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Jim Brown’s life and legacy are still strong in Cleveland

A weekend rally around the Hall of Fame running back’s old Mount Pleasant neighborhood showed ‘the world’s going to miss Jim Brown.’

CLEVELAND – James Box never imagined he would defy the man who, over his lifespan, grew from a larger-than-life figure to someone he considered a father.

But on an overcast and misty summer Saturday before about 50 people in a neighborhood on this city’s East Side, Box went against the late, great Jim Brown’s wishes to honor him in death.

“He’d tell me that he didn’t want any fanfare when he died,” Box said. “But I’d say, ‘What about all of the people you’ve helped over the years? People need to know.’ Then he’d say, ‘Do whatever you’re going to do.’ And that’s why today we did.”

Brown, a football and lacrosse hall of famer, actor and social activist, died May 18 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 87.

On Saturday in Brown’s honor, Box held a rally to celebrate Brown’s life and legacy in the same Mount Pleasant neighborhood where Brown lived as a member of the Browns from 1957 to 1965, and a few years after his retirement. Saturday’s gathering took place on the corner of Kinsman Rd. and East 147th St. in front of a historical marker dedicated to Brown on the campus of Andrew J. Rickoff Elementary School.

James Nathaniel Brown lived an uncompromising life. As an athlete at Syracuse, he was a two-time All American in lacrosse and an All-American running back for the Orange. The Cleveland Browns selected him sixth overall in the 1957 NFL draft.

In the ninth game of his career, he set the NFL single-game rushing record with 237 yards. Brown would win eight rushing titles and earn All-Pro status eight times over his nine seasons. He helped lead the Browns to a championship in 1964 and remains the only NFL player to average 100 rushing yards per game over a career.

A year after winning his third MVP award, Brown retired before the start of the 1966 season while on the set of shooting the movie “The Dirty Dozen” in England. Production slowed due to weather, delaying Brown’s presence at training camp. When Browns owner Art Modell threatened to fine Brown for missing camp, he retired, still in his prime, and became an actor full-time. He’d act in over 50 films.

But Brown remained committed to advocating for social justice and economic inclusion. Brown founded the Negro Industrial Economic Union (NIEU — later renamed the Black Economic Union) in 1966 to help promote economic opportunities for Black-owned businesses.

And it was in the NIEU offices on Euclid Avenue in lower University Circle where the historic Cleveland Summit took place — where Brown, Bill Russell, Willie Davis, John Wooten, Walter Beach and Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar], among others, met with Muhammad Ali as he explained his convictions for not participating in the Vietnam War. After the meeting, the group, led by Brown, publicly supported Ali’s right to refuse induction in the military.

Brown’s dedication to human rights didn’t waver in his later years. In 1988, he founded the Amer-I-Can Foundation For Social Change, an organization to assist former prisoners return to society and help direct gang members into a more positive and productive life. Brown’s Amer-I-Can is credited with establishing a Los Angeles gang truce in the early ‘90s that helped reduce violence in the city.

Alia Maxwell (left), daughter of James Box (right), shares memories of her father’s relationship with Jim Brown at a rally in Brown’s honor on June 24 in Cleveland.

Madwerkz Studios

Before speaking, Box reflected on the years he spent with Brown. They met in the early 1990s, when Brown was in Cleveland speaking to a group at City Hall about funding and strategies to help reduce the crime and gang violence. Box was also in City Hall as a member of another organization combating gang violence. Once he met Brown, they developed a relationship that lasted until Brown’s death. Box became an Amer-I-Can leader in Cleveland. 

“Jim was very clear and straightforward with me on what his mission was,” Box said. “And his purpose was to reduce the level of violence in this city with Amer-I-Can. He felt that education, teaching of life skills, responsibility and self-pride would elevate young people beyond the ignorance that they were exhibiting by shooting and killing each other.”

Under Brown’s leadership, Box used Amer-I-Can’s principals throughout various communities. He also worked within schools by providing security before and after classes to prevent potential conflicts.

On Saturday, current and former residents from the neighborhood, along with several community organizations like the Guardian Angels, Jeepers Creepers, Black Man Army and Amer-I-Can, made up the attendees. Passersby blew horns acknowledging the gathering and several pedestrians stopped with curiosity. In the spirit of Brown, members in the contingent discussed uniting the various organizations to help support positive changes.

One by one, members from the crowd spoke about Brown’s influence. Box, who was briefly at a loss for words because of his emotions, talked about Brown’s importance.

“The goal today is to bring awareness on who Jim was and about his mission in life, to end violence,” Box said. “Jim taught us how to be responsible fathers and to be supportive of our communities.”

Jimmy Gates, senior pastor of Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church, has been troubled by the recent increase in Cleveland’s violent crime rate. Earlier this month, 36 people were shot and four were killed over a weekend. 

“It was important for me to come here today because Jim was an advocate of stopping the violence,” Gates said. “And it’s very important for the powers to be to take that thought process like Jim and try to do something to stop the violence in our streets, not just in Cleveland, but in the entire country.”

Delvis Valentine, sports director at radio station WOVU-FM, grew up in Mount Pleasant, and he would like to see several changes to honor Brown.

“The statue of Jim Brown should’ve been here [instead of Browns Stadium], the street [147th Street] he lived on should’ve been named after him, and this elementary school should’ve been named after him instead of someone we’ve never heard of,” Valentine said. “We have to quit waiting for someone else to honor us, we have to honor our own.”

Unfortunately, several community leaders and entrepreneurs were not present to honor Brown in person due to other commitments and probably because of the off and on drizzle, two being Bobby George and Bruce Zoldan. George, a local restaurateur, holds an annual Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless. It’s more than a turkey giveaway. The patrons are served with dignity by local celebrities and athletes. Brown regularly attended the event. 

“In those final years, it broke my heart when Jim would come because he was getting older and I could see him struggling,” George said. “But it was still important for him to come, and that just shows you what kind of man he was. . . The world’s going to miss Jim Brown. I know I will.”

Zoldan, owner of a fireworks sales and distribution company and co-owner of a minor league hockey team, developed a relationship with Brown when they met 30 years ago. Over that span, Zoldan has supported Brown’s Amer-I-Can initiatives.  

“For whatever reason, he saw something in me he liked and I had the same feeling for him,” Zoldan said. “Jim was about humanity and about helping young people and guiding them away from gangs. He was about discussing ways on how to build self-esteem and how to help young kids better themselves.”

Nothing has been made official, but the Browns will publicly honor Brown during the first weekend of August, according to an NFL source. That’s the same weekend as the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Canton. Box hopes the Browns honoring Brown is the first step in a commitment to keeping his social service alive.

“I have an appointment to have a conversation with the Browns,” Box said. “I want their support in establishing an initiative in the spirit of Jim’s legacy to help reduce violence in our city. That’s something Jim wanted.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.