(Alex Haley Interviews Jim Brown was originally published in the February 1968 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)
Alex Haley Interviews Jim BrownAlex Haley Interviews Jim Brown (1968)
James Nathaniel “Jim” Brown (born February 17, 1936) is an American former professional football player who has also made his mark as an actor and social activist. He is best known for his exceptional and record-setting nine-year career as a running back for the NFL Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965. In 2002, he was named by The Sporting News as the greatest professional football player ever.
“Alex’s final assignment in the Sixties was his outspoken interview with football great and action hero Jim Brown (February 1968). Not easily impressed. Brown remembers Alex as a man worthy of his trust for the way in which he conducted the interview, and worthy of respect for his immortalization of Malcolm X in the Autobiography, which was already considered required reading among serious students of black history.” ~ Murray Fisher—former editor of Playboy.
“I’m just being myself; that’s all I know how to do. I’m sure not taking anything away from any of those you named—and others like James Earl Jones. But there’s a crying need for more Negro actors, because for so long, ever since the silent screen, in fact, the whole world has been exposed to Negroes in stereotype roles. Have you ever been to any Negro theater with a movie going, with a Negro in it? Well, you can just feel the tension of that audience, pulling for this guy to do something good, something that will give them a little pride. That’s why I feel so good that Negroes are finally starting to play roles that other Negroes, watching, will feel proud of, and respond to, and identify with, and feel real about, instead of being crushed by some Uncle Tom on the screen making a fool of himself. You’re not going to find any of us playing Uncle Toms anymore.” ~ Jim Brown.
A Candid Conversation With The Football Superstar Turned Actor And Civil Rights Activist
Among professional-football fullbacks, Jim Brown remains the legendary standard by which all others are measured. At six feet two and 230 pounds, Brown was the most powerful and elusive running back ever to play the game. With a massive neck, steely arms and thighs thicker than most men’s waists, he could drag tacklers with him as he ran, send them flying with a straight-arm, sidestep them with his misdirective footwork and out-distance them with his flashing speed. During nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, this gut strength and incredible agility—combined with a juggernaut determination to win—netted him 15 NFL records that most sportswriters agree won’t be topped easily or soon. Before a budding alternate career as a movie actor and militant involvement in the race struggle provoked his abrupt resignation from pro ball in 1966, Brown had crashed his way to a record lifetime total of 126 touchdowns and led the league in yards gained for eight of his nine seasons, piling up a whopping 12,312 yards in the process—also an all-time record.
Because repeated and jarring contact with bone-crushing opposing linemen is one of the position’s occupational hazards, injuries have sidelined every other notable running back in pro-football history. But Brown’s superb physical condition and playing ability made him a unique exception to that rule—despite many a lineman’s rapacious attempts to put him on the bench, if not in the hospital; and he gave them plenty of opportunity to try, by carrying the ball in roughly 60 percent of all offensive plays. An adept ball carrier off the field, too, he led the 1962 revolt of Cleveland players that successfully brought about the ouster of their brilliant but inflexible head coach, Paul Brown. The following year, as if to vindicate the uprising, Jim Brown became football’s sole runner to pass the mile mark in a single season—a feat veteran sportswriter Myron Cope called “perhaps the most incredible sports statistic of our time.”
Brown’s phenomenal prowess led the editor of Sport interviews to label him the “Babe Ruth of football,” who “sits alone, indestructible, superhuman.” It also gave him the additional—and more tangible—honor of taking home the biggest pay check in pro ball, an estimated $65,000 a year. But the crown didn’t rest easily on Brown’s head. Despite lavish kudos from the press and considerable nationwide attention, his natural reserve remained undented; to the public and most teammates alike, he remained icily aloof. The first rumblings of his eventual abdication came as early as 1964, with the publication of his autobiography, Off My Chest. In it, Brown demonstrated that his hard-driving, no-nonsense brand of football was a graphic metaphor for his lifestyle: He appraised various football personalities with a brutal candor that left many bruised and angry; and he revealed an attitude of racial militance—further explored here—that added a facet of passionate social commitment to his already complex image. Unwillingly and briefly, Brown adopted yet another persona in 1965. In the period of a few months, two girls accused him of molesting them. One refused to press charges, but the other took her case to court. After Brown was acquitted, she tried again with a paternity suit—and lost that, too.
