Five decades after Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stood by The Greatest, the three friends continue to amplify Ali's message—and stand as icons on their own
JIM BROWN was in London, on a movie set, when he got the call.
It was the spring of 1967, and Muhammad Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad, wanted to know if Brown, long a close friend of Ali's, would meet with the heavyweight champion. Months earlier Ali had again angered the masses when he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army, citing his Muslim faith to claim conscientious objector status. Perhaps Brown could figure out if Ali really planned to go through with his unpopular protest.
"I came up with the concept of having Ali meet with the top black athletes," Brown says today. "We had a desire to find out the truth about his protest."
The meeting would be held in Cleveland, which a year earlier had seen nearly a week of rioting as black residents, enraged by what they considered inescapable prejudicial treatment, clashed with white business owners in Hough, one of the city's oldest east side neighborhoods. It was in Cleveland, where Brown dominated the NFL for nine seasons, that he had founded what is now known as the Black Economic Union, an organization meant to promote economic empowerment and independence among black Americans, believing that would lead to political influence and eventual civil rights.
The guest list was coordinated by John Wooten, Brown's former Cleveland teammate, and prominently featured black football standouts who had previously lent their names to activist causes. The men who agreed to meet with Ali were told to report to the BEU's offices on Euclid Avenue on Sunday, June 4, 1967.
Most contemporary retellings paint the outcome of the summit as foregone, forgetting that many at the time, including some of Ali's advisers, hoped the assembled athletes would persuade the boxer to take a government deal, which promised a quick, comfortable deployment if he would drop his protest.
Ali's determined will had other plans. Across from the champ sat eight NFL greats and NBA legend Bill Russell, who for years had been one of the most outspoken athletes on issues of race. Also in the room was 20-year-old Lew Alcindor, the lanky UCLA prodigy, then midway through one of the most storied college basketball careers in history. (He had yet to embark on a public journey that would make him one of the sports world's foremost intellectuals.) The lone nonathlete in attendance was 39-year-old Carl Stokes, who would become the first black man to lead a major U.S. city when he was elected mayor of Cleveland later that year.
It was Brown's and Wooten's meeting, but they stayed mostly quiet as the rest of the group took turns interrogating Ali. Russell leveled blunt assessments of the politics at stake, pondering with pointed inquiries as to what Ali's ultimate goals were. Former Browns defensive back Walter Beach, then working in local politics and teasingly referred to as "Dr. Beach" by his former teammates, wanted to know how Ali's protest fit philosophically into the broader civil rights struggle. Alcindor inquired whether college athletes should join in similar acts of defiance. Others wondered openly if such protests would worsen the dehumanizing treatment that already came as a cost of their black skin.
"It was a different time back in 1967. There was more strife amongst the African-American community, women's rights were just beginning," says summit attendee Willie Davis, a Hall of Fame defensive end who played in Cleveland in 1958 and '59 and for Green Bay from '60 to '69. "The world was different then."
Many of them had entered the room skeptical of the Nation of Islam—the black Muslim group Ali belonged to and championed publicly. Many thought that his stance threatened to offend the armed forces, and nearly half of them were veterans.
"Truthfully, I didn't feel extremely comfortable with the actions Ali was taking at the time," says Curtis McClinton, a member of the Army reserves and a former Chiefs running back. "But I acknowledged him as a citizen. He had a right to speak his mind, and we wanted to support that."
After more than three hours, the group emerged from the conference room in consensus: They would announce their support of Ali's protest.
When it came time to face the press immediately afterward, Ali sat at the center of a table surrounded by the group's most prominent members. To Ali's right sat Russell; to his left were Brown and Alcindor. Behind them the rest of the group stood in two neat rows of solemn suits and stern expressions. In a singular black-and-white snapshot, the nation was faced with a front of black athletic excellence, united, for the first time, in a declaration of resistance.
In what then felt like a fleeting moment, four of history's greatest athletes—Ali, Brown, Russell and Alcindor (who would later take the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)—found themselves forever linked, an enduring symbol of the black activist wave that in the late 1960s upended organized athletics.
"The moment itself," New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden wrote in 2014, "would be remembered as the first—and last—time that so many African-American athletes at that level came together to support a controversial cause."
THE SIGHTS and sounds of Ali have been abundant this year. We've gazed, again, at The Greatest as he stands triumphant above Sonny Liston. We've listened anew to the taunts that punctuated his herculean poses in the ring.
And at a time when the same restlessness and anxiety that pervaded the 1960s has resurfaced in a new generation of black men and women, we find ourselves again drawn to the images born of that makeshift meeting in Cleveland.
"The Ali Summit was just one moment in a chain of events," says Abdul-Jabbar. "Each of those moments is like someone in an old-fashioned fire brigade, passing along that bucket of water to throw on the fire."
At the heart of Ali's protest, and those of dozens of athletes during that period, was the simple, dangerous assertion of his human rights. As we consider the meaning of a new wave of defiance from black athletes, we again hear Ali's insistence that the Vietnam War was unjust, we again see the youthful images of the men who chose to stand by him.
Ali's stance was far from the first shot in the black athlete's battle for independence. He stood upon the shoulders of Jack Johnson and Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Paul Robeson, but unlike them, when it came time for his greatest challenge, Ali was not forced to stand alone.
This week SPORTS ILLUSTRATED is giving the men who sat beside Ali in that photo—Brown, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar—the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, the first bestowed since the fighter's death on June 3. Each has embodied the spirit of Ali, both his athletic excellence and his devotion to the advancement of black Americans.
Brown, 80, was in many ways the best to ever take an NFL field. An eight-time All-Pro who rushed 12,312 yards for Cleveland, he led the Browns to the 1964 NFL championship, the team's last title. After he retired to pursue acting, he remained a leading figure in a generation of socially conscious black athletes. His contemporary and friend, Russell, an 11-time NBA champion, became the league's first black head coach in '66, serving as player-coach for the Celtics before giving up on-court duties three years later. Also the first black player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, in '75, he refused to be muted amid the demands of a Boston fan base that often despised his outspoken activism. And Abdul-Jabbar remains the NBA's all-time leading scorer, nearly three decades after his retirement. At 69 he has assumed the role of elder statesman, one of the few remaining black voices from a bygone era offering contemporary cultural commentary.
Together they set a standard for the black athlete, showing that the fight for equality is not one that can wait until your money has been made, but a battle to be waged even at the peak of your athletic career.
"For a long time, many black athletes were caught up in the narrative that sports was the only way out, and that their success on the field was so good for the black community that they could just be athletes and that was enough," says Lou Moore, a professor who examines sports history and black activism at Grand Valley State in Michigan. "This marked the era when black athletes began realizing that they had to be activists as well."
BROWN WAS born on St. Simons Island, Ga., near the heart of the segregated south, the son of a domestic worker and an absent father. It was his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who insisted he strive for greatness and who whipped sense into a sometimes hardheaded boy.
Brown still remembers the frustration of feeling that his options were limited by the pigment of his skin. "What you realize when you are born where I was born, when I was born, is that the No. 1 issue in American life is racism," says Brown. "[Being black] is a burden you carry."
He resolved to break free of those limitations, first through sports—before his storied NFL career, he was a first-team All-America in football and lacrosse at Syracuse—and then on the big screen. He insisted on playing not just the villain or heel, but also the hero.
As his star grew, Brown began to manage musical and acting talent, helping fledgling black acts navigate the intimidating and unforgiving Hollywood scene. He befriended various members of the Temptations, helping settle the intraband disputes that threatened the historic Motown group's survival, and served as a talent manager for several others, including a once unknown funk ensemble called Earth, Wind & Fire.
"Black folks for the first time in American history were achieving success equal to that of our white counterparts, but the record business simply wasn't prepared yet," the band's founder, the late Maurice White, wrote in his memoir, My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire. "Jim was not afraid to stand up for something. He is what I call a real black man, a man of courage, not posturing."
(Brown, however, also leaves a complicated legacy, one that includes multiple investigations into accusations of domestic violence. He was found guilty of vandalism in a 1999 incident, during which Brown smashed his wife's car with a shovel in a dispute.)
WHEN BROWN called Bill Russell, asking if he wanted to attend the meeting with Ali, Russell eagerly agreed. One of the most accomplished basketball players in history, Russell takes as much pride in his Olympic gold medal from the 1956 Melbourne Games as he does from any other award. In the years after, Russell often extended a generous offer to fellow U.S. gold medalists: If you're ever in Boston, come to my home for dinner.
Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won gold four years after Russell, as light heavyweight champion in Rome. And before long, the boxer found himself a guest at Russell's dinner table, charming the room with his sharp humor and trademark boasts as the Celtics' center fiddled in the kitchen.
"I never considered myself an activist. At the time that Jim told me about this Ali thing, I was just another one of the guys," Russell says. "Ali had been to my house, so I wasn't a stranger. I was there, at the summit, in part because he was someone I knew."
