Walter Beach, who was at ’67 Cleveland Summit, says he was ‘never contaminated’ by white supremacy He says now is the time for black athletes to stand for ‘their dignity and their worth’

At age 34, Walter Beach III stood in the back of a stuffy room in sweltering Cleveland next to Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Lew Alcindor. The year was 1967. Eleven athletes and attorney Carl Stokes stood before a host of microphones in support of Ali’s conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

The summit demonstrated the power that black athletes possessed when unified against a specific cause. Beach, now 84, has seen the evolution of athletic protest in the 50 years since the summit.

“ ‘It’s what we have to do, what I’m doing,’ ” said Beach, referencing the summit. “That’s the way I did. It was nothing special, and [I had] no anticipation to what it would ultimately be in terms of a historical context.”


During the 1960s, the battle for civil rights had turned bloody. The bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church coupled with the murders of Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner between June 1963 and the summer of 1964 revealed just how resistant some were to racial equality. This was even more apparent at the John Lewis-led march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 that would end up as “Bloody Sunday.

All these events highlighted the need for social equality within the United States. Other than the breaching of the color barrier, professional sports had remained independent of the battle for social equality. That changed in 1967.

The event, effectively named the Cleveland Summit, was the first of its kind. Black professional athletes had never banded together to use their platform to express their discontent about a specific issue. The summit was a catalyst that signaled the importance of unity and triggered a chain reaction of similar protests.

Beach was an integral part of the dawn of black athletic activism in 1967 that reached a significant milestone in 2016 when four future NBA Hall of Famers took center stage at The ESPYS. Before the summit, Beach played cornerback for the Boston Patriots from 1960 to 1963 and spent the next three seasons with the Cleveland Browns before retiring in 1966. Beach was cut by the Patriots in 1963 and labeled a “troublemaker” for organizing a protest among the black players against the segregated living conditions during the team’s road trip to New Orleans.

“I didn’t grow up in a community where we thought white people were more intelligent or better or brighter or beautiful more so than black people,” said Beach. “So I was never contaminated with that virus, and that’s the operative term: contamination.”

Shortly after Beach joined the Browns, he forged a friendship with running back Jim Brown that has lasted more than half a century. The Pontiac, Michigan, native went on to help lead the Cleveland team to a world championship in 1964 thanks to Brown’s willingness to stick up for his friend. When Beach received the call to support Ali, there was no question that he would return the favor.


The man responsible for assembling the group seen in the iconic photograph was John B. Wooten, a former teammate of Beach’s who happened to serve as the executive director for the Negro Industrial Economic Union’s (NIEU) Cleveland office. The organization, later renamed the Black Economic Union, was founded by Brown in 1966 with the purpose of creating “an economic base for the African-American community,” said Wooten. After being instructed by Brown to piece together a group that would hear out Ali before the news conference, Wooten’s mind went to socially conscious athletes who had supported the NIEU in some way.

“Everybody that I called was in that picture,” said Wooten, referring to the iconic image of the Cleveland Summit. “There was no one that I called that was not in that picture.”

The lack of resistance that Wooten received reveals a stark difference in many of today’s black athletes, according to Beach: Not too many players will be willing to “jeopardize their livelihood.” Russell, Alcindor, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and even Wooten himself were all still playing professionally when they decided to offer their support. Even Brown, who had partnered with the company that promoted Ali’s fights, stood to lose a substantial chunk of change if The Champ followed through with his conscientious objection.

They all recognized that the issue was bigger than themselves and their careers.

Beach cited a variety of emotions, including shame, fear and anxiety, that ultimately prevent many black athletes from speaking out against racial injustice. Although the former cornerback had retired a year before the summit, football was never more important than his personal sovereignty.

“I didn’t have any fear,” said Beach. “It was never an issue with me whether I would play football or not play football when it came to personal violation.”

Beach recalled a story in which Art Modell, the former owner of the Browns, told him that he could not read Message to a Black Man by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Beach balked.

“You own this football team, but you don’t own me!”

Still, Beach maintained his optimism about the future. He spoke with fervor recently as he acknowledged the possibility of another summit in the future. He also praised Dwyane Wade’s Ebony cover, which paid homage to Trayvon Martin. From Wade’s cover to the 2016 ESPYS to Colin Kaepernick’s dissent, these acts of social activism resonate with Beach because of his undying love for black people.

In the 50 years since the summit, Beach attended Yale Law School, studied Surat Shabd Yoga in India, published his memoir and devoted his life to being a dissident to racial injustice in all of its forms. Nowadays, Beach serves as a lecturer who’s passionate about black young people, most of whom likely idolize athletes such as LeBron James, Cam Newton and Stephen Curry.

To them, he has one message:

“Everything they [black athletes] do in the public domain should be that which affirms their dignity and their worth,” Beach said.

Locker Room Talk: What kind of black man will O.J. Simpson be now? Chris Darden, a prosecutor in the ’95 murder trial, says money and fame got him off again

What type of black man will O.J. Simpson be when he gets out of prison?

Simpson was convicted in 2008 of kidnapping, armed robbery and other charges related to a botched sports memorabilia holdup in a Las Vegas hotel room. On Thursday in Nevada, a parole board granted Simpson’s request for parole.

So now what? At age 70 and presumably in the fourth quarter of his life, what role will Simpson play? What kind of black man will he choose to be?

When the decision was announced Thursday, I was in a Manhattan television studio with Christopher Darden, the former prosecutor who was part of the team that prosecuted Simpson in the double murder trial of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1995. Darden listened intently to Simpson’s testimony before the parole board.

When the board gave its unanimous decision, Darden said he was not disappointed but not surprised.

“I think he is more than a subtle reminder of how money and fame provide him and people like him a different standard of justice,” Darden said.

I asked Darden what he would like to see Simpson do, going forward.

“I don’t know that there is anything positive he can do or contribute,” Darden said. “He beat the murders. You would have hoped that would have changed him, that he would have been a changed man, that he would have appreciated his freedom more, that he would have invested in becoming a more positive public figure. He didn’t.”

Simpson was acquitted of murder charges but was found liable in a wrongful death civil lawsuit.

What kind of black man will O.J. Simpson be now that he has been granted his freedom after serving nearly nine years?

I’ve asked variations of this question of Simpson for more than 40 years, going back to the fall of 1975 when we first met.

I was on assignment then for Ebony magazine, which I had joined a year earlier as an associate editor. My assignment was to spend a week in Buffalo, New York, with O.J., who at the time was completing his seventh season with the Bills. Despite the passage of time, a couple of scenes and conversations stand out.

I remember playing the card game bid whist on Simpson’s living room floor and talking a lot of trash. Don’t ask me why that stands out, but it does. Perhaps because playing whist has always been one of those superficial but real measures of blackness. Given the debates surrounding the depths of Simpson’s blackness, that was revealing.

What also stands out — and this is particularly relevant to the arc of Simpson’s life — were our conversations around the politics of change and transition. I was two years into my career with Ebony; Simpson was winding down his pro football career and was transitioning into acting. Two years after the story was published, Simpson was traded to San Francisco, where he ended his Hall of Fame career.

Other than Muhammad Ali, Simpson was the most prominent athlete of his era, certainly among black athletes. He was the clean-cut, clean-shaven star who married his high school sweetheart, with whom he had three children. Four years after our interview, the youngest child drowned at the family’s Los Angeles home while Simpson was in Buffalo.

The Simpsons divorced that same year.

During our conversation in 1975, Simpson stressed repeatedly that he would not be boxed in by his so-called image. “Whatever image I have is based on the way I see things and the way I live, and I don’t want anybody to all of a sudden try to stop my personal growth and confine me to some special niche.”

During the same conversation, Simpson said he would not be boxed in by racism, he would not allow being a black man in America to determine the neighborhood in which he lived or the acting roles he pursued.

“I want to be a good actor in all areas,” he said at the time, “not just a good black Super Fly.” Simpson said his Super Fly comment was not a swipe at Ron O’Neil, the star of the iconic movie, part of a genre of so-called blaxploitation films. “Don’t get me wrong, Ryan O’Neal is a good actor, but he’s been limited by his parts.”

In 1975, Simpson was already running through airports, wearing designer sunglasses. He still has options. How he uses those options will be critical to how he is perceived in the court of public opinion.

