Editor’s note: The National Constitution Center celebrates African American History Month with a variety of programs and exhibits that spotlight the story of the African American experience and the struggle for equality, including a close look at the Center’s rare printing of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln.
On June 4, 1967, a cadre of America’s most outstanding African American athletes gathered in the offices of the Black Economic Union in Cleveland, Ohio. Although the meeting took place in the offices of an organization dedicated to increasing economic opportunities, money was not on the agenda.
This group, which included Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bobby Mitchell, and Jim Brown, was not gathering to discuss contracts, agencies, or endorsement deals. There was no option for all of the assembled athletes to move to one city and form some sort of multisport dream team. There were no catchy nicknames, festive parades or forthcoming announcements. The decision that this group arrived at would not be revealed on a 60-minute special on ESPN–even though they had a monumental decision to make. Their reason for sitting down together was to decide whether or not to stand together and support Muhammad Ali.
In April 1967, Ali famously refused induction into the U.S. military on the grounds of his objections to the Vietnam War, which were based on his religious beliefs as a member of the Nation of Islam. Ali was set to stand trial for his refusal to be drafted late in June. Jim Brown, then retired from the Cleveland Browns, summoned the top African American professional athletes to his offices to meet with Ali and decide whether or not to lend him their support.
In attendance that day were the aforementioned athletes along with Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, Willie Davis, Sid Williams, Walter Beach, Curtis McClinton and Jim Shorter. Normally a gathering that includes five Hall of Famers–three of whom were arguably the best ever at their craft–is reserved for a card show or a recognition ceremony, but there were not any celebrations this day. This group was strictly business.
The panel met with Ali for about three hours to investigate the veracity of his convictions before emerging convinced that Ali was sincere in his beliefs. The meeting concluded with a press conference in which all the assembled athletes symbolically stood behind Ali and publicly voiced their support for his cause.
This Cleveland Summit has since become a footnote to the stories of all the men gathered that day and is only occasionally remembered by a few surviving photos. But this gathering speaks to the willingness of many African American athletes during that tumultuous time to take on the responsibility of caring for each other and serving a greater good that resulted from their elevated status. While today’s athletes face the burden of appeasing their fan base, their leagues, and their corporate sponsors–and are, as such, reluctant to speak out on controversial issues–they would do well to remember the example that their predecessors set.
Michael Simzak is the Youth Programs Coordinator at the National Constitution Center and the official sports writer for Constitution Daily.