It was 55 years ago this month when Muhammad Ali and a group of leading African American athletes, including Browns running back legend Jim Brown, held a news conference in Cleveland after Ali refused to serve in the United States military in Vietnam.
Ali used his platform as an athlete and celebrity to talk about the war abroad and what was happening in America. He said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Carl Stokes were some athletes and political figures at the meeting on June 4, 1967. The goal of the Summit was to convince Ali to take a deal from the federal government to do boxing exhibitions for U.S. troops in exchange for the draft-dodging charges being dropped. But Ali stood firm by what he stood for and what he believed in. Many of the men at the summit had military backgrounds and didn’t agree with Ali’s beliefs. But, when Ali wouldn’t change his stance, they decided to stand by him during a press conference after the summit.
Ward 9 city council member Ken Conwell, who grew up in the nearby Glenville community, said the 1967 Cleveland Summit brought pride to the neighborhood because those in attendance were speaking up on behalf of so many who were voiceless at the time.
To this day, “this picture is in every beauty shop and barber shop in the Glenville community,” Conwell said.
As part of the week-long community outreach events in Cleveland, leaders from the NBA and Northeast Ohio united Friday to pay tribute to the monumental gathering in the city’s history. A historical marker will be placed in front of what is now the home of the American Cancer Society at 10501 Euclid Avenue, the former site of the Negro Industrial Building, which hosted the original Cleveland Summit 55 years ago. For the rest of time, those 12 names of those courageous Black men are now etched in a black monument embedded in the ground along Euclid Avenue on the city’s East Side, a symbol of their strength and what they stood for.
The marker was created by designers from the Marcus Graham Project, a Cavaliers’ community partner and NBA Foundation grantee. Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, Cleveland Cavaliers President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman and Alex Stokes, the great-niece of Mayor Carl Stokes, were some of the individuals in attendance during Friday’s dedication. Also in attendance was Walter Beach, who played for the Cleveland Browns from 1962 to 1966 and attended the inaugural Summit 55 years ago.
“We’re looking forward to making sure that Cleveland maintains its presence in terms of really helping shape the national conversation on social justice for Black Americans,” said City of Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb.
“This is about human dignity, that’s what the challenge is,” said Beach. “The challenge is, can you be human? Can you be a human being and respect other human beings and not only respect them but give them the right to be the human being that they are?”
“Football was what I did, but that wasn’t who I was,” Beach continued, echoing his sentiments for Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown, Abdul-Jabbar, Ali and others originally in attendance. “That was the real meaning of the Summit.”
In the 1960s, the men spoke up, with their reputations and careers at stake, as the nation remained in the grips of divided sides over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. What they did that day sow the seeds to allow future generations to grow and find their voices. Their legacy is felt every time a contemporary player feels the responsibility brought on by carrying the social-justice mantle and being a driving force in their communities and nationwide.
“We as players have the power to change the world, we have the power to change our community,” Hall of Famer and NBA Cares Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo said.
This fall a statue showcasing an iconic image from the 1967 Cleveland Summit will be featured outside the 12 names of the Black men who spoke up in the face of racial injustice. The statue was designed by created by designers from the Marcus Graham Project, a Cavalier Community partner. Photo Credit: Cleveland Cavaliers
The monument is a partnership between the NBA, the Cavaliers and the City of Cleveland and will be completed later this fall. Altman shared with those in attendance that he views this as an opportunity to encourage future traditions and conversations around the site. Executive Director of the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition James Cadogan added, “Our job is to try to live up to the legacy of the 12 men in this photograph, to be able to say in 2022 that we still have work to do. They set the mold for what is possible.”
It seems that both Altman and Cadogan’s desires will come to fruition soon enough. As the press conference concluded, Cavaliers Senior Vice President and Head of Social Impact and Equity Kevin Clayton shared that from now on, the Cavaliers organization will begin hosting an annual summit in honor of the original event 55 years ago. Clayton said the hope is to continue the conversation about civil rights and social justice within the Cleveland community.
Video credit: Cleveland Cavaliers