The buzz surrounding Thursday’s parole hearing extended the fascination with Simpson’s life that has existed for decades. The public was riveted by the Bronco chase. The fascination with Simpson’s life led filmmaker Ezra Edelman to do a riveting five-part Academy Award-winning documentary for ESPN, O.J.: Made in America.

In 1995, Simpson was acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in what became known as the “trial of the century.”

On Thursday, Simpson’s attorney conceded that his client continues to be a polarizing figure.

In the court of public opinion, O.J. Simpson may forever be guilty. But on Thursday, Simpson was made a free man, effective Oct. 1.

“I’d like to see him pay on that judgment,” Darden said, referring to the civil suit. “I’d like some real contrition an apology, something to give comfort to the victims. Then I’d like to see him go on with his life, be with his family and just be quiet.”

Mostly, Darden said, he wants to put the O.J. saga behind him.

“I’m ready to go sit down and shut up about the whole dammed thing if he will,” Darden said, referring to Simpson. “I mean that, sincerely. I’m trying not to dwell in the past. I’m concerned about what my future is going to be and how I’m going to live. That’s all that matters to me right now.”

And I’m eager to read this next chapter of the O.J. Simpson story.

Now that a Nevada parole board has set Simpson free, I wonder, what kind of black man O.J. will be?

Celebrating family: A few famous children and their famous parents Here are some you know, and others you might not

Many athletes, artists, actors and other superstars have followed in the footsteps of their parents. Some we see on the big screen, others we see on the field or basketball court. Others are behind the director’s chair making some of our favorite films. And we are all here for it.

In 2016 when the HBO hit series Ballers graced the scene, if you closed your eyes for about two seconds during scenes with break-out wide receiver Ricky, you’d think you were hearing actor Denzel Washington. That’s because the role is played by his son, John David Washington. Or when the role of director, actor and rapper Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton was played by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who had an uncanny resemblance to his father. Many superstars fit the bill of the famous parent/child combo. Here are just a few, as The Undefeated continues to celebrate families.


Maya Rudolph/Minnie Riperton

Though Maya Rudolph experienced the pain of losing her mother, singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton to breast cancer two weeks before her seventh birthday, their time together was enough for the two to bond through their love for music. “… My mom was music,” Rudolph told NPR in 2012. “Music poured out of my mother, and I’m sure I heard it before I even got here when I was in her belly. … [My parents] were on the road a lot. My brother and I would go with them, I think when we were very little, because my mom did not want to be away from us.” Through Rudolph’s own career, her Riperton lives on. Rudolph, who has established herself as an exceptional actress and cast member on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, sometimes sprinkles subtle tributes in her performances to honor her late mother.

Mario Van Peebles/Melvin Van Peebles

Actor Mario Van Peebles (left) and director Melvin Van Peebles attend the 2011 Eye On Black — A Salute To Directors at California African American Museum on Feb. 25, 2011, in Los Angeles, California.

Neilson Barnard/FilmMagic

Actor and director Mario Van Peebles has been on the screen since 1971. He has directed several episodes of shows such as 21 Jump Street but he made his feature film directorial debut in the drug-filled crime movie New Jack City, for which he is best known. This was followed by Posse in 1993, Panther in 1995 and Love Kills in 1998. He gets his art chops from his famous father Melvin Van Peebles, who is most known for the iconic film and action thriller Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

Rashida and kidada Jones/Quincy Jones

From left to right: Kidada Jones, Quincy Jones and Rashida Jones during Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Mad Tea Party at Private Residence in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Donato Sardella/WireImage for Disney Consumer Products)

Actress and director Rashida Jones has spent her life in the celebrity world but she grew into the breakout star in the series Parks and Recreation. The daughter of writer and composer Quincy Jones, Rashida Jones’ turn into the spotlight does not come without her acknowledging her father. Her sister, designer Kidada Jones, was the best friend to entertainer Aaliyah and was engaged to Tupac Shakur. Their father was the producer, with Michael Jackson, of Jackson’s albums Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982), and Bad. Rashida Jones’ new show Claws on FX has been catching waves. For Quincy Jones’ 80th birthday, Rashida Jones wrote a tribute to her father for Variety.com titled Billion-Dollar Maestro.

“Although we would like to reduce a lifetime of accomplishment to the 27 Grammy Awards, seven Oscar nominations and numerous lifetime achievement awards, we shouldn’t. No, the most important contribution my dad has given this world is the life he lives. My dad is an enormous beating heart. I am deeply honored to consider myself the daughter of the best role model on earth. Happy birthday, Daddy. I love you without end.”

Tracee Ellis Ross/Diana Ross

Recording artist Diana Ross (left) and daughter actress Tracee Ellis Ross attend the 42nd Annual American Music Awards at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Nov. 23, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

Actress Tracee Ellis Ross and her mother, singer Diana Ross, have always been supportive of each other. And there’s nothing that expresses a mother’s love like taking out a full-page ad when your daughter receives an Emmy nod. For Ellis Ross, this is completely normal for their mother-daughter bond. And even when Diana Ross was in her prime, she found time to be the mother Ellis Ross hopes to be when she starts a family of her own. “My mom was very glamorous, but that was her work world,” Ellis Ross told the New York Times Magazine. “Our home was filled with beautiful things. My mom had beautiful clothes; my mom is elegant; my mom is glamorous. But my mom is also really real, and I grew up with a mother who had babies crawling on her head and spitting up on her when she was wearing gorgeous, expensive things, and it was never an issue.”

Zoe Kravitz/Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet

From left to right: Zoe Kravitz, Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet arrive at the Saint Laurent at The Palladium at Hollywood Palladium on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)

Growing up with a Grammy-winning rock star father and a sultry film star mother, actress, singer and model Zoe Kravitz was bound to take advantage of her creative genes and follow in the footsteps of both parents. Kravitz’s father, Lenny, and mother, Lisa Bonet — best known as Denise Huxtable on The Cosby Show — were in their 20s when they decided to elope in 1987. Yet, the pair, who divorced six years later, was sure to grant their daughter the opportunity to live as a regular kid. “[My mom] wanted to give me an opportunity to be a normal kid,” Kravitz told Complex magazine in a 2015 feature interview. “She wasn’t raised by nannies; she has a close relationship with her parents (whom she calls her “buddies”). I don’t think anyone knows how funny we are. It’s like this whole thing where people think we’re so cool and hippie and wear velvet, but we’re the nerdiest people.”

Lil’ Romeo/Master P

Master P (left) and Romeo Miller attend WE TV’s Growing Up Hip Hop premiere party at Haus on Dec. 10, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Mike Pont/WireImage)

Percy Romeo Miller III, better known as Lil’ Romeo, was always told he could do whatever he wanted to in life. And so, he tried. Lil’ Romeo captured the hearts of preteen girls across America when he entered the rap scene in 2001. From there, he went on to star in his own Nickelodeon show, and even gave his hoop dreams a chance at the University of Southern California. Now, Lil’ Romeo is spending his time following in the footsteps of his music mogul father Master P, who created his multimillion-dollar No Limit Records empire back in the early 1990s. The New Orleans native has never lost focus of what’s really important in life. Even early on in his career, Lil’ Romeo knew there was always one thing that would remain consistent: “My family,” Lil’ Romeo said during a 2003 interview with CBS. “Family always gonna be there. The material things, they come and go.” As far as Lil’ Romeo’s successful career at such a young age, Master P couldn’t believe it himself. “I never expected Romeo to grow up and be a big superstar entertainer,” Master P said. “I was just, like, ‘Man, this is my child. I want him to have better things than I had.’ ”

Jaden and Willow Smith/Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith

From left to right: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Willow Smith attend the UK film premiere of The Karate Kid at Odeon Leicester Square on July 15, 2010, in London. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

When actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith got married in 1997, no one knew two superfamous children would come of their union. Jaden and Willow Smith have both made a name for themselves. Jaden has become a young actor whose first movie debut was with his father in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness and he later starred in 2010 remake of The Karate Kid. His younger sister Willow is triple-threat singer, actor and dancer who caught the world by storm in her when she launched her music career in 2010 with Whip My Hair. The two shared their first cover together for Interview magazine’s September 2016 issue.

Willow said: “Growing up, all I saw was my parents trying to be the best people they could be, and people coming to them for wisdom, coming to them for guidance, and them not putting themselves on a pedestal, but literally being face-to-face with these people and saying, ‘I’m no better than you, but the fact that you’re coming to me to reach some sort of enlightenment or to shine a light on something, that makes me feel love and gratitude for you.’

