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Jim Brown tells black America: ‘Yes You Can’

The Hall of Fame running back partners with Donald Trump to promote black self-determination

Jim Brown is no stranger to presidents. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, both George Bushes – the legendary athlete and activist spoke personally with all of them as one of America’s most prominent champions for black freedom and empowerment.

Yet no invitation ever came from Barack Obama, even as the first black president entertained many athletes at the White House and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bill Russell and Michael Jordan. So it should be no surprise — especially given Brown’s focus on personal responsibility over protest — that Brown is working with President-elect Donald Trump, whose National Diversity Coalition has pledged to support Brown’s efforts to uplift the black community through his Amer-I-Can Foundation.

On Thursday in Washington, D.C., the coalition hosted the Amer-I-Can Pre-Inauguration Day Party at the offices of a K Street law firm. About 35 people paid $2,500 each for a VIP reception with the former great Cleveland Browns running back, and approximately 150 paid $1,000 each to attend a general reception, according to publicist Adam Weiss. In attendance were Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes, former New York Jets running back Curtis Martin, both friends of Brown, and retired basketball coach Bobby Knight, whose name was used in publicity for the event. Ray Lewis, the Super Bowl champion linebacker, was advertised as a participant but was not able to attend, Weiss said.

Brown voted for Hillary Clinton. But since meeting with Trump in December, Brown has faced relentless criticism for aligning himself with a man who fueled the falsehood that Obama was not born in the United States, tweeted fake and racist crime statistics, and said more stop-and-frisk policing is the solution for high-crime black neighborhoods.

Brown, 80, is as unfazed by these attacks as he was by defensive backs trying to tackle him in the open field.

“Look, brother,” he told The Undefeated, his imposing frame leaning on a wooden Cleveland Browns cane. “The black community has to look at itself, not at me.

“What we will be responsible for as African-Americans will be the greatest thing that can happen. To sit back and kneel and pray and expect to be delivered, that’s childlike. Human beings work hard, become educated, apply themselves to make a better place for themselves in life. You don’t expect your enemy, particularly, to deliver you.

“We have to deliver ourselves.”

Brown’s philosophy of self-reliance connects to some of the oldest schisms in black America. At the dawn of the 20th century, Booker T. Washington built an empire by pursuing economic gains rather than confronting white supremacy, while W.E.B. Du Bois fought it head-on. Martin Luther King Jr. made a moral appeal for equal rights, while Malcolm X and the Black Panthers armed themselves and demanded them. Obama pursued a strategy of addressing issues for all Americans rather than focusing specifically on African-Americans, angering some of the same people now coming for Brown.


Brown has always favored action more direct than protests. Journalist Dave Zirin says Brown told him in 2014, “I didn’t think much of Dr. King. I mean, I am not trying to put him down, but if you think about the majority of the rhetoric, it’s about what’s being done to us. It doesn’t have damn near anything that says what we’re going to do for ourselves.”

For many African-Americans, this is uncomfortably close to Republican claims that black people themselves — not the web of structural racism, unconscious bias and lack of educational opportunity — are the biggest barrier to black progress.

Perhaps Brown’s philosophy has discouraged some from wanting to engage with him. Perhaps it is Brown’s history of battering women. But Trump and his Diversity Coalition, led by white attorney Michael Cohen and black pastor Darrell Scott, have pledged financial support for Brown’s foundation, although Cohen and Scott declined to provide specifics on Thursday.

“We’re very fortunate that President-elect Trump recognized the value of Amer-I-Can and that [Trump sees] the government has not supported it like it should,” Brown said.

Did that lack of support from Obama sting? “No, it didn’t hurt. I understood the politics that he was dealing with. He had to be a president for all the people. He was smooth and educated. That’s acceptable,” Brown said, then issued a short laugh.

Since Brown founded the Amer-I-Can Foundation in 1988, he has worked tirelessly in inner cities to improve life skills, academic performance and self-esteem. He has been particularly successful in forging truces between warring gangs.

The foundation received $182,489 in contributions, grants and contracts in 2014, the most recent year for which nonprofit tax forms are available. Expenditures were $271,553, including $138,634 in salaries and $129,332 in expenses. The foundation ended the year with funds of $9,038, the tax forms show.

Brown and his wife are listed as the only two employees. Brown said Thursday that salaries are paid to people across the country who work with at-risk youth, gang members and ex-prison inmates. Those who go through his training program often become counselors themselves, he said.

“I’m here because the president-elect of the United States reached out and allowed us to present a program to him that we’ve been working on for the last 15 years,” Brown said. “I’m representing poor people, I’m representing African-American kids misguidedly killing themselves.

“One of the concepts that I teach in the inner cities is the responsibility of self-determination. You are responsible for yourself. It is not your mother, your father, the white man, the politicians.

“It’s about you.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.