CLEVELAND — Nearly 54 years ago, some of the greatest Black male athletes in the country gathered in an office building in midtown Cleveland for what’s now known as the Cleveland Summit.
That meeting forever changed the relationship between sports and politics and it was the subject of discussion at day two of the Cleveland Power of Sport Summit Friday. A virtual panel discussed the impact of the historic meeting both back then and in present-day athlete activism.
Former Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown brought that group together in a since-demolished office building on E. 105th and Euclid on June 4, 1967. The group included former Browns players Sid Williams and Walter Beach, along with soon-to-be Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes, and Lew Alcindor -- who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It also included Muhammad Ali, who in 1967, was the heavyweight champion of the world, but was also facing prison time and public backlash after refusing to be drafted into the military and serve in the Vietnam War because of his religious beliefs.
The goal was to convince Ali to take a deal from the federal government to do boxing exhibitions for U.S. troops in exchange for the draft-dodging charges to be dropped.
But Ali stood firm by his beliefs.
“They grilled him. I mean, they really grilled Ali on his beliefs,” said Branson Wright, a Cleveland-based filmmaker and journalist.
Many of the men at the summit had military backgrounds, and did not agree with Ali’s beliefs, but when he wouldn’t budge after hours of questioning, they decided to stand by him during a press conference after the summit.
“They said, 'We're going to support him. We're going to support his right to be a conscientious objector.' And they had that press conference afterward and showing that support. And I just think it was a monumental moment for athletes and for Black athletes at that time,” Wright said.
Wright saw a photo taken during the press conference when he was young, and it made a huge impression on him.
“I saw the photo in a magazine or book, and I was like, 'Wow, you know, why did all these guys get together? It must have been a big deal,'” Wright said. “It's just such an impactful photo and impactful time and impactful moment in our history.”
The image of those Black men standing as a collective to make a political statement is something that’s stuck with Wright since he saw it in that magazine.
“That was one of the first times that we've seen that on such a huge stage,” Wright said.
Friday, a virtual panel titled "67 Cleveland Summit - Past, Present, and Future" took a look back at that pivotal moment and how it has affected activism in sports in the present day.
“These were people that had, you know, had that power in their voices and they knew it because they were athletes and they did come together,” said Mary Hums, professor of sports administration at the University of Louisville and panel moderator.
The panel featured three speakers: Damion Thomas, the sports curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; Gwen Berry, an Olympian and social justice advocate, and Erin Herbert, the director of programming at the Muhammad Ali Center.
“We're really seeing the movement at elite level athletes, at collegiate, at grassroots, we're really seeing more collective action,” said Eli Wolff, director of Power of Sport Lab and another panel moderator.
That action includes NFL, NBA, and WNBA players taking a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and superstars like LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick using their voices to bring awareness to social and racial justice issues.
But Hums said even though we look to people like Ali and James for inspiration, people don’t have to be athletes to use the power of sport for good.
“Sport has the power to inform, the power to empower and the power to transform. And that's something that you can do on an individual basis,” Hums said.
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