Said Jaden: “My parents are definitely my biggest role models. And that’s where me and Willow both pull all of our inspiration from to change the world. It all comes from a concept of affecting the world in a positive way and leaving it better than it was than when we came.”

Stephen Curry/Dell Curry

Stephen Curry (left) of the Golden State Warriors poses for a portrait with his father, Dell Curry, with the Larry O’Brien trophy after defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals on June 16, 2015, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Golden State Warrior star Stephen Curry grew up in the basketball world under the wings of his famous father, NBA guard Dell Curry. He learned not only the game of basketball from his father but the game of life. He uses his parents as an example of how to care for his young family. Curry’s 2015 MVP acceptance speech brought all the tears and tissue as he spoke about his father.

“I remember a lot of your career. And to be able to follow in your footsteps, it means a lot to me. This is special. I’m really proud of what you were able to do in your career, and I don’t take that for granted at all. A lot of people thought I had it easy with Pops playing in the NBA, but — I’ll get to that part at the end of the road — but it was an interesting journey, and just who you are, you made it OK for me to have family at my age when I started it, and to know that if you take care of your business, you’ll be all right. So thank you so much.”

John David Washington/Denzel Washington

From left to right: John David Washington, Pauletta Washington and Denzel Washington arrive at The Book Of Eli Los Angeles premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Jan. 11, 2010, in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/FilmMagic)

John David Washington took it as a compliment when people didn’t know he was the son of arguably one of the best black actors in Hollywood, Denzel Washington. John David Washington feared having to prove himself to masses while creating his own lane, but after gaining a following during his role as Ricky Jerret on the HBO hit series, Ballers, the trepidation over not measuring up to his father’s legacy subsided. “If I try to act like him or make movie choices like him, I’m going to fail,” John David Washington told Men’s Journal. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite actors of all time, but I can’t do that. Nobody can do that.”

Laila Ali/Muhammad Ali

Laila Ali (left) and former boxing champion Muhammad Ali during the Liberty Medal ceremony at the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall on Sept. 13, 2012, in Philadelphia. (Photo by Bill McCay/WireImage)

When Laila Ali mourned the passing of her father, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who died of septic shock last June, the world mourned along with her. After all, Laila Ali learned some of her best moves from her father’s cheat sheet although he wasn’t entirely the reason a career in boxing piqued her interest (she credits seeing women’s boxing for the first time on television as the main reason she became a fighter). Now, Laila Ali finds comfort in the small reminders that her father is still with her. “My son is a spitting image of my father when he was young and he has so many of his same similar characteristics and qualities,” Laila Ali told TODAY. “And he’s definitely going to live on through him. He’s learning more and more as he gets older how special papa actually was.”

Grant Hill/Calvin Hill

Grant Hill (left) and Calvin Hill attend the 29th Annual Great Sports Legends dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria on Sept. 29, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Manny Hernandez/WireImage)

Retired NBA standout and Duke-educated Grant Hill has sports in his blood. His famous Yale-educated father is retired NFL running back Calvin Hill, who spent 12 seasons in the league with the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Browns. Grant Hill found his talents in basketball and played in the NBA for almost two decades. In an excerpt written by Grant Hill for the book Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge by Etan Thomas with Nick Chiles, he talked about his love for his father.

“When I think about my dad, Calvin Hill, unconditional love and support are the first things that come to my mind. He has so much personal integrity in the way that he’s lived his life; he’s always been the perfect role model. From a genetic standpoint, in my mannerisms and things of that nature, I obviously got a lot from him. But now that I’m an adult with my own children, I’m getting even more from him: how to interact with my children, how to deal with adversity, how to be a role model myself. I now realize how fortunate and blessed I have been over the years to have him there.”

Barry Bonds/Bobby Bonds

Barry Bonds (center) and Bobby Bonds (right) during a ceremony honoring Barry Bonds’ 500th stolen base. (Photo by Jon Soohoo/Getty Images)

The late Bobby Lee Bonds was a speedy and powerful right fielder who spent most of his career with the San Francisco Giants. He became the second player to hit 300 career home runs and steal 300 bases along Willie Mays. So his son Barry followed in his footsteps. The left fielder spent his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants and received seven National League MVP awards and 14 All-Star selections. According to ESPN.com, in 2015 when Bonds was hired as the Miami Marlins’ hitting coach, he credited his father for the things he taught him.

“It was something I had no intention of doing,” Bonds said of taking the Marlins job. “And then I started thinking about my dad and everything he taught me … I need to try this. I’ll never know if I like it unless I try. Baseball, that’s my thing, that’s who I am. With everything I’ve done as a hitter, I’m the best at that … So I kind of want to honor my dad for what he did. Honor my godfather [Mays] for what he did.”

Ken Griffey Jr./Ken Griffey Sr.

Ken Griffey Sr. (left) and Ken Griffey Jr. during the Gillette Home Run Derby presented by Head & Shoulders at the Great American Ball Park on July 13, 2015, in Cincinnati.

On Aug. 31, 1990, Ken Griffey Sr. and his son Ken Griffey Jr. made history when they both played for the Seattle Mariners in a game against the Kansas City Royals. This father-son baseball combo was one of the toughest. At the time, Griffey Sr. was 40 years old. Griffey Sr. played right field on the Reds teams that won back-to-back World Series titles in 1975-76. He was a three-time All-Star, and was named All-Star Game MVP in 1980. Griffey Jr. was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in 2016, where he talked about his father during his acceptance speech.

“To my dad, who taught me how to play this game, but more importantly he taught me how to be a man. How to work hard, how to look at yourself in the mirror each and every day, and not to worry about what other people are doing. See, baseball didn’t come easy for him. He was the 29th round pick and had to choose between football and baseball. And where he’s from in Donora, Pennsylvania, football is king. But I was born five months after his senior year and he made a decision to play baseball to provide for his family, because that’s what men do. And I love you for that.”

Ice Cube/O’Shea Jackson Jr.

Actors Ice Cube and O’Shea Jackson Jr. attend the All Def Movie Awards at Lure Nightclub on Feb. 24, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/WireImage)

If imitating your parent in front of millions seems stress-inducing, O’Shea Jackson Jr., son of rapper and actor Ice Cube, will tell you it’s every bit just as nerve-racking as it sounds. Luckily for Jackson Jr., who portrayed Ice Cube in the 2015 blockbuster Straight Outta Compton, his performance received rave reviews and struck up conversations about the similarities between the father and son. Although Jackson Jr.’s career is off the a great start, he said having his dad by his side and Ice Cube’s involvement in the movie made the process a lot smoother.

“Believe it or not, having my dad there on set calmed me down,” Jackson Jr. told NBC News. “It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you’re doing the school plays and programs and you get that sense of relief when your parents walk in. There’s just this comfort in knowing that they’re there. My dad has been my coach my whole life, so it felt totally natural. When he’s there, I know I can’t get it wrong.”

Who should replace Jerry West on a new NBA logo? The choice is yours

Muhammad Ali helped this 7-year-old be proud to live as a Muslim in America His story taught me that patriotism can be not just obedience, but resistance

Muhammad Ali began boxing at the age of 12 because something was taken from him. Perhaps embarking on a career in boxing was an overzealous response to the theft of his red Schwinn bike, but in hindsight, the seemingly quotidian burglary might have been as consequential to history as the abduction of Helen from Troy.

Even as he began compiling accolades, including a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, he was again stripped — this time of his dignity — when he was refused service at a diner in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

Then, as he surmounted the pinnacle of the sporting world as heavyweight champion, he again had something taken from him. This time, it was his career. Banned from boxing because he thought the war in Vietnam was unjust, he remained undeterred. He was aware he came from a lineage of people who would not deny themselves what they rightfully earned, even if the society at large continued to withhold what was due to them.

His patience was rewarded. Eventually, he not only regained his rightful place as heavyweight champ, he ascended to an even loftier throne: the universally recognized greatest of all time. And yet again, he had something taken from him. This time, Parkinson’s disease stole the motor and speech skills that had made him the most magnetic and celebrated personality on earth.

Yet, his spirit endured. His commitment to the cause of his people never faltered. He did what he had always done when something was taken from him. He gave more of himself.

