historians to be the greatest running back to ever grace the field. He played for the Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965, and from watching old footage of his gridiron days, I know linebackers dreaded tackling him.

However, as Brown had no problem running through defensive linemen, he was a visionary in that he was literally thinking about the end game after football while still in his prime as an athlete. “One Night in Miami” provided a little insight on how Brown was already contemplating a career in the film industry and wanted to financially capitalize on his brand. He dashed the hearts of Browns’ fans when he retired at 30. This was due to a disagreement with Browns owner Art Modell when the film schedule of “The Dirty Dozen” conflicted with training camp at the onset of the 1966 season.

In many ways, Brown was very similar to Ali in that he was unapologetic in his beliefs, and Brown was also sensitive in how he was viewed as a man. In the 1996 HBO documentary “The Journey of the African American Athlete,” Brown discussed how many pro football fans were unsympathetic to the plight of Black players during his time in the league and only appreciated them for their athletic prowess but rejected them as equals in society.

Equality for Brown not only meant equal treatment for African Americans but also economic empowerment. He co-founded the Negro Industrial Economic Union in 1966, which later became the Black Economic Union. Within this organization, Black youth were taught financial literacy skills and mentored on how to become entrepreneurs. Brown continued working with youth in his later years, starting the Amer-I-Can Foundation in 1988, which focused on gangs and assisting young people released from prison in Los Angeles.

When thinking about all of the outstanding work Brown did in helping troubled youth, I still often wonder about his personal issues of violence against women that tarnish his legacy, which is definitely disappointing for female sports fans.

Brown’s Amer-I-Can Foundation first began aiding youth in my generation, but he had already been charged with assault and a rape case in the mid-’80s. These charges were dropped, but Brown was arrested for threatening his wife, Monique, in 1999. Assault allegations against Brown date back to the 1960s, which simply reveals there were major drawbacks in his life.

He had faults, as do all sports icons our culture reveres. In the end, God is the final judge of everything Brown did, both good and bad.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.