If there were a Mount Rushmore for political athletes, who would be carved into the great monument? For my money, it would include Muhammad Ali. It would also have to include Billie Jean King. And a third face would belong to Hall-of-Fame football legend and activist Jim Brown.
Brown, who retired from the NFL in 1965 as the all-time leading rusher in league history. His running style would punish opposing defensive players and is still a staple of NFL films. Brown has also been called the greatest lacrosse player of all time, earning multiple honors at Syracuse University. Brown retired from football in his prime, one of the few in history to walk, not limp, away from the sport. He appeared in movies like The Dirty Dozen. But Brown has long transcended the spotlight of sports and entertainment. He has devoted the first part of his political life to economic empowerment in the black community. But it’s been over the past twenty-five years that Brown has waded deep into one of the most intractable issues of our time: gang intervention. In this Nation exclusive, we speak to Mr. Jim Brown about gangs, the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams and just about everything short of football.
People say, “When you talk to Jim Brown, don’t ask him about football.” Why do you think that is?
There are so many things that are bigger, but I don’t mind talking about football. But there are so many things in the world that affect us, and when we have the pleasure of playing football and we have a platform, that’s the time to be able to open up and talk about those things.
Tell us about your antigang intervention organization, Amer-I-Can.
In the sixties we had the black Economic Union, which dealt with the economic development of minorities in this country. We started with over 400 black businesses. Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bobby Mitchell, a lot of people like that were involved. In fact, the first black mayor of a major city, Carl Stokes in Cleveland, was one of our original members. But coming into the eighties there was a tragedy going on in America which was really gang killings, gang violence; and I decided then that I would have to shift my focus from economic development into really trying to stop some of the gang violence that was happening in the country. So Amer-I-Can was started to address gang violence and to deal with the education of our young people. Education is really part of any change you’re going to make and so those two things are connected for me.
What’s the state of gangs today compared to when you started Amer-I-Can twenty years ago?
You get the reports from around the country, and you get the reports from the politicians and law enforcement, but for us there has been tremendous change. Amer-I-Can has been tremendously effective. We have young men all over this country now taking care of their babies. We have gang members that have turned their life around but are teaching a curriculum that we developed in life management skills to young people in their neighborhoods, taking pride in their neighborhoods. It’s an unbelievable change. In fact the west side of LA right now, in the last three years, we’ve had a gang truce which has resulted in the homicide rate going down to basically zero! We were in the Peter Pitches Wayside jail [in LA], and we were able to stop riots between the Latinos and African-Americans, and we were able to teach them life management skills. So these young people have done wonderful things, and sometimes without a lot of help from the system itself.