This was the Ali I was introduced to as a boy through worn-out paperback books in my elementary school library. Before Islam was conflated with a menacing brand of terrorism, it was largely invisible, except for the larger-than-life Ali.

My 7-year-old brain puzzled over the question. How can a man so undeniably and unapologetically Muslim be so synonymous with excellence in America? I was at that point resigned to an idea of a life much like Apu in The Simpsons, comfortable in a supporting role providing comic relief so long as I could avoid greater scrutiny and alienation.

It was strange for me to come across such a man. I felt being a Muslim was about as unusual to my classmates in Germantown, Wisconsin, as being an alien from Saturn. In fact, it was more unusual because I actually told my classmates I was an alien from Saturn rather than reveal to them my true heritage.

But there he was, even in the early 1990s, the most recognizable and widely celebrated athlete in the world — no easy feat in the midst of Michael Jordan’s championship run.

And his name, Muhammad Ali.

His story taught me and millions more that patriotism is not merely a metric of obedience but also resistance. That infamy earned by a commitment to human rights could transform over time to universal praise and effusive love. That we are not the sum of the slurs society may project on us, but rather the way we refer to ourselves.

He never hesitated to call himself The Greatest, and so he was.

And for that, we are greater.

“Surely we belong to God and to him we shall return.” The Quran (2:156)

Jim Brown has no time for games Fifty years after standing with Muhammad Ali, the aging warrior is still working on his legacy of responsibility and economic empowerment

Jim Brown forgot his cane. A piece of breakfast is stuck to the front of his shirt. He has let his beard grow out, woolly and gray. It’s 7:39 a.m. outside the Cleveland Browns headquarters, across the street from Ohio Nut & Bolt Co. A backhoe has torn up the parking lot. Time to get to work.

The 81-year-old legend retrieves his walking stick from a black SUV, flanked by his wife, Monique, and loyal soldiers Rudolph “Rock Head” Johnson, James Box and Rob Wood. Everyone wears black except for Rock Head, a former Original Compton Crip, who is dressed in blue. They unload two rolling suitcases, one old-school valise without wheels and a raggedy cardboard box. Navigating past chunks of broken pavement, they enter the offices of the once-proud franchise.

Brown will not impart much football wisdom to his former team on this muggy day in May. No rah-rah to rouse the athletes after last season’s 1-15 debacle. His purpose here is as far removed from football as Cleveland is from its last NFL championship, in 1964, when Brown led the league in rushing for the seventh time, with 5.2 yards per carry.

Independent, intelligent and sometimes angry, Brown walked away from football at the peak of his abilities, for a movie career and to preach a gospel of economic empowerment, self-reliance and social justice. His thinking on those latter subjects is contained inside the suitcases: dozens of 142-page manuals titled The Amer-I-Can Program — The Responsibility of Self-Determination.

These are the textbooks for a 60-hour self-help course. They contain the heart and soul of Brown’s life and legacy. They illustrate both the greatness of Brown’s gifts and, after a half-century, their inevitable decline.

Thousands of people on three continents have benefited from Amer-I-Can since Brown founded it in 1988, an outgrowth of his earlier work with the Negro Industrial and Economic Union. Lives have been changed, even saved. But the Amer-I-Can foundation’s revenues have plunged 80 percent in the past few years, and far fewer people are studying the manual. Prominent staffers have been convicted of crimes. The curriculum is unavailable online and out of step with younger activists’ focus on structural racism and social media. Brown is hoping an infusion of cash from President Donald Trump’s slashed domestic budget can revive the program.

Still, he plows forward, dragging Amer-I-Can manuals from city to city with the determination that used to gain him as many yards after contact as before it. He says the program is far more meaningful than anything he did in the NFL.

This trip to Cleveland also shows that Amer-I-Can is fading away, along with the greatest football player of all time.

“The common concern of the group is that each of us helps the other become a better person.” – Amer-I-Can Trainee Manual, Page 2

“The youngsters now have to catch up and become more involved in making this a better world,” Brown tells me, referring to the Browns players and coaches, most of them in their 20s and 30s, who are gathered inside the auditorium-style team meeting room. An Amer-I-Can manual rests on each of the 126 chairs.

Brown, who is employed by the team as a senior adviser, steps to the front, clutching his cane with huge, gnarled hands. He wears a faded baseball cap, not the famous red, black and green kufi. You need to strain to hear his voice.

“Communities across the country need us to take more interest in what’s going on,” Brown says. He takes a moment to decry African-Americans killing each other. “But you are football players here this morning,” he continues, “so we’re gonna concentrate on giving you a philosophy that you might already have, but we’re also going to include community work in what we hope will be your motivation to be the greatest players you can be.”

The players give Brown their full attention. His football résumé demands it. In nine dominant NFL seasons, all with Cleveland, Brown never missed a game or practice. Playing the 1963 campaign with a broken big toe, he set a record of 1,863 rushing yards — in a 14-game season. He delivered so much punishment, many defenders feared tackling him. He still holds the career record of 104.3 rushing yards per game. He retired at age 29, coming off his fourth MVP season.

But one of Brown’s most significant accomplishments occurred two years after he left football. Fifty years ago, on June 4, 1967, Brown organized the Cleveland Summit, a gathering of star black athletes who came to quiz and ultimately support heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. The athletes Brown convened included Lew Alcindor, who would soon change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Celtics great Bill Russell; Carl Stokes, soon to be elected Cleveland’s mayor and the first African-American to lead a major U.S. city; and football stars who would become bankers, radio station owners and a U.S. ambassador.

A group of top African American athletes from different sporting disciplines gather to give support and hear the boxer Muhammad Ali give his reasons for rejecting the draft during the Vietnam War, at a meeting of the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, held in Cleveland, June 4, 1967. Seated in the front row, from left to right: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Standing behind them are: Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis mcClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter, and John Wooten.

Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

After meeting with Ali, the 12 men stood in front of the cameras in downtown Cleveland, a united front of negritude that altered the course of the war, the civil rights movement and the nature of athlete activism.

“Can you imagine LeBron, Serena, Durant, Tiger, Simone Biles, Mayweather and Odell Beckham Jr. meeting to discuss the role of black athletes in the age of Trump?” says Leonard Moore, a University of Texas history professor. “That’s how powerful and impactful this meeting was.”

That meeting took place a few miles from the current Browns team meeting room, where the session is now being led by Box and Rock Head. The two facilitators will review two of the 15 chapters in the Amer-I-Can manual, which cover topics ranging from motivation and focus to family relationships and emotional control, plus details on how to behave in job interviews, set financial goals and avoid drugs. At every step, the program insists there are no excuses for failure: “Individual responsibility and determination are key factors,” it says. “Your success ultimately rests with you.”

Box steps to the front. “I grew up here in Cleveland, I’m 55 years old. I’ll just cut to the chase, we all men here. I spent 9 1/2 years of my life in the penitentiary, used to sell dope, gangbang, rob, steal, all that craziness.”

He discusses the “conditioning” he received as a child with no father and a mother addicted to heroin. Box speaks smoothly, without notes. He’s been working with Amer-I-Can for 27 years. He passes the mic to Rock Head, another Amer-I-Can veteran, who tells his own story of a misguided life, of the attitude change and motivation needed to succeed. Both facilitators use language straight from the manual. Both refer to Brown as their father.

At first, it seems like the presentation has little relevance for a team of highly paid athletes who must have had plenty of motivation and focus just to reach this room.

Then Box reaches Page 5, which he calls “the most intimate part of the training program.” It’s a list of 231 “feeling words.” Box tells the players he’s going to provide a topic, and they should say how it makes them feel.

“Father,” Box says.

The players start to open up. “I didn’t have a father,” one says. “He was a good guy,” says another. “Role model.” “Leader.” “Protector.” “I didn’t know him.”

“My father wasn’t there for the early part of my life. God was my father,” says linebacker Demario Davis (who was recently traded to the New York Jets). “But I was able to forgive, and now we’re best friends.”

Brown tells the players he saw his father only four times in his life. He asks for all the players without a good relationship with their fathers to raise their hand. About a dozen of the 100-plus men respond.

“The main ingredient to a lot of the problems we have in these streets is based on the fact that a lot of these young men do not have a father,” Brown says. “You’re an elite group of individuals. If you work together with other like-minded individuals, we can make a dent, a great dent, in the violence in our community. There are young people who need our help.”

