On Thursday of this past week, President Barack Obama announced his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative aimed at ensuring pathways of opportunity for young men and boys of color. As described by the president, the initiative would bring together the business community, nonprofits, faith leaders and political leadership on the state and local levels to focus on "boys and young men of color who are having a particularly tough time." The president reminded everyone of the particular challenges faced by young and developing men and boys of color from jobs and education to family and the criminal justice system. It probably is safe to say that many young men today do not have the opportunities and environments that without focused efforts will lead to success in life.
I don't know if it was chance or planning that the president's initiative was announced during the week of the 50th Anniversary of Muhammad Ali's (Cassius Marcellus Clay), February 25, 1964 heavy weight championship victory over incumbent champ Sonny Liston, but it couldn't have been better planned for creating images of success for young men of color. For so many young men of that time, the day that Cassius Clay went from being the "Louisville Lip" to the "Greatest of All Time" and from Clay to Ali the next morning, young men and boys of color across America started to believe that they too could "Float like a Butterfly and Sting like a Bee." Ali's victory was liberating for many boys growing up then because they had yet another symbol of a man of color challenging the status quo and becoming a champ. Many were already thinking like Martin King or Malcolm X; but with Ali's victory it somehow became more every day. You would go outside to play with your friends and everyone wanted to throw their arms in the air and shout "I am the greatest."
It wasn't about becoming a great boxer, although some may have had that ambition, it was about believing that given the opportunity to succeed you could find that path. Ali's name change, of course, empowered many to believe that the shackles of second class citizenship could be broken and you could stand face to face to the "man" and be a "man." This became evident when in 1967 Ali refused to be drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam. Many remember that Ali, in refusing to go to Vietnam, reminded the world that in his world no Vietnamese had every used the "N" word to describe him. Most remarkable and very telling was when the powers that be came after Ali and were determined to strip him of his licenses to earn his living by boxing; the great men and women of the day came to stand with him.
Martin L. King, Jr. in one of his sermons referred to the hope that every young man who found the war in Vietnam to be unjust and immoral would register as a conscientious objector to the war and particularly noted that no matter what you thought of Muhammad Ali's religion you had to admire his courage for taking a stand based on his objections to the war. Some of the biggest names in the sports world stood with Ali and didn't leave him alone to fight for his right to object. Jim Brown, the football great, brought together Bill Russell; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (whose name at the time was Lew Alcindor) basketball greats, and Football's Willie Davis, among others, to stand with him and demand justice and support for Ali. Abdul-Jabbar was still a standout college player when he made the sacrifice to chance his own standing to do what he believed was right. It was an incredible display of men showing boys how to be champions.
This in a time when there was no shortage of others who were proclaiming in their own ways not only support for Ali, but support for the nation to create pathways of opportunity for their men and women of color, young and old, to be part of the pie called America. Young people woke up daily to those like Sidney Poitier, the actor who made famous the character Virgil Tibbs, in the movie the Heat of the Night, when he slapped the face of white actor Larry Gates in the most stirring moment of the film; or Harry Belafonte, who used his talents to help finance the civil rights struggle of the day; or Aretha Franklin, singing "R.E.S.P.E.C.T.," James Brown, belting out "I'm Black and I'm Proud;" or Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi activist, who proclaimed that she was "sick and tired of being sick and tired." Redd Foxx, in his role as a scrap dealer on the TV show Sanford & Sons, provided tremendous guidance as a parent and businessman. For young men and women, who may not have had a two parent home or money in the bank, those that they looked up to, gave them reason to pursue success and confidence that they could make it in the world. It didn't hurt that President Lyndon Johnson was building with Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. America's war on poverty and the "Great Society."
I was on the NYC subway the other day and saw a confrontation between an older black man and a younger black male. The man was trying to get off the crowded train. The young man was in the door path with his friends. When the older man tried to exit, he asked to be excused to the younger, who looked at him and exclaimed "go on n---" using the "N" word. The older gentleman, looked the young man right in the eye and stated that he was not an "N" word, then exited the train. The young man looked at him and bowed his head. In that brief moment, the older man was his brother's keeper. Hopefully, that young man will benefit from the interaction and from the president's "My Brother's Keeper " initiative. Maybe we can find those days again, when young men and women can find new pathways to success and opportunity that the president's initiative can bring about and look up and believe that they too can be the "greatest of all time."
Michael A. Hardy, Esq. is General Counsel and Executive Vice-President to National Action Network (NAN). He has been involved in many of this nation's highest profiled cases involving violations of civil or human rights. He continues to supervise National Action Network's crisis unit and hosts a monthly free legal clinic at NAN New York City's House of Justice.