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.