Afterward, I ask Brown why he brought Amer-I-Can to the team.

“I know I could help them,” Brown says.

But Brown also needs help from the team — to keep Amer-I-Can going.

“We alone are responsible for the degree of financial stability that we create; we must not depend on, blame, or hold others responsible for our lack of monetary security. ” – Amer-I-Can Trainee Manual, Page 86

After giving the players a two-hour taste of Amer-I-Can, Brown and his crew met with Dee Haslam, who owns the team with her husband, Jimmy. Brown wants the team to take the full 60-hour curriculum and to help expand the program in the Cleveland community. Peter John-Baptiste, vice president of communications, said the team is trying to determine the best way to support Brown’s efforts.

In 2010, the nonprofit Amer-I-Can Foundation for Social Change had $1.15 million in revenue from grants, donations and contracts with local and state governments, according to public tax records. In 2014, the most recent year for which tax forms are available, the foundation had $182,489 in revenue — a drop of almost $1 million.

What happened? A decades-long contract worth six figures annually to teach the curriculum in Los Angeles County correctional facilities dried up. A major annual donor, shopping mall developer Mace Siegel, died in 2011. The former president of Amer-I-Can, Oregon State Police Lt. Col. Dean Renfrow, retired in 2011 and has yet to be replaced.

In Cleveland, the Amer-I-Can program lost support when Box was charged with inappropriate sexual contact with two women participating in a court-ordered program that he facilitated. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to attempted abduction, assault and unlawful restraint and was sentenced to three years of probation. In 2016, Cleveland Amer-I-Can staffer and former Browns receiver Reggie Rucker was sentenced to 21 months in prison for embezzling money from Amer-I-Can and other nonprofits.

The engine of Amer-I-Can has always been Brown. He raised a family of facilitators in cities across the country and improvised ways to fit his curriculum into existing endeavors at schools, prisons, community centers, even FBI training centers. Amer-I-Can’s only formal structure seems to be the curriculum itself. Dozens of Boxes and Rock Heads, from all walks of life, were drawn to Brown’s passion and empathy. His message of self-responsibility appealed to conservatives; his attacks on injustice excited liberals. Brown’s family and friends say he’s too proud to ask for money, but when the Hall of Famer showed up in a troubled city and talked up Amer-I-Can, rich folks found their checkbooks and politicians found room in their budgets.

From left, Pastor Darrell Scott, former professional football player Jim Brown and Omarosa Manigault arrive at Trump Tower, Dec. 13, 2016, in New York City. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and other high-level positions for the new administration.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But the magic is wearing off. His fierce intelligence remains, but facts can slip and he is starting to forget things. He tells the Cleveland Browns that Amer-I-Can is 15 years old, instead of 29. He tells me that former President Barack Obama has never explained his feelings about his mixed racial background, which was the subject of Obama’s best-selling book, Dreams From My Father.

Rock Head used to be paid $6,000 per month as a facilitator. Now he’s driving an Uber and running a youth basketball foundation in California. Box’s salary has dried up too.

Most of Brown’s income comes from speaking engagements, memorabilia signings and his Cleveland Browns salary. Through Amer-I-Can, he and his wife paid themselves modest annual salaries of $18,000 to $50,000 from 2010-12. Brown’s salary was $120,000 in 2011, when revenues were $1.1 million. He was paid nothing in 2013, when revenues were $310,000, and nothing in 2014. Unless the Browns are paying, Brown often flies coach. On the trip for the team seminar, he stayed at the airport Sheraton.

Many members of the extended Amer-I-Can family told me there was money in Trump’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget for the program. Brown voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but after the election he accepted an invitation to Trump Tower to meet with the president-elect. He hosted an Amer-I-Can fundraiser in Washington, D.C., during the inauguration.

But specifics are scarce on the Trump budget promise. Monique Brown says Amer-I-Can has “basically been approved,” but she won’t elaborate. Messages left with HUD and the House committee overseeing the budget were not returned.

When I ask Brown how he thinks Trump is doing as president, a flash of his famous fight emerges. “What kind of question is that?” he growls.

“Trump is the president sitting in the seat of power … so my way of looking at my contribution or our contribution is that we can’t ignore that seat and just call names of the person that’s sitting in it,” he says. “Calling names won’t do anything.”

It’s right there in the manual: Your success ultimately rests with you.

“If I analyze myself, what am I doing?” Brown continues. “Not what Donald Trump is doing, what am I doing to make this a better country?”

“Some people who are conditioned at childhood never break through the blanket of suppression in order to achieve their full potential.”– Amer-I-Can Trainee Manual, Page 10

Swinton “Sweet Sue” Brown, a boxer, gambler and womanizer, left a few weeks after James Nathaniel Brown was born Feb. 17, 1936, on St. Simons Island in Georgia. Two years later, Theresa Brown left baby Jim with her mother and grandmother to work as a maid on Long Island, New York. Jim didn’t rejoin his mother until he was 8.

Sweet Sue lived down the street from Theresa with his new family. On the rare occasions that Sweet Sue visited, he argued bitterly with Theresa. “They would fight in one part of the room, and Jim would just sit there in another part of the room and not say a peep,” Ed Walsh, Brown’s high school football coach, said in Mike Freeman’s unauthorized biography of Brown.

After becoming a football star in the 1950s, Brown hit the sexual revolution and indulged to the fullest, including while he was married to his first wife, Sue, from 1958 to 1972. He appeared in his first film, Rio Conchos, in 1964, and became a movie star with 1967’s The Dirty Dozen. Brown filmed some of Hollywood’s earliest interracial love scenes. He bought a home in the Hollywood Hills above Sunset Boulevard, with a commanding view from his rear deck of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean, where he still lives today.

Publicity still portrait of American actors Jim Brown and actress Raquel Welch in the western drama ‘100 Rifles’ (20th Century Fox), 1969.

John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images

In his 1989 autobiography, Out of Bounds, Brown devotes an 18-page chapter to his seduction methods, orgies he hosted at his home and his preference for petite women — the younger the better.

Near the end of Out of Bounds, Brown says he has “slapped women. … In a perfect world, I don’t think any man should slap anyone, and I don’t consider slapping people a sign of strength. In my case, it’s related to a weakness. If I’m dealing with someone, and they do something I feel is wrong, I’ll tell them that, and that I don’t like it. If they continue to provoke me, I’ll say, ‘Okay, you leave now, or leave me alone.’ That means we’re at an impasse, and I’m about to lose my temper. At that point, in that situation, I have slapped women, and put my hands on men. … I regret those times, I should have been more in control of myself.”

Authorities have accused Brown of violent acts seven times, five of them against women. Two accusations remained tattooed on his reputation.

One involves the model Eva Bohn-Chin, whom Brown met while filming The Dirty Dozen. In 1968, Bohn-Chin moved in with Brown when he also was dating Gloria Steinem. As Brown recounts in Out of Bounds, at home one night in L.A., “I slapped Eva and she slapped me back.”

Police found Bohn-Chin beneath the rear deck of Brown’s home. Authorities said Brown threw her over the railing. Brown maintains that after police arrived, Bohn-Chin jumped off the balcony trying to escape the situation.

Bohn-Chin gives a cryptic explanation in Spike Lee’s documentary Jim Brown: All-American. “He came toward me, and I found myself in the hospital the next day,” she said. “I was not able to jump. … I was a young, good-looking person who loved life. Why would I jump?” Brown was charged with assault with intent to commit murder, but charges were dropped after Bohn-Chin would not name Brown as her assailant.

The second incident came in 1999, when Monique Brown called 911 after her husband smashed the window of her unoccupied car with a shovel during an argument over whether he was having an affair. Brown was convicted of vandalism and served several months in jail rather than accept the sentence of counseling and community service.

By phone from Los Angeles, Monique Brown tells me that questions about domestic violence make her angry.

“The people that know Jim, obviously we’ve had our ups and downs like any other marriage, we’ve been together for 22 years, but more ups than downs. There’s no marriage of that length that hasn’t gone through things, but I’m far from abused.”

Jim and Monique met in 1995, when she was 21 and he was 59. Monique was a model making an appearance at a TV station in her native Buffalo, New York, that was interviewing Brown. The day after meeting Brown, she went to an Amer-I-Can meeting.

