Jim Brown, the Humanitarian
Jim Brown, the Actor
Jim Brown on the Gridiron
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
The Los Angeles Sentinel wishes Jim Brown “a Happy 75th Birthday”
“His accomplishments off the field were more impressive than those on the gridiron”
Life began on St. Simons Island, Georgia, in February 1936 for James Nathaniel Brown–James and Brown, being very common names–but his accomplishments as Jim Brown have been anything but common; they became legendary as an outstanding athlete, a world famous movie star, a businessman and a community leader. He achieved human excellence on and off the football field.
ON THE GRIDIRON
Moving to Long Island, New York, at an early age, Brown attended Manhasset High School where he developed into an outstanding athlete in baseball, basketball, football, lacrosse, and track and field. He attracted the attention of many college coaches and recruiters, so much so that he received scores of college scholarship and professional offers. Brown selected Syracuse University where his athletic prowess eventually gained him national attention. As a junior, he rushed for 666 yards, averaged 11.3 points in basketball and was named a second-team All-American in lacrosse. In his senior year, Brown was first-team All-American in both football and lacrosse (43 goals in 10 games to tie for the national scoring championship). During his last two years, his performance was spectacular and in the Cotton Bowl contest, he rushed for 132 yards, scored three touchdowns and kicked three extra points against Texas Christian University. While at Syracuse, Brown’s jersey number was “44” and he was named the most outstanding back of the game.
After graduating from Syracuse, he entered professional football with the Cleveland Browns in 1957 as jersey number “32.” The United Press voted Brown the “Rookie of the Year” at the close of his first season. And for the next decade, he dominated the game becoming one of the top football players of all-time. Brown rolled up over 12, 300 yards while scoring 126 touchdowns in nine seasons. In 1958, he was awarded the Jim Thorpe Trophy as the National Football League’s foremost star and the Philadelphia Writers’ Association named him American Athlete of the Year. That same year, Brown married Sue James and they had three children: Kim, Kevin and James, Jr.
On the gridiron field, Brown was known as the “king of football running backs.” He had the ability to pick himself up off the field after being tackled though it may have been painful and would rush back into the huddle. On the next play, he would usually burst through the line again. Would-be tacklers approached him with caution. According to fellow Hall of Fame running back, Gale Sayers, “… he (Brown) played at a time when defenses were set against the run first and the pass second.”
Brown stood six-foot-two inches weighing 230 pounds and his speed coupled with his awesome power made a lethal combination on the football field. During the nine seasons he played for Cleveland, Brown led the league in rushing averaging 104 yards per game at 5.2 yards a pop. As the All-League fullback virtually every season, by the end of his professional football career, Brown was voted “Football Back of the Decade” for 1950 to 1960 and Pulitzer Prize winning sports columnist Red Smith wrote: “For mercurial speed, airy nimbleness, and explosive violence in one package, there is no other like Mr. Brown.”
Around 1962, Brown was apparently getting restless and became outspoken about some of the actions of the Cleveland coach and headed a players’ revolt. It was a sign that he wanted to get involved with issues off the field especially since the Civil Rights Movement was in fill swing at that time. In his final season, Brown won his second MVP leading the Cleveland Browns back into the title game with 1,544 yards and scoring 21 touchdowns.
MOVING ON AFTER THE GRIDIRON
At the age of 30 when he announced his retirement, Brown was at the peak of his football career–his running yards score was unmatched–and he had already started his next career. The sports world was shocked because most athletes usually maintained a presence in the spotlight while their career is at its zenith. But Brown was not like most athletes and his next career had an even “bigger spotlight”–the Hollywood spotlight. Besides, he had already “tested the waters” when he co-starred in “Rio Conchos” (1964) the movie that introduced him to the big screen. It was while filming his second movie, The Dirty Dozen” (1967)–which spawned a sequel and eventually became a cult classic–that Brown officially, announced his retirement from football.
Between 1964 and 1970, he made nine action movies; he was a hot commodity on the big screen. He had a robust screen presence and after his first run of action movies, the so-called “blaxploitation” movie era began. He made the big screen a transitionary place for ex-athletes in general and ex-football players in particular. In addition to his new career, Brown also became involved in social and economic causes that were directed at providing opportunities for Black people, especially Black business people. He launched the Black Economic Union designed to assist independent-owned and operated black businesses. Because of its success, it came to be considered a political threat and Brown was placed on the FBI’s list to be watched, which was also a result of the times.
His off-the-screen involvement was not confined just to economic and/or sports issues, in the late 1960s, Brown led a group of prominent Black athletes to support Muhammad Ali when Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. military thereby becoming a conscientious objector. Brown brought the athletes together–including Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Willie Davis, Bill Russell and Sidney Williams to probe Ali’s sincerity and eventually offered their moral support. At a press conference at his Cleveland offices after the meeting, Brown said, “We’ve questioned him, and we believe him to be sincere.” Time and circumstances proved Brown to be correct in his assessment since Ali was later vindicated by none other than the U.S. Supreme Court.
During the 1970s and much of the 1980s, Brown continued making action movies and guest appearances on television. His movie career that started in the 1960s spanned the rest of the 20th century and beyond. Some of his movies include “100 Rifles” (1969), “Take A Hard Ride” (1975), “One Down, Two to Go” (1982), “Original Gangstas” (1996) and “Sideliners” (2006). His television appearances have spanned the same time period as his movies and include “I Spy” (1967), “Police Story” (1977), “Knight Rider” (1984) and “Soul Food” (2004).
He used his platform as a film star and football legend to start businesses in Los Angeles. His entertainment management company launched the careers of Earth, Wind & Fire, the Friends of Distinction and brought the Temptations to the West Coast. One of his ventures, Maverick Flats, a legendary nightclub on Crenshaw Boulevard, invigorated that stretch of South Los Angeles.
Not only has Brown been an actor, but he has also been a producer, a director and an author. He penned his autobiography, “Out of Bounds” in 1989. In addition, he has participated in numerous documentaries; most recently, director Spike Lee has done a documentary on Brown that has covered his life as a football star, movie actor and a social activist. It is entitled “Jim Brown-All American” (2002) and is described as a no-frills examination of a man who has been in the public spotlight for over 45 years, and it covers his life from his boyhood in St Simons Island, Georgia, to the time of the documentary. Despite the colorful depiction of Brown’s life, he has had a few downturns in his domestic life and a few run-ins with the law. And that may have been what helped to prepare him for the next phase of his life–his greatest contribution–as a community leader, mentor and a social activist.
THE HUMANITARIAN AND SOCIAL REFORMER.
In 1988, Brown founded Amer-I-Can and created its programs that are designed to help restore some of fallen humanity back to their positions as productive human beings. To this cause, he has given time, energy and money. Much of the money used to start the organization was Brown’s. He also harnessed all of what he had earned and learned as a human being and used it to uplift young men and women out of the dregs of society. Today Amer-I-Can can be found in over eight states and countless cities across the country. Brown has used the same commitment that he employed on the gridiron and the movie screens to affect positive social change.
The Amer-I-Can Foundation for Social Change can also be found in Belize, Central America and the United Kingdom. According to the Message from the Chairman (Brown), in Amer-I-Can the Community News & World Report: “The Amer-I-Can Life curriculum has been taught to individuals from all ages, ethnic backgrounds and various professions (from police officers to corporate CEOs). Our mantra, the responsibility of self-determination resonates; it enables individuals to construct their own path to successful living and the curriculum fuels the journey for the transformation from I Can’t to I-CAN.” Simply put, the Amer-I-Can Program for Social Change has saved and has changed countless lives in a plethora of settings: from the belly of the beast to the halls of higher learning.
Brown also added: “The beauty of the Amer-I-Can Program is that it is applicable to all people, as it transcends race, age, gender, religion, and socio-economic status. My belief is that teaching and sharing the program concepts related to self-esteem could significantly impact the problems our society faces today. I feel that the Amer-I-Can Program is, in many ways, a missing link that empowers those exempted from power and participation in the mainstream. We believe in and work effectively with those whom society disregards, contending that it is never too late to attain a full, meaningful life.” Completing the Amer-I-Can Program will change one’s life and help him or her to become a contributor to a better community and ultimately, a better nation.
The program can also be founded in correctional facilities where it teaches inmates how to empower themselves to turn their lives around with positive self-esteem and self-determination. Brown and the program were instrumental in getting two of Los Angeles’ rival gangs–the Crips and the Bloods–to develop a cease fire and he continues to work with them which in the long run will produce a better, safer community. It has been reported that Brown would sometimes use his home as a base of operations and invite rival members to partake in ‘smoking the peace pipe.’
One of the reason for the successes that Amer-I-Can has established in the Los Angeles and other communities is that Brown has been willing and capable of working with many different individuals, community-based organizations, law enforcement, probation and parole departments including Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown; Lee Baca, the Sheriff of Los Angeles County; the County Jail System; the L.A. Unified School District, the Brotherhood Crusade, and Stop the Violence Increase the Peace Foundation which recently honored Brown, along with John Mack, L.A. Police Commissioner; Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., executive publisher of L.A. Sentinel with the “Spirit of Peace Awards” during a Black History month salute to African American Male Achievers.
“His accomplishments on the football were legendary but it’s his off-the-field contributions to society particularly to Black communities throughout America is just without equal, and that is the measure of the man,” Bakewell said. “And certainly as it relates to athletes, he wrote the book in terms of not only having influence and prestige, but using it to the betterment of his community like what he had done steering gang members to accept responsibility and change their lives.” Emphasizing the Black Economic Union, Bakewell continued, “People said that he put his reputation on the line and he (Brown) would say that he didn’t do anything extraordinary. He just did what he was supposed to do. It was incumbent on him, as a strong Black man, to do those things to make society and his community better. That’s the essence of the man.”
Brown is married to Monique Brown who has been an ambassador for the Amer-I-Can program. She visited Belize as part of a U.S. delegation and under the auspices of the Amer-I-Can Program for Social Change while there, she launched Amer-I-Can for women and girls.
He had been honored numerous times and is the only individual inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the NFL Hall of Fame.
Whenever and wherever the need arose, Brown has been on the frontline in the battle for basic human rights as a catalyst for positive social change, as a drum major for justice, and as a community activist; he is the quintessential humanitarian.
Being interviewed after the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama, a Black man, he said, “A fantastic thing that has occurred for him to be president of the United States and for the American people–not Black, not White–just people; they decided that they wanted to deal with his intelligence, his honesty and his heart. And it really speaks well for the country as a whole. All of us need a change in this country because we are in trouble. They didn’t vote for him because he was Black and they didn’t vote against him because he was Black; they went for the quality of the man and that’s all we ask for.”