The last person in the world who should be chastising African-American athletes for exercising their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality and racial injustice is Donald J. Trump. Let us reserve judgment on whether President Trump is an all-out white supremacist and just say “he has tendencies.” But we can say one thing with certainty: this billionaire descendant of Northern Europeans has no clue what it means to be black in America.
Instead of telling black athletes what to do, he should come to listen.
That is exactly what some of the greatest black athletes of all time did in Cleveland in June 1967. Muhammad Ali, who the Cleveland Plain Dealer continued to stubbornly call by his family’s slave name, Cassius Clay, had taken a knee on the Vietnam War. The boxing champion of the world, who had represented the United States at the Olympics in Rome just seven years earlier, declared he was a conscientious objector to the war; he refused to be inducted into the military.
Just months earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City denouncing the war as unjust. King encouraged young men—black and white—to resist the draft and to become conscientious objectors.
Ali confronted a double whammy. He was not only black, he was a follower of the Nation of Islam, a highly controversial African-centric religious denomination, to some a cult. Ali was refusing service in the military based on religious grounds—like many Quakers and Amish, except he was a Black Muslim.
His stance was causing great consternation among those in his camp, his promoters, and many African American athletes. He was a Colin Kaepernick of his time, only on a more profound world stage and with greater implications. Ali was turning his back on his nation in a time of war, a much greater offense than taking a knee during the singing of the national anthem in a football pregame ceremony. Ali risked not only his boxing title, he faced jail time for breaking the law when he failed to report for induction into the United State military forces.
Jim Brown was arguably one of the greatest players ever in the National Football League. By the summer of 1967, Brown was retired, having voluntarily left the game in July 1966 over a dispute with the owner of the Cleveland Browns, Art Modell. He spent his time as an actor and ran a foundation that supported black businesses and enterprises. He took it upon himself to call together other great black athletes to meet with Ali in Cleveland on June 4, 1967. No one who received a call refused to come.
Ali came to Cleveland on a Sunday and met with this amazing group: Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) of UCLA, Jim Brown, Willie Davis of the Green Bay Packers, Bobby Mitchell and Jim Shorter of the Redskins, John Wooten, Sid Williams and Walter Beach, past and present Browns, and Curtis McClinton of the Kansas City Chiefs.
The question was: what did Jim Brown have in mind? There was speculation that this group would try to reason with Ali to try to convince him to change his position and accept military service. Several of the athletes had served in the military or in ROTC.
But they came to listen, not to judge.
The athletes huddled with Ali for several hours in what was described as a testy meeting. Some of them got hot and they all challenged Ali to make his case for what he was doing. Ali spoke with passion about his love of his country but his belief that fighting in Vietnam was immoral and against the tenets of his faith.
When they emerged to the bright lights and cameras of the press, Jim Brown said: “We threw a million things around. In fact, it got a little heated at times but then someone would come up with something light and we’d have to laugh.”
They listened and they all agreed to support Ali. “Finally, it all came down to one thing. It’s a matter of religion with Muhammad Ali,” Brown said. “I think it was a productive meeting.”
Not until this past weekend have so many athletes taken such a stand. But it all started with a willingness to listen and debate—a true and honored American tradition.
Ali was stripped of his title and not allowed to box during some of his most productive years. He did not go to jail, but he was willing. The United States Supreme Court finally exonerated him in 1971.
In the photo with the athletes was a young Cleveland lawyer named Carl Stokes. He would announce his candidacy for mayor of Cleveland just weeks later. Martin Luther King Jr., came to Cleveland that summer to help register black voters (African-Americans made up over 35 percent of the city population). Stokes won in November, becoming the first African-American mayor of a major city (at the time Cleveland was the nation’s eighth largest city).
America is built on the right of free speech, the right of assembly and the right to dissent. Ali was reviled in 1967 for resisting the draft. History has proved him right—the war was an American catastrophe (not to lessen the heroics of all who served and fought). The point is simple—protest was needed.
As Oliver Wendell Homes said in his great dissent in Abrams v. United States, a post WWI opinion on the Espionage Act and the First Amendment:
But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe, even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct, that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas ― that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.
That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.
James D. Robenalt is author of three books, the latest, January 1973, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam and the Month That Changed America Forever. He is finishing a book about the black power in Cleveland in 1968 and a shootout between black nationalists and Cleveland police.