Monique Brown, now 43, majored in liberal arts at Denison University in Ohio. She speaks as passionately about Amer-I-Can as her husband does. They live in the Hollywood Hills home with their 15-year-old son, Aris; a 13-year-old daughter, Morgan; and two pit bulls adopted from a shelter. Brown has a mostly distant relationship with his three children with his first wife, as well as three children with three other women.

He’s no longer the same man who wanted to fight teammates over locker room debates or assaulted a golf partner over the placement of a ball. “He’s way more tolerant of differences and opinions,” Monique says. “He doesn’t have to have the last word or, things don’t always have to be a personal offense just because you disagree on certain things.”

Hall of Fame fullback Jim Brown poses with his wife Monique during the unveiling of his statue outside FirstEnergy Stadium prior to game the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns on September 18, 2016 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.

Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images

“Having that purity in our hearts for what our purpose is that’s bigger than us has really been a unifying factor,” she says. “No matter what we’re upset at each other about, we’re still committed to what we’re doing. Like, yeah, you know what? You pissed me off, but that’s not gonna stop the work.”

As long as people are suffering, the work remains. The work will outlive Brown.

Will Amer-I-Can?

“It’s like understanding the secret of life that we’re all going to die,” Brown tells me. “Old age is a challenge, but when you’re fortunate enough to have your business in order, your family will be all right, you’ll leave something that can be built upon, and you go away.”

“I’m very happy because I think that my wife and the babies will be all right. I think my friends can build upon what we set up. I think the country can benefit, and consequently the world. When I say benefit, I’m not talking about changing the world or changing everything. I’m talking about just contributing to something positive.

“What age tells you is that it’s not complicated. It boils down to being the best person you can be and helping others wherever you can. What else can you do?”

“There is opportunity and room in the world for each one of us to make a contribution …” – Ameri-I-Can Trainee Manual, Page 34

Brown’s contribution is real. He conquered a violent game, then used that strength to help people from some of the most troubled pockets of America.

Rock Head was a hardened criminal with years of prison under his belt when he led a caravan of 60 Compton Crips to Brown’s house in 1991 as part of a peacemaking effort. But when he saw news cameras, he left in disgust. Brown kept phoning him, but the gangster wouldn’t answer. Finally, Brown got him on the phone and asked, “Are you a man, or a b—-?”

Rock Head recalls grabbing his .357 and rushing to Brown’s house. Brown answered the door.

“What did you say?” Rock Head demanded.

“I said are you a man, or a b—-? Are you gonna shoot me, or come inside and deal straight up with your problems?”

They talked for five hours and have been together ever since. When Rock Head’s daughter was shot and killed, when Rock Head himself survived being shot 11 times at point-blank range, Brown talked him off the ledge.

“He is my father,” Rock Head says. “When people ask what I do, I tell them I work for my dad.”

Erica “Tati” Carey grew up gangbanging with the Mansfield Hustlers in West Los Angeles. She was introduced to Brown through her longtime boyfriend Ronald “Loon” Barron. Around 2002, they began taking the Amer-I-Can curriculum together in a gang intervention program. It changed their lives. Their graduation ceremony was held at Brown’s home.

“Loon used to kill, steal and destroy. He ended up being one of the most effective gang intervention facilitators in all of America,” Carey says. “I was with him for 10 years. The program 1 million percent did it.”

Barron was killed in 2010 by a 16-year-old he tried to stop from writing graffiti on a wall. Carey now is a skin care specialist with her own line of products and celebrity clients such as Floyd Mayweather. “Amer-I-Can changed the way I make decisions,” she says. “It can change the perception of one’s entire life. You can change. It explains very specifically how to make a change.”

Amer-I-Can changed East Hartford High School in Connecticut, where the dropout rate plunged 50 percent after principal Steven Edwards secured a $50,000 per year state grant to offer the curriculum in the late 1990s. “We spend so much time on content and high-stakes testing, essential skills just don’t get taught that are needed not just to thrive, but survive in life. Amer-I-Can filled that void,” says Edwards, who is now an education consultant.

The program also helped keep good kids on track. “It was a head start of guiding me,” says Roy Roundtree, an assistant football coach at Indiana State University, who experienced Amer-I-Can at his middle school in Canton, Ohio. “I could have been on the wrong path. Growing up in the ’hood, you have a lot of distractions. I learned a lot of core values.”

Memories of these victories push Brown forward. He wants to duplicate as many as possible, change a few more lives before he’s gone. He wants his wife and Amer-I-Can children like Rock Head and Box to keep his legacy alive.

“If it’s not set up right, it will [fail],” admits Rock Head. “I’m worried. We all worried. We want to show that although the engine of Amer-I-Can is Jim Brown, that he does have enough guys that he respects and loves enough to run this program. I’ve been with him since ’91, ’92, never went back to jail, no trouble, never accused of anything. I’m a true example of change.”

But there is only one Jim Brown. Without his celebrity presence, without him carrying Amer-I-Can into ghettos and owners’ suites, the manual is a nice collection of inspirational quotes and pragmatic advice.

One man can only do so much. Your success, after all, ultimately rests with you.

When the players have left the meeting room, I ask Brown whether Amer-I-Can is his greatest accomplishment.

“I don’t think that way. That’s almost like standing back looking at yourself,” he says.

He gestures at the empty room. “This is the Cleveland Browns, man. That guy used to be Rock Head Johnson. We’re sitting here with Rock Head Johnson giving the Cleveland Browns a lecture. This guy was incarcerated. So was this guy,” he says, pointing at Box.

“But they’re sitting here now in a National Football League team headquarters. That’s not bad.”

The Cleveland Summit and Muhammad Ali: The true story Historic meeting organized by Jim Brown had an economic incentive

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, June 4, 1967. Some of the greatest black athletes in the country gathered in a nondescript office building in Cleveland.

According to legend — and countless media reports in subsequent years that failed to challenge that legend — the athletes had come together to decide whether to lend their support to Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his heavyweight title and faced charges of draft dodging for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War.

Ali needed support, that much is true. Ever since he’d changed his name from Cassius Clay, joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) and refused to join the military, he’d become one of the most reviled men in the nation, hated almost as much by black Americans as by white ones. So the fact that other black athletes would convene in support of Ali held significance. The men meeting in Cleveland that day — including Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor — were widely admired.

But as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Cleveland Summit, the time has come to scrape off the barnacles that adhere to this story. There were multiple interests at play in that room and differing conceptions of the best way to advance the position of blacks in America. Some of the men were ex-military. Others had economic stakes in the outcome.

Before the meeting in Cleveland, boxing promoter Bob Arum and others, including prominent members of the Nation of Islam, tried to persuade Ali to accept a deal that one of Arum’s law partners had negotiated with the government. If Ali would agree to perform boxing exhibitions for U.S. troops, the draft-dodging charges would be dropped.

At the time, Arum was running a company called Main Bout, which controlled the closed-circuit television rights for Ali’s fights. Main Bout needed Ali to attract closed-circuit viewers. Among Arum’s partners in Main Bout were Jim Brown and two leading figures in the Nation of Islam: Herbert Muhammad, son of the NOI’s leader, Elijah Muhammad; and John Ali, the NOI’s national secretary. John Ali told me that he and Herbert Muhammad profited personally from the agreement with Main Bout. It wasn’t a deal with the Nation.

That meant Arum, Brown, Herbert Muhammad and John Ali all had an incentive to get Ali in the ring as soon as possible. A lot of money was on the line.

In addition, Arum told Brown that if he and other black athletes could persuade Ali to resume boxing, the athletes would be rewarded with local closed-circuit franchises. In essence, a portion of the proceeds from Ali’s fights would go to these athletes.

Brown, who organized the meeting, had retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher a couple of years earlier and was working as an actor while also pursuing his interest in black economic empowerment. He invited not only Russell and Alcindor, who was playing for UCLA at the time (and later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), but also Sid Williams and Walter Beach of the Cleveland Browns, Curtis McClinton of the Kansas City Chiefs, Bobby Mitchell and Jim Shorter of the Washington Redskins and Willie Davis of the Green Bay Packers. Also present was Carl Stokes, a prominent attorney in Cleveland who would be elected the first black mayor of a major American city that November.

The meeting, held in the offices of Brown’s Negro Industrial and Economic Union, had only one purpose, according to Arum: “To convince Ali to take the deal because it opened up tremendous opportunities for black athletes.” He continued, “I wasn’t setting it up for the athletes to rally around Ali.”