But to the outside world, Russell was seen as an activist force. He traces his sensibilities to the example set by his father, Charlie, a paper mill worker who moved the family from Louisiana to Oakland after being refused a pay raise similar to one a white coworker received. Racism, Charlie told his young son, was to be called by name and never silently tolerated. "The most important thing to me was making my father proud," says Russell.
Insisting now that he never intended to be an activist, his words floating with the humility that comes with age, Russell, 82, undersells his involvement in the civil rights cause. From his first days in the league, in 1956, Russell spoke out against what he believed were quota systems that prevented more black players from being given roster spots. He once refused to play an exhibition game in a state where he and other black players were not permitted to stay in the team hotel.
In the 1950s, as the decolonization movement began in Africa, Russell traveled to the continent, speaking to Liberian schoolchildren and plantation workers. In '63, when civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi, Russell flew to Jackson and ran integrated basketball camps for the children of civil rights workers.
"Many people don't have an idea of what it's like to grow up in a society like that, that doesn't respect you or anyone in your family," says Russell. "Having been from Louisiana, I knew. So I knew that I needed to find a way to help."
Beyond his direct involvement, Russell lived a life of constant, inadvertent activism, if only because his adopted hometown of Boston—a city he would describe in his memoir as a "flea market of racism"—had never before hosted a star black athlete.
Fans gnashed in response to his outspoken civil rights stances and turned up their noses at his refusal to sign autographs. When, in 1972, the Celtics retired his number 6 jersey, there was almost no fanfare. It took 44 years after his retirement for the city to honor Russell with a statue, at City Hall Plaza in 2013.
His presence in Boston had been, in itself, an act of protest. His decision to stay, for all of those years, an act of defiance.
IT WASN'T long after the Ali summit that Harry Edwards found himself in L.A. The academic and activist was in the process of organizing the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which aimed to promote a boycott of the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. He hoped to persuade influential college athletes, including the powerhouse UCLA men's basketball team, to join his cause.
As he spoke at the Western Black Youth Conference in the fall of 1967, some of the players nodded along, but he could tell that he had yet to win over the room. Then came a voice from the back: Lew Alcindor, UCLA's star, had been sitting quietly on the floor. "Kareem was the most articulate and intelligent collegiate athlete that I've ever dealt with," says Edwards, who still consults with athletes on engaging social causes (page 64). "When he rose to speak, he perfectly articulated our concerns."
Abdul-Jabbar traces his first moment of racial awareness to the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was mutilated and murdered in Mississippi for reportedly flirting with a white woman. At the time Abdul-Jabbar was eight years old. "Once I realized that a person, even a child, could be tortured and murdered just for being black, I no longer felt safe in my skin," Abdul-Jabbar says. "As I saw more and more examples of racial disparity and lack of social justice, I became more committed to changing things."
At UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar was part of a wave of radical campus activism during which athletes wielded their power and influence to demand equitable treatment for not just themselves but also all black students. Ultimately he, and many others, would turn down the opportunity to represent the U.S. in the 1968 Olympics.
The decades that followed saw Abdul-Jabbar chart a path not unlike Brown's and Russell's. Like Brown, he remained a forceful, unyielding voice on behalf of civil rights. Like Russell, he often found himself misunderstood, if not disliked, by the media, which took his cerebral, guarded nature as imperious. As with Ali, the public mistrust of him would over time give way to adoration.
Throughout it all, Abdul-Jabbar remained undeterred. He poured money and time into STEM education programs and focused much of his postbasketball writing and scholarship to the stories of black war heroes, writers, artists and activists. Last month, he accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama (who also awarded one to Russell, in 2011). "Physically, intellectually, spiritually, Kareem is one of a kind," the President said, "an American who illuminates our most basic freedoms and our highest aspirations."
Nearly four decades removed from being that ambitious undergraduate who sat with Ali on that June day, Abdul-Jabbar is now a beacon, lighting the way for a new generation of athletes. He is their proof positive that if they choose to take a knee or raise their arms in protest, they too will be able to weather the backlash.
"The hope is that each generation galvanizes the next to stand up and be counted when the circumstances call for it," Abdul-Jabbar says. "To paraphrase Bob Dylan, the battle outside is still raging."
"What you realize when you are born where I was born is that the No. 1 issue in American life is racism," Brown says. "[BEING BLACK] IS A BURDEN YOU CARRY."