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Jim Brown: The death of a legend and freedom song

For Walter Beach III, having the Hall of Fame running back as a friend was liberating

At our age you expect people to expire, but Sweets, I don’t know. I guess he’s one fella we all thought would last forever.” — Pete Wilson

That haunting statement was made in 1990 by a high school friend of the legendary Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton upon learning that Clifton, one of the first African Americans to play pro basketball, had died at age 67.

I felt the same way about Jim Brown, who died May 18 at age 87. Like Wilson, I realize that no one escapes the clutches of death, though if anyone could, it would be Brown, the NFL’s greatest running back, whose stock in trade was breaking tackles. Death is a tackler that no one escapes.

Still, while I was not stunned by the news of Brown’s death, I was saddened.

There is a void.

Brown was one of the five Black athletes who had a significant impact on my life when I was in a high school and an aspiring journalist. Those athletes influenced my thinking about how Black athletes could dynamically impact the battle for civil rights even as they were beholden to the white men who controlled sports.

  • I was 16 when Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the military.
  • I was 17 when Jim Brown organized the Cleveland Summit where 11 prominent Black athletes and one politician met to publicly support Ali.
  • I was 18 when world-class sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos staged their iconic human rights demonstration on the victory stand at the Mexico City Games. Their bold demonstration showed me how Black athletes could use their visibility to resist tyranny and champion the rights of African Americans in the United States.
  • I was 19 when All-Star center fielder Curt Flood took on the MLB over the reserve clause, which kept players chained to their teams in perpetuity. Flood’s battle eventually opened the door to free agency.

But the episode that activated my sense of resistance was Brown’s sudden retirement from football in July 1966. When the Browns opened training camp in 1966, Brown was a no-show. He was in London filming The Dirty Dozen. Shooting had been delayed but Browns owner Art Modell didn’t care. Forget that Brown was voted the league’s MVP. Modell wanted Brown in training camp and made his dissatisfaction public. Modell threatened to fine Brown $100 a day if he did not show up for training camp.

Brown responded to Modell by holding a formal news conference on the movie set and announcing his retirement from football.

Former NFL defensive back Walter Beach waves to the crowd during a ceremony honoring the 1954 and 1964 NFL champion Cleveland Browns at halftime of a game between the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sept. 21, 2014, in Cleveland.

Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

What a perfect act of defiance, one that was in sync with the spirit of revolution and defiance that defined the turbulent ’60s. I would meet Brown 20 years later when I was an established journalist and had the confidence to have real conversation with him. During one of our conversations, Brown suggested that I get in touch with Walter Beach III, a former Cleveland Browns teammate Brown called “Doc Beach.” Doc Beach, who by that time was an executive on Brown’s Amer-I-Can initiative, would provide insight into Brown, the NFL and life in general.

I reached out to Walter on Friday to offer condolences and to hear how Beach was processing the death of his friend of nearly 60 years.

He rejected the idea that he lost someone.

“I ain’t lost a friend,” he said. “Who did I lose? I ain’t lost nothing. The 50, 60 years that I was blessed to be in his presence. You don’t value that? You don’t add that into your experience? What are you talking about? I ain’t lost nothing.

“All I do is reflect on Jim and I gain more. Now, do I feel sad or sometimes a little weary about it? Yeah. But you know that song that they sing, ‘Old Man River’? Just keeps on rolling along. That’s all I can do, man, is just keep on rolling along.”

Beach and Brown met in 1963 when Beach joined the Cleveland Browns as a free agent. Beach had been released by the Boston Patriots of the American Football League following the 1961 season after he organized a protest by the Black players on the team against segregated accommodations in New Orleans, where Boston was scheduled to play a preseason game. While the white Patriots were set to stay in a luxury hotel, the Black players were to stay with Black families.

Beach told the Patriots’ coach that he would fly down the day of the game and then fly back to Boston after the game was over. “I told them we signed up to play football, not to be segregated against,” Beach said.

Identified as a troublemaker, Beach was cut from the team.

“If you have in your mind a concept or a theory of what a man should be, then he would meet those criteria in those characteristics. He may not meet those criteria for other people, but that doesn’t matter to me. All I can deal with is the Jim Brown that I know, not the Jim Brown who made movies, not the Jim Brown who played football. That’s what he did. That wasn’t who he was.”

— Walter Beach III

Along with stars such as Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, champion boxer Muhammad Ali and baseball great Willie Mays, Brown was a part of a third wave of Black athletes coming into their own as pivotal figures not only on their respective teams but in their leagues and on the emerging medium of television.

They railed against racist conventions that it did not matter how big a star you were, or how well-educated you were, if you were Black, you would all be relegated to the same cages. Brown refused to be caged. During a visit to my Harlem barbershop in July 2011, Brown expanded on the concept when someone asked about the NFL being like a plantation for Black athletes. Football he said, “was no more a plantation than anything else that involves Black people.”

“I happened to be one of those guys on the plantation that was a slave in the field, not in the house,” Brown said. “And I risked everything I had to make sure it didn’t remain a plantation because I always felt I wanted to be a man over anything else, so I always protested.”

Former Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown is shown before a game between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 22, 2019, in Cleveland.

David Richard/AP Photo

After staying out of football for a year, Beach joined the Browns in 1963. He and Brown connected, not over politics but during an incident in practice when Brown ran over Beach in what was supposed to be a noncontact drill.

“We were on a noncontact day,” he recalled. “I’m a rookie and that’s the great Jim Brown. I come up to him and its noncontact, I don’t expect to touch him, and I didn’t expect for him to touch me. But I ran up there and he threw a forearm and knocked me down. Jim looked at me and laughed. He just laughed and everybody else laughed. So, the next time he came up, I tackled him.”

Beach recalled that the coaches wanted to toss him out of practice for tackling Brown, but Brown came to his defense.

“Jim said, ’Well, what do you expect him to do? What do you think he’s supposed to do? He’s a man like I’m a man,’ ” Beach said.

“Jim was intelligent. He understood that they expected me to submit to him because they put more value on Jim than they did on me. But Jim’s position was that if I didn’t put value on myself, that was my problem.”

That became his relationship with Brown. Brown may have been a star, but he was no better or bigger than Beach. “We ask no quarters,” he said. “I’m talking about Black men. We ask no quarters. We give no quarters. We give as much as we get. Fair exchanges, no robbery. You kill my dog, I’ll kill your cat. Just that simple.”

The Browns planned to cut Beach before the start of the 1964 season. He was called into Art Modell’s office and was told the team was going to release him. Later when Brown came by the dormitory to get Beach for practice, Beach told him that he had been cut. An incredulous Brown told Beach to wait in his room. He returned a half an hour later and told Beach, “Let’s go to practice.” Beach was miraculously back on the team and in the starting lineup, though he was never given an explanation, or an apology, for the “mix-up.”

Cleveland went on to win the NFL title that year. After Brown suddenly announced his retirement in 1966, Beach told his wife at the time that he was not long for the Browns. He was right. The Browns cut him before the season began.

The nation’s top African American athletes gathered for a meeting at the Negro Industrial and Economic Union to hear Muhammad Ali’s view for rejecting Army induction on June 4, 1967. Front row, from left to right: Bill Russell, Ali, Jim Brown and Lew Alcindor. Back row, from left to right: Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten.

Bettmann/Getty Images

A year later, Beach was involved in a seminal event involving Black athletes, when Brown summoned the nation’s most high-profile Black athletes to Cleveland to support Ali. The gathering, known as the Cleveland Summit, market the first — and last — time that so many African American athletes at that level came together to support a cause.

In the iconic photo from the Cleveland Summit, Beach is in the back row, second from the left next to Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes. Five of the 12 participants are still alive. The oldest is Beach, who celebrated his 90th birthday in January.

Beach once told me that the meeting with Ali was an unforgettable moment.

“It was one of the most significant moments in my life. Ali was one of the most principled and moral human beings on the planet at the time, with the sensitivity and courage to stand,” Beach said. “We met as Black men around a moral and ethical issue, not as celebrity football or basketball players.”

That was the general theme of our conversation on Friday when I reached Walter at his home in Pennsylvania. “When you think of what is meaningful in human expression, that’s what Jim is,” Beach said. “If you have in your mind a concept or a theory of what a man should be, then he would meet those criteria in those characteristics. He may not meet those criteria for other people, but that doesn’t matter to me. All I can deal with is the Jim Brown that I know, not the Jim Brown who made movies, not the Jim Brown who played football. That’s what he did. That wasn’t who he was.”

There can be no obituary or no discussion of Brown’s life without discussing the public controversies — the physical assaults especially against women. Then there was his controversial — depending on your political prerogatives — visit to the Trump White House with rapper Kanye West. Brown wanted to ensure continued funding for his Amer-I-Can program.

I reject Brown’s past abuse of women and accepted his apologies and expressions of remorse. He has accumulated more than enough funds in his pro-Black war chest to cover the cost of that visit to the White House.

“I understand he beat up a young girl, or they said he did,” Beach said. “Was that what he is? No, unless that’s what you focus on, and you want to represent him as. But when I think of him, I think of him based on all the goodness that comes out of it.”

Brown did not ask his friends to apologize for him, and never gave friends permission to explain away his actions. You were his friend, or you were not. You admired him, or you did not.

For Walter Beach III, having Jim Brown as a friend was liberating.

“Jim was a freedom song,” he said.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.