Several of the men in Cleveland were military veterans. Some believed Elijah Muhammad’s separatist ideology was racist and, if followed through, would lead to an American apartheid. They arrived intent on challenging Ali.

“My first reaction was that it was unpatriotic,” Davis of the Green Bay Packers said, referring to Ali’s anti-war stance. Davis was one of three men in the room who confirmed Arum’s version of the story.

Ali worked the room like it was his birthday party, cracking jokes and talking to everyone at once. When men aimed hard questions at him, the boxer never got defensive. He spoke passionately and confidently.

McClinton, a halfback for the Chiefs, was a member of the Army’s active reserves at the time. He told Ali that while he respected the boxer’s religion, it was important to remember his nationality, too. McClinton said he told Ali, “Hey, man, all you’d do is get a uniform and you’d be boxing at all the bases around the country. … Your presence on military bases gives that motivation to military men.”

The meeting went on for hours, but Ali never budged. When it was over, Brown led the group to a news conference.

“There’s nothing new to say,” Ali announced, perhaps recognizing that reporters expected him to make big news by backing down from his anti-war stance. Other participants said they were convinced Ali was sincere in his religious conviction.

Two weeks later, an all-white jury needed only 20 minutes to find Ali guilty of draft evasion. His exile from boxing would continue for three more years. The Supreme Court eventually reversed his conviction in 1971.

Given that the Cleveland Summit had little impact on Ali’s decision about the draft, why has it become folklore? The answer is that the story makes us feel good. It shows athletes in solidarity, standing up to power.

But, in this case, the full story works just as well, if not better, than the myth.

Several of the men gathered in Cleveland came seeking economic opportunity. When they recognized that they were not going to change Ali’s mind and they were not going to see any money from a deal with Arum, they could have walked away. Instead, they used their collective power to support Ali. They sacrificed some of their own popularity to stand up for religious freedom and to stand up to a government that seemed to be singling Ali out for punishment because he was black and outspoken.

In an article written for Sports Illustrated after the meeting, Russell said he envied Ali. “He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people I know possess,” Russell wrote. “He has an 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.”

That day, Russell and the rest of the men did just fine.

Muhammad Ali knew how to play the villain, but dodging the draft turned him into a pariah An excerpt from Leigh Montville’s ‘Sting Like a Bee’

The famous quote did not come until a day later. The interviews on the lawn at 4610 NW 15th Street were long finished when Ali took a phone call in the morning from Tom Fitzpatrick, a 39-year-old sportswriter for the Chicago Daily News. The fight with Ernie Terrell was scheduled to take place in less than six weeks, March 29, 1966, at the International Amphitheatre near the Union Stock Yards in Chicago. Tickets had to be sold. There were reasons to talk to sportswriters from Chicago.

The Daily News was an afternoon paper, so Fitzpatrick was looking for a different angle, different words from what everyone would read over breakfast. He was not disappointed.

“I am a member of the Muslims and we don’t go to no wars unless they are declared by Allah himself,” Ali said into the phone. “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.”

Bingo.

That second sentence, the one about the Viet Congs, would become the defining quote for all that followed for the heavyweight champion of the world. The initial rush of self-indulgent emotion recorded by Bob Halloran and the other reporters was enough to get America agitated about a man who talked too much, loved himself too much. The mention of the Viet Cong, first reported in the afternoon edition of the Daily News, then repeated on the wire services to newspapers across the country, brought a focus to that agitation, put all the anger into a convenient package.

“Those Viet Cong are not attacking me.”

Nothing against those Viet Congs? This was the hook. Was it dissent or was it treason? Common sense or sedition? No boldface or italics were needed. The words would jump off the page without help.

“We Muslims are taught to defend ourselves when we are attacked,” Ali further told Fitzpatrick. “Those Viet Cong are not attacking me.

“These Viet Congs are fighting a very nasty war over there,” he added. “There’s a lot of people getting killed. Why should we Muslims get involved?”

Variations of “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs” would be included in all future biographical stories about Ali. This would become his stand, his legacy: the ten words that changed his life. The quote would become part of American historical dialogue, stuff for schoolkids to remember. Who said “Give me liberty or give me death”? Patrick Henry. Who said “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs”?

An added quote would be assigned to him later: “No Viet Cong ever called me ‘n—–,’ ” but he did not say that. Not now, not for many, many years, if he ever did. The quote was said by other people — activist Stokely Carmichael, for one — but somehow was assigned to Ali in slippery history. His quote was, “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.”

He would try later to give the words context. He would claim in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story, that on his way back from the gym that day when he received the news, he had seen some kids throwing rocks at a little girl. He said he stopped and asked what was happening and the kids told him they were playing “army and Viet Cong” and the little girl was Viet Cong. The words made him flash to pictures he had seen in a magazine of a little girl walking among dead bodies outside Saigon. Troubled, he took this little neighborhood child in his arms and walked her home, away from the trouble. The incident was still in his head when he spoke later.

None of this happened. The autobiography would be filled with these little feel-good memories that were too good to be true, bedtime-story perfect, invented by the champ and ghostwriter Richard Durham. He never mentioned the little girl to any reporters on that day. He never even mentioned the Viet Cong until his late interview with Fitzpatrick. The quote that became remembered was another part of his daily torrent of words. Captain Sam Saxon, the man who first introduced Ali to the Nation of Islam in Miami, said he was with the champ at one point in the day and told him, “You got nothing against those Viet Cong,” and the champ agreed, yes, he had nothing against those Viet Cong. Ali perhaps remembered and repeated the phrase in the interview, nobody really conscious of the impact. There was no plan; the words came out with all the other words. The difference was that these words landed in the catch basin of the national mind.

Those Viet Cong were killing more than 18 American kids every day. The death total for 1965 had been 1,928 (double the casualties of any year in the Iraq War), and that would be tripled, to 6,350, in 1966 with the new escalation (more deaths in one year than in the entire Iraq War). In 1968, the height of the Vietnam War, 16,899 American kids would lose their lives. That would be 46 per day.

Not being upset with the Viet Cong seemed much worse than not submitting to the draft or not wanting to be involved in the war. Graphic pictures of these dying American boys had begun to appear on the nightly news. The enemy was supposed to be the enemy.

“I don’t want to scare anybody about it, but there are millions of Muslims around the world watching what is happening to me,” Ali said to Fitzpatrick. “I’m not making a threat [that they’ll get angry and do something]. I’m just saying maybe.”

This was heavy stuff.


Ali was familiar with the role of villain. He had chosen it in the early stages of his professional career, tried it on as if it were a black hat and a scowl discovered in the back of a family closet. He kept it when he found that it brought increased attention and larger paydays.

His marketing idea was that bad was much more interesting than good, an approach that newspapers, the television nightly news, and the gossipy woman next door had adopted long ago. People were more interested in paying money to see Sylvester the Cat than Tweety, Tom more than Jerry, Wile E. Coyote more than that beep-beep Road Runner.

This approach was adopted when Ali returned from the 1960 Olympics with his light-heavyweight gold medal and found himself back at the beginning in the professional side of the sport, no more than another low-watt attraction fighting unheralded opponents named Terry Hunsaker, Herb Siler, Tony Esperti, and Duke Sabedong. Where was the money, the instant payoff for those hundred-plus amateur fights? (His amateur record has been recorded in various places with various numbers, ranging from 99-8 to 137-7.) Where was that joy the country felt when he stood on that podium in Rome, the “Star-Spangled Banner” played for the world to hear? He was in a hurry. What would make people notice again? The answer appeared on his television screen.

“Soon after I turned pro, I discovered that even though I won the Olympic title, I wasn’t making any money,” Ali said to Alex Haley in Playboy. “I was the only champion who didn’t have no jack jangling in his jeans. . . . One night I was watching Gorgeous George on TV. He was jumping around making a lot of noise and threatening his opponents and I said to myself, ‘This guy’s on to something. I think I’ll put some of that into my act.’ ”

Gorgeous George, whose real name was George Raymond Wagner, was an eighth-grade dropout from Nebraska who had become one of television’s first stars in the Fifties, as notable as Lucille Ball or Milton Berle or Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. He strutted into the ring in sequined robes and high-heeled shoes and had bleached-blond hair that looked as if it came from the same bottle Marilyn Monroe used. His personal “valet” preceded him, squirting perfume into the air. George was a sissified, exaggerated stereotype of a homosexual, effeminate to the ultimate, totally in love with himself. He also was a sneaky, dirty wrestler once the matches began. The combination was irresistible. People howled from the moment he was introduced. A ringside spectator named Hatpin Mary sometimes would stick said hatpin into George’s grand backside somewhere during the proceedings, to everyone’s amusement.

