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Locker Room Talk: We haven’t come far enough since the ’67 Cleveland Summit

Incidents involving LeBron James, Adam Jones show racism is as virulent as ever

On June 4, 1967, Jim Brown hosted what we now call the Cleveland Summit. A collection of great black athletes of the era met with Muhammad Ali to discuss his decision to be a conscientious objector.

I was a 16-year-old junior at Harlan High School in Chicago. Harry Edwards was a 24-year-old Cornell University doctoral candidate. The summit would expand my perspective and influence the trajectory of Edwards’ career.

Inspired by the Cleveland gathering, Edwards, the founder of the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State University, formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights in October 1967. His organization would call for a boycott by black athletes of the 1968 Olympic Games and indirectly led to the victory-stand demonstration by John Carlos and Tommie Smith.

For me, Brown’s summit was part of an eye-opening series of events that unfolded over the next three years: Muhammad Ali’s refusal on religious grounds to be inducted into the Army; Smith and Carlos’ protest at the 1968 Summer Games; the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by Chicago police in 1969; and Curt Flood’s 1969 attack on Major League Baseball’s reserve clause.

As a high school and soon-to-be college athlete, I found the idea of using one’s position and visibility to resist racism compelling. The ideals represented by Ali, Flood, Smith, Carlos and Hampton — principle, integrity, black pride and courage — framed my self-styled version of the American dream.

Today, as we acknowledge its 50th anniversary, the summit is as important in 2017 as it was in 1967.

Perhaps even more so.

Racism has changed alignments and formations from decade to decade, but the disease is as virulent as ever.

There is no single, charismatic figure for black athletes to rally around, and there are a multitude of complex issues with which to grapple. More African-Americans than ever are enjoying unprecedented prosperity. But even they are reminded that, in the United States, racism and hatred trump wealth and privilege.

This reality hit home on the eve of the 2017 NBA Finals when Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James used a news conference to discuss a racist incident in which the front gate of his Los Angeles mansion was spray-painted with racist graffiti.

James discussed hatred and intolerance, but one statement crystallized the conundrum.

“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough,” James said.

Every athlete shown in the 1967 Summit photo was familiar with that reality.

I’m willing to wager that not one of the athletes in attendance would have been surprised at the time had any of their homes in white neighborhoods been defaced.

Soon after the 1967 meeting, Bill Russell went through what James experienced earlier this week: An intruder broke into Russell’s house, left racist graffiti on the walls and defecated on the bed.

Black celebrities deal with a peculiar American schizophrenia —being loved and admired for what they do, but often resented or simply marginalized as black men and women — especially when they discuss racism.

Walter Beach III, who is in the last row, second from the left in the iconic 1967 photo, tells the story of meeting a white Cleveland Browns fan and his son in 1964. The father pointed to Beach, who was a cornerback on the Browns’ 1964 championship team, and asked his son, “Do you know who this is?” To which the son answered: “Yes: a N-word.”

A day after Adam Jones, the Baltimore Orioles center fielder, was subjected to racist taunts at Fenway Park last month, many fans at Fenway Park gave Jones a standing ovation. Many fans have also expressed support for James and outrage at the racist incident.

When I spoke to Edwards about this, he said the act of vandalism at James’ home and the hazing of Jones at Fenway represent a contemporary dilemma of scale. Only three fans hurled taunts at Jones, but the event went viral. There presumably was one spray-painter at James’ home, but news of that event went viral as well.

Which of these is the measure of who and what we are?” Edwards asked during a phone conversation earlier this week. “The 35,000 who gave Adam Jones a standing ovation or a gaggle of hecklers in Boston and a miscreant in Los Angeles? What’s the reality and how do we deal with the issue of scale and proportion?”

Ultimately, each reality is true: the hecklers and spray-painters, the standing ovation and James’ millions of fans. “Neither completely or totally defines who and what we are,” Edwards said. “That’s the challenge we have to deal with.”

How to effectively and forcefully challenge racism is as profound and unanswered a question in 2017 as it was in 1967. The collective “we” must raise our voices in defiance of hatred.

“We have to speak up,” Edwards said. “We cannot allow these things to define who and what we are.”

There is a need for a latter-day Cleveland Summit. Thanks to social media and the internet, powerful summits can be held anywhere. There was no summit when Donald Sterling was removed as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

“People got on the internet and he was gone,” Edwards said.

There was no summit after Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armour, effusively praised President Donald Trump’s Manufacturing Jobs Initiative in February.

“Stephen Curry complained publicly and forced Plank to back up and clarify his statements,” Edwards said, referring to the Golden State Warriors star who is one of Under Armour’s most popular endorsers. After Curry publicly challenged Plank, the Under Armor CEO issued a statement explaining that his comments were aimed at Trump’s business policies, not an endorsement of the social actions he had taken that many — including Curry — saw as discriminatory.

The internet has changed the dynamics of the summit, but not the need for one.

“You don’t have to call together all of the guys. A summit today could be an internet chat room of great athletes talking about a particular subject. They would not have to get together. But the issues are so complicated, so raw.

“How do we come up with a 21st-century approach to the convoluted and complex challenges we’re confronted with?” Edwards asked. “Considering the internet, in light of the tremendous power that athletes have today, the question is not how do we mimic the ’60s, but how do we come up with something that has the same impact, in this age.”

James completes the arc from 1967, when athletes converged on Cleveland to meet with Muhammad Ali, to 2017, when black quarterback Colin Kaepernick cannot get a job in the National Football League in large part because he knelt during the playing of the national anthem last season.

In 1967, Brown called for solidarity. In 2017, James issued a reminder to come back to being black.

The spray-painting incident at James’ home and his subsequent lament reinforce a reality that some may have forgotten, buried or chosen to deny: Being black in America requires toughness and resolve, but also an abundance of love, understanding and forgiveness.

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.