In or out of the Oval Office, Jim Brown hasn’t changed
Regardless of who is president, this activist doesn’t protest
Jim Brown is getting lambasted for the same thing the black community used to praise him for: defiant action to uplift African-Americans, by any means necessary.
Last week, Brown met with President Donald Trump and Kanye West in the Oval Office for an orchestrated show of black support. West’s deluded ramblings dominated the aftermath, but Brown got slammed for trying to work with a president who spread the lie that Barack Obama is not a citizen, continued to make racist statements after being elected, cursed NFL players protesting racial injustice and insulted the intelligence of various black figures.
It was a jarring moment. Brown created the prototype of black athlete activism after retiring from the Cleveland Browns at the peak of his abilities rather than submit to the team owner’s demands. He then broke racial barriers as a movie star, assisted thousands of people with his Amer-I-Can organization and created black economic organizations that seeded numerous businesses. His trademark was an uncompromising glare and the red, black and green kufi atop his head as he stalked streets from Compton, California, to the Bronx, New York, transforming gang members and drug dealers into productive citizens.
What happened? That was what many asked after Brown’s latest Trump meeting. (Brown voted for Hillary Clinton, then aligned himself with the president after the election.) Others erroneously claimed he never truly supported Muhammad Ali in the historic 1967 “Cleveland Summit.” Brown’s history of battering women was revived. Some called him (from a safe distance) a coon.
The reaction reflects a misunderstanding of Brown’s 50-plus years of activism.
Brown’s philosophy is based on action and self-determination, not what he would call complaining. Brown does not protest. Circumstances are not to be criticized but conquered, like the broken toe he played with for the entire 1962 season. Brown has called Martin Luther King Jr. a “great man” but disparaged King’s approach: “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.”
Brown has met with every American president since Lyndon Johnson except Obama, who may have been leery of Brown’s history with women.
Self-determination is the foundation of Brown’s Amer-I-Can program, which he founded in 1988. It has helped thousands of people on three continents, with a focus on gang members, prisoners and other so-called irredeemable members of society. But Amer-I-Can has fallen on hard times in recent years. It needs funding, but donations have dried up as Brown, 82, has aged.
Now that Trump is in office, Brown’s approach is simple: He has a program that can change lives. Trump can fund that program. So Brown will work with Trump. Tax records show that Brown puts most of the Amer-I-Can budget into salaries for the people, many of them former gang members, who work for the program.
“My job is not to just criticize and talk,” Brown told me in a May 2017 interview ahead of the 50th anniversary of his Cleveland Summit.
“Trump is the president sitting in the seat of power. So my way of looking at my contribution is that we can’t ignore that seat and just call names of the person that’s sitting in it. Calling names won’t do anything,” Brown said. “If I analyze myself, what am I doing? Not what Donald Trump is doing — what am I trying to do to make this a better country? That’s the way I look at it.”
Reasonable people can disagree with Brown’s approach, and whether he is using Trump or being used. But few seem to recognize that Brown is acting consistent with his beliefs, and that he is not endorsing the president or supporting his actions while in office.
In an August interview with Fox News, Brown parried attempts by host Brian Kilmeade to paint him as a true Trumper.
“Why have you looked at this president and said, ‘I support what he’s doing?’ ” Kilmeade asked.
“Nobody is correct in everything they do,” Brown responded. “I have access to the president, and anytime I have access to the president and he will listen to my thoughts, that’s all I can ask of him. This president is accessible, he’s different, he’s challenging, and he pays attention to what I say.”
Kilmeade tried again: “What is he doing that you like?”
“There’s two things,” Brown said. “North Korea … the other thing has passed my mind right now. But I’ll tell you this. The No. 1 thing is if I have an idea and a concept, and I’m working my butt off to make this a better country, and I put in a call to the president, and he will answer me, what else can I ask him to do?”
Brown did claim in the Fox interview that Trump is not a racist. He also has said people should not kneel during the national anthem, although he has supported Colin Kaepernick’s message and goals.
Brown’s actions are a reminder that black progress and activism have always come through a variety of channels and strategies.
Black America experienced bitter divisions between the ideas of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, King and Malcolm X — even King and the NAACP. In the modern movement, Black Lives Matter has clashed with religious and political leaders. Activists, like physicians, also have different specialties: police brutality, reducing gun violence, education, mass incarceration. The sum total of these efforts has always fueled black progress. Brown is an essential part of this tradition — same as he ever was.
“The biggest challenge is to maintain contact with the grassroots and maintain your integrity and sacrifice resources that will try to buy your integrity,” Brown told me. “Hold to the integrity, hold to the real deal, hold to the truth and work on getting the resources.
“But we’re designed for that kind of fight,” Brown said, “because politicians don’t always do the right thing.”