Ali, as Cassius Clay at the time, adopted pieces of this act — the villain was known as the “heel” in wrestling, the hero known as the “babyface” — and added some of his own. The adopted parts involved the self-important bluster, the constant confidence, the repeated declarations about how pretty he was, the demonization of every opponent. He became a shouter, eyes bugged out of his head, one of those people who always seemed to be ticking, ready to explode. The predictions, the rhymes, the nonsense were part of his act.

American boxer Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in the ring after his defeat of Sonny Liston in their world heavyweight title fight at Miami Beach, Florida.

Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

He was especially insufferable and comic in the buildup to the first fight with Liston. He called Liston “The Bear,” and wore a light blue jacket that said “Bear Huntin” on the back. He went to Las Vegas, screamed outside the champ’s house, confronted him in a casino, made his life miserable. He asked if that big bear was as “rangy and fast and pretty as me.” Gorgeous George couldn’t have done any better.

Ali was familiar with the role of villain.

“[Clay] is light-hearted and breezy and has just enough twinkle in his eyes to take most of the obnoxiousness from the wild words he utters,” Arthur Daley of the New York Times said before the fight. “When they are imprisoned in print, however, the twinkle is never captured and Cassius just becomes nauseous.”

The twinkle made its last unadulterated appearance in the moments after Ali won the title. He was outrageous, comical, as he shouted in triumph from the ring at the sportswriters who picked Liston to win easily. He boasted about his looks, his ability, his battle plan for the odd fight that he had won when Liston refused to come out for the seventh round. No doubt about it, the night the young challenger captured the title he was a hoot. He made even his worst detractors admit they had been wrong about what would happen.

The change came the next day with his announcement that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. The comedy of the past was overwhelmed by the message of the present. The bigmouthed character became a Black Muslim. This was not what most of the paying public wanted to hear. The villain’s words now meant something. The jokes took second place to personal philosophy.

“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” Ali said at his press conference. “I’m free to be who I want.

“I go to a Black Muslim meeting and what do I see?” he said. “I see there’s no smoking and no drinking and their women wear dresses down to the floor,” he said. “And then I come out on the street and you tell me I shouldn’t go in there. Well, there must be something in there if you don’t want me to go in there.

“In the jungle, lions are with lions and tigers with tigers and redbirds stay with redbirds and bluebirds with bluebirds,” he said. “That’s human nature, too, to be with your own kind. I don’t want to go where I’m not wanted.”

The softness here was in contrast to the national image of the NOI and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. For the white folk who had paid attention, not a large group at the start, this was a cult more than a religion, a theology that talked about white devils and spaceships and a black scientist named Jakub, who had an enormous head and created the white devils 6,000 years ago to persecute the black man.

The Muslims had demands. What was it that Malcolm X always said? “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” Most national stories about the faith mentioned the large number of convicted criminals who now were members.

At first, there was the thought that Ali’s conversion was a phase, a mistake by a 22-year-old guy — 22 years, 39 days at that — who had landed in a new situation with new levels of fame and economics. He had been brainwashed by some slick salesmen, sold this bill of curious religious goods. He would grow out of it soon enough. A Black Muslim? He would realize a heavyweight champ could have a much easier life.

“He’s always been such a good boy,” said his mother, Odessa Clay. “He’s been taken in by these Muslim people. We pray he’ll see the light — and we think he will.”

Muhammad Ali at the Howard university with the Muslim journal ‘Muhammad Speaks’ produced by an African American organization (Nation of Islam).

Henning Christoph/ullstein bild via Getty Images

“That Muslim stuff is a phony religion,” said his father, Cassius Clay Sr. “They brag that they don’t drink, smoke or fool around with women. That is only one commandment. There are Ten Commandments.”

The depth of Ali’s belief soon became established. If this was a brainwash, it was a very good one. Standing at the side of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad after Malcolm X’s death, the heavyweight champion of the world became a potential target for revenge. He never blinked.

As city after city rejected the idea that it should be the host for his rematch with Liston because of worries of Black Muslim violence, because of the potential for his assassination, his commitment never changed. As the fight finally landed in a hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine, and he trained in Chicopee, Massachusetts, trailed by five policemen every day as he went from his motel room to the converted banquet hall where he sparred, he laughed about the threat. As he was guarded by more than 200 policemen on the night of the fight, with hourly reports of Malcolm X Muslims coming north from New York to kill him, he laughed some more. He then dropped Liston in one round with one “anchor punch,” supposedly taught to him by old-time actor Stepin Fetchit, and as all of America wondered what the hell was going on, he exulted.

“Nobody wants to kill me,” he said. “If they shoot, the gun will explode in their hands, the bullets will turn, Allah will protect me.”

Booed during the introductions, booed during the lopsided fight, booed at the end, Ali converted the night into a morality play.

The Lewiston win was followed six months later with the 12th-round TKO embarrassment of Floyd Patterson. Poor Floyd, 31 years old, was a gentle man, a practicing Catholic, a two-time heavyweight champ who had been knocked out twice by Liston in the first round, causing him to disguise himself in shame when he walked the streets after the fights. He was cast here as a classic babyface by Ali, drawn for the fight as “The Rabbit,” as the white man’s version of a good black man, yessir, nosir, Uncle Tom. Ali cast himself, of course, as the heel. He was the belligerent black man the white man feared in the night.

Booed during the introductions, booed during the lopsided fight, booed at the end, Ali converted the night into a morality play. True Black Man pummels Fake Black Man. He would use this plotline often during his boxing career, no one ever sure if he was kidding to hype the crowd or was as serious as could be. The answer was left to the observer to decide. Ali simply laid out the story.

His domination of Patterson was obvious. The challenger, who claimed he hurt his back in the fourth, didn’t win a single round. Ali played with him, taunted him, called him “the white man’s black man,” said, “Come on, black man, fight for America.” He seemingly could have knocked him out in any round, finally dropped him in the sixth, then finished him in the 12th. Ali would claim that he was waiting for the referee to stop the fight all night, that he tried not to hurt Patterson, but the ringside view mostly was that he punished the challenger for insisting on calling him “Clay,” not his Muslim name, in the prefight publicity whirl. Fake or real, the villain was in charge all the way.

“He’s mean,” legendary retired champion Joe Louis said. “He worked that poor Floyd over good. He handled him like a baby and he gave him more than he had to give him. I think he could have knocked him out from the first round if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to. I think he just let him have it for fun.”

“While we were fighting, Clay said maybe once or twice in the earlier rounds, maybe like in the third or fourth, ‘What’s my name?’ and I said ‘Cassius,’ ” Patterson said years later. “And finally, in the latter part of the fight, I’d say in the ninth, tenth or eleventh round, and I was really taking a really bad beating, suffering, he said ‘Now what’s my name?’ I believe I said the same thing, ‘Cassius Clay and that’s what it’s always going to be, regardless of the results of this fight. Cassius Clay.’ ”

“Round one, I said, ‘What’s my name?’ ” Ali said, some number of years later. “He didn’t say nothing. So round two, round three, I hit him with my right hand. ‘What’s my name?’ He said, ‘Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali.’ ”

Either way, the fight was a showcase for Ali. This was how well he could box. The two bouts against Liston had been characterized by their strange conclusions. This fight was characterized by Ali’s abilities. He had dazzle, flash, incredible speed. There never had been a heavyweight champ like this young guy. He danced and moved like a middleweight, but had the size and power of a heavyweight. He had told everyone before the fight that Joe Louis would have been too slow to beat him. Rocky Marciano would have been too short. Jack Johnson would have been too ugly. Jack Dempsey would have been too light and couldn’t punch. That left him at the top. The Greatest. He looked the part against poor Patterson.

He said he didn’t need love. He had talent.

“I’m not worried about those boos,” he said. “Those were white people. I got all the black people, some white people, too, and the people of Africa and Asia.”

That theory would be tested with his remarks about the draft and the Viet Cong. The volume became louder. Starting now.