Not surprisingly, today’s controversial Jim Brown is the product of a diverse and paradoxical background. Born on an island off the Georgia coast, he spent his first years in the care of a great-grandmother. At the age of seven, he moved north to Long Island to live with his divorced mother, a domestic worker. Always big and strong for his age, Brown applied his talents more in the street than in school and soon fought his way to “warlord” status in the Gaylords, a teenage gang. If local officials hadn’t quickly recognized his rare athletic abilities, the Jim Brown story might have been another “Rebel Without a Cause”; but they turned him on to sports, and by Brown’s senior year, athletic events at Manhasset High School were drawing overflow crowds who came to see him in action—in football, basketball, baseball, track and lacrosse. Shattering records in nearly every sport he tried, Brown was graduated with full-scholarship bids from 42 colleges. Ironically, he selected Syracuse, where Brown claims he wasn’t really wanted—for reasons that had more to do with race than with football. Still on the fifth-string team after his freshman season, he crashed the varsity ranks as a sophomore, went on to become a Syracuse legend—and began to be called the greatest all-round athlete since Jim Thorpe. Then, turning pro with the Cleveland Browns, he set—even in his rookie year—new professional records.
During the off seasons, Brown began to dabble in the myriad pursuits that finally lured him away from football. He tackled show business, first as host of a modest daily radio show in Cleveland, then as a Negro cavalry trooper in Rio Conchos, a movie Western. He broke into the business world by traveling and interning as a marketing executive for the Pepsi-Cola company. And in a move coinciding with occasional outings as a commentator on closed-circuit theater telecasts of boxing matches, he allied himself with Main Bout, Inc., a sports-promotion agency. Main Bout eventually handled the fights of the controversial and racially militant Muhammad (Cassius Clay) Ali, and Brown’s association with the firm gave further flower to his own growing image as a hard-line racial activist: Some of his colleagues at Main Bout were Black Muslims. Brown disclaimed membership in the sect but said that he felt its views voiced the true feelings of most Negroes.
Amid the national controversy in 1966 that saw a Muhammad Ali fight blocked out of arenas across the country, Brown quietly signed to play a role in his second motion picture, The Dirty Dozen, to be filmed in England that summer. He planned to return in time for fall football practice; but in England, heavy rains kept delaying the filming. Soon the Cleveland Browns were at practice—without their star fullback. Pressed by sportswriters, team owner Art Modell announced a daily fine until Brown returned; but Brown finally flanked the penalty with the bombshell announcement that he was quitting the game. Fans refused to believe it, thinking he would join up again once the film was finished. Though Brown did come back to Cleveland after completing the movie, it was only to reaffirm his retirement and announce that he intended to spend his time helping his race—by heading the National Negro Industrial and Economic Union, an organization he had founded. More motion-picture offers were in the works as well, he added. Jim Brown was done with football for good—but not with the limelight.
In the following months, he enlisted nearly 100 famous Negro sports figures to help him with his fledgling N.N.I.E.U. and opened offices in several cities across the country. When The Dirty Dozen opened and Negroes in unprecedented numbers flocked to see him—aptly cast as a racially militant soldier—it became clear that Brown’s burgeoning screen fame showed every promise of rivaling his legend on the gridiron. At this point in his new career, we sent Alex Haley to interview the many-sided athlete-actor.
“When I met him in Cleveland,” reports Haley about the first of their many encounters, stretching over several weeks, “I soon discovered that his life now is probably more strenuous than when he was playing football. Between movies, he hustles through a 16-hour day that includes time at home, in his N.N.I.E.U. office, at public appearances and on the golf course—where he chafes if his scores reach the upper 70s. To keep up the pace, he burns a tremendous amount of fuel: I saw him consume two pounds of barbecued ribs as an appetizer while a four-pound T-bone broiled. Dessert was a quart of ice cream topped by a can of peaches.
“Brown tried to concentrate on my questions, but his Cleveland schedule—and his characteristic initial wariness—made it impossible. We agreed to meet again later in California, where he would be filming his third picture, the $8 million Cinerama production Ice Station Zebra, in which he co-stars with Rock Hudson. During our meetings in his dressing room, he proved appreciably warmer and more candid. Returning from camera calls, he relaxed as easily as he once did upon leaving the field after a game. Dropping his well-known mask of impassivity, he became amiable and animated, especially when he was talking about football. When racial matters came up, however, he turned dead serious and often punctuated his pungent remarks with a baleful glare and a meaty forefinger jabbed in my direction.”
“Despite the long shooting days, Brown rarely went out at night, choosing instead to stay in his room and study his script. On weekends, though, he roamed, visiting friends like Lee Marvin and Bill Cosby, going into Los Angeles ghetto areas to talk to the kids there and putting in as much time as possible at his Los Angeles N.N.I.E.U. office. One day we got to the office and found a small crowd there being regaled by Muhammad Ali. Ali playfully made a lightning feint as Brown entered; in mock seriousness, Brown—who had once turned down an offer of $150,000 to become a fighter—invited him out back. Muttering dire warnings, Ali followed Brown outside, where they touched fingertips and whirled into a flashing, furious, openhanded bout. Head down, Brown would probe for an opening, while Ali danced, dodged and swatted back. Then they stopped as suddenly as they had begun, both sweat-soaked and laughing. In spite of the schoolyard levity they maintained throughout, I couldn’t help feeling they were testing each other, secretly wondering what might happen in a ring.”
The interview ended when Brown left for San Diego to do scenes parachuting from a plane to rendezvous with an atomic submarine for his role in Ice Station Zebra. He would fly next to Bombay to film The Year of the Cricket. Beyond that lay a three-year contract with MGM that involved several more motion pictures. In one of them, Dark of the Sun, which premieres next month, Brown co-stars with Rod Taylor as a black mercenary involved in the Congolese uprising. No other athlete in history had ever managed such a successful transition to show business. We began by asking him about it.
Haley: What’s your reaction to Lee Marvin’s observation about your performance in The Dirty Dozen: “Well, Brown’s a better actor than Sir Laurence Olivier would be as a member of the Cleveland Browns”?
Brown: That’s great! I never heard that one before. Lee’s wild! I love him! But about what he said: Look, my parts so far haven’t really demanded too much of me as an actor; I know that and I’m not trying to rush myself. What I feel I’m not ready for, I stay away from. At this point I’m relying upon my presence; I’m concentrating on acting natural; and I’m soaking up every technique I can handle from the pros. I think everyone I work with can see that I’m trying to apply myself, and they go out of their way to teach me new things. So you might call it on-the-job training. Of course, I’ve always tried to be good at anything I get involved in. That’s another way of saying that eventually I hope to be regarded as a good professional actor—I mean by other actors. They’re the best critics.
Haley: As a longtime pro in another field, how did you feel about being the rookie of the cast in The Dirty Dozen?
Brown: I felt that was to my advantage. Everybody knew I had everything to learn, and they knocked themselves out helping me; so I probably learned faster than most rookies in films. The role I played helped me, too. I was Robert Jefferson, a college-trained soldier condemned to death for murdering a white racist who had brutally assaulted me. I strongly identified with Jefferson. I could feel and understand why he did what he did. I just made myself Robert Jefferson in my mind. And Bob Aldrich, the director, gave me every break he could. He rarely talked with me, but when he saw me getting uptight, he would say things that were constructive and calming. Even so, the pressure would build in me—you know, the doubts about whether I was really good enough to be there with them. But when Kenny Hyman, our producer, brought me a script for another movie, offering me a part, that was a sign of approval that meant a lot.
Haley: While the picture was being made, a rumor circulated that you weren’t getting along with several members of the cast. Was there any truth to that?
Brown: None. I got on with that cast as well as I ever have with any group in my whole life. Went out socially with most of them; never any arguments at all. That story must have been manufactured by press agents. I’m beginning to find out that press agents are an occupational hazard in this business—their imaginations. This particular story got started in Leonard Lyons’ column, that Lee Marvin and I left a party at Sidney Lumet’s and that we had a bloody fight to the finish outside. It was completely fabricated! In fact, Lee and I had a beautiful relationship.
Haley: Marvin has said there is an acting void that you can fill, especially among Negroes: “He’s seemingly more believable to the average Negro than guys like Poitier.” And director Robert Aldrich has said, “There isn’t another Negro actor around quite like Brown. Poitier, Belafonte or Ossie Davis aren’t Brown’s style.” Do you think they’re right?
Brown: I don’t know; maybe I am shaping a new movie personality. I’m just being myself; that’s all I know how to do. I’m sure not taking anything away from any of those you named—and others like James Earl Jones. But there’s a crying need for more Negro actors, because for so long, ever since the silent screen, in fact, the whole world has been exposed to Negroes in stereotype roles. Have you ever been to any Negro theater with a movie going, with a Negro in it? Well, you can just feel the tension of that audience, pulling for this guy to do something good, something that will give them a little pride. That’s why I feel so good that Negroes are finally starting to play roles that other Negroes, watching, will feel proud of, and respond to, and identify with, and feel real about, instead of being crushed by some Uncle Tom on the screen making a fool of himself. You’re not going to find any of us playing Uncle Toms anymore. In my first picture, Rio Conchos, I played a cowboy who fought not only Indians but white guys, too. And I played a realistic Negro in The Dirty Dozen. And in this picture I’m shooting now, Ice Station Zebra, I play a Marine captain on an atomic submarine. It’s not a part written