Jim Brown stirs audience with talk on race, activism

Activist Brown spoke to the campus about the Amer-I-Can program he founded to combat racial inequities through education.
Activist Brown spoke to the campus about the Amer-I-Can program he founded to combat racial inequities through education.

“I’ve always been controversial. I don’t know why,” athlete and social activist Jim Brown said Thursday night. “I am a Great American. I do love this nation. I do represent the qualities our forefathers put forth.” After opening with this disclaimer, Brown spoke to a nearly full Chapin Hall audience about his life, race, self-determination and one’s capacity to make a difference in the world. His speech concluded a day-long visit to the College. Renowned as one of the greatest athletes in professional and collegiate sports, Brown was a nine-time All Pro for the Cleveland Browns before becoming a barrier-breaking activist and actor.

After a brief introduction in which Jamaal Johnson ’12 acknowledged Brown’s “unrelenting passion for excellence” and called him “the greatest athlete of all time,” Brown took the stage to a standing ovation.

“I was told that I have been to Williams before,” Brown said, referring to a college lacrosse game he had participated in. He went on to acknowledge the College’s reputation. “I respect the history of the school, especially when you’re founded in seventeen-anything,” he said, before praising the College for being top-notch both academically and athletically.

Brown also established that he embraced the themes of Claiming Williams, addressing “the uncomfortable reality that not all students, staff and faculty can adequately ‘Claim’ Williams,” he said.

Before launching into the bulk of his speech, Brown outlined his intention to discuss uncomfortable topics. “I could give you a football speech. But I’m going to take the time tonight to mess you up by talking about something else,” he said.

Brown began his life on a small island off the coast of Georgia, growing up with his great-grandmother. He then moved to live with his mother in New York, where he began his journey towards athletic stardom by participating in football, lacrosse, basketball and track at Manhasset High School. After going on to play for Syracuse University, Brown graduated as class marshal and was drafted to play for the Cleveland Browns, where he was a standout for nine years.
The beginning of Brown’s speech focused on the ways in which his experiences shaped his self-confidence and views on racism. “Racism is a very interesting subject. I was told that a lot of people here don’t like to discuss it. So I’m going to talk about it,” Brown said. “At a college like this, we should have a dialogue.”

He then went on to discuss his personal encounters with racism, since he was often the only black member of his sports teams. “I had to supply my own energy. Racism was not simply racism. It was overtly ugly and nasty and humiliating,” Brown said.

He elaborated on what helped fuel the hatred some felt towards him. “I was always an American and a Man, and I was resented for that,” he said. “But I am not a victim . . . The biggest contribution to discrimination is self-discrimination.”
After his football career, Brown became an actor and then a social activist. He formed the Black Economic Union, which paired black athletes with top students from MBA programs and was responsible for forming 400 black-owned businesses. Brown reiterated throughout the evening the importance of being a producer. “You have to be a producer. You can’t just be a consumer,” he said.

In the 1980s, Brown noticed the great deal of gang activity “littering our neighborhoods,” he said. In 1988, Brown formed Amer-I-Can, a program that is geared to stopping violence in neighborhoods and raising the level of education for disadvantaged sectors of the population. He was responsible for the program’s curriculum, and, according to Brown, the results broke barriers by, for example, getting inmates to teach the curriculum in schools and in prisons. This program was particularly active and important in lowering the violence of the early 1990s Los Angeles riots and allaying similar tensions in Cleveland.

The Amer-I-Can program stresses the importance of education and forming goals other than “to be like Mike,” Brown said. He summarized the motivational message of the program: “If you can get off your butt and apply yourself and use education, you can do everything you want to,” he said.

Brown also discussed the importance of his own education. “I have great respect for education. I love the mind. Nobody can take that away from me,” he said.

At the end of his speech, Brown opened the floor to questions, at which point he was asked if one person could make a difference without fame or fortune. “Oh, are you kidding?” Brown answered, receiving a laugh from the audience. “Live your life properly, treat everyone around you properly and be a righteous person yourself.”

Brown was also asked questions about the importance of balancing studying and athletics, finding purpose in life and how a person should act as the only black member of a team. He responded that he lacked “full knowledge of the problem” that the last question referred to, and so turned the floor over to Johnson for an answer.

Brown ended the night by thanking the College community for welcoming him and his wife. “We all are human beings, we all have ups, downs, trials and tribulations. Tonight, whatever I said, that’s who I am,” he said.

The lecture was sponsored by the athletics department, the Society of Griffins, the leadership studies department, the Lecture Committee, the Claiming Williams Committee and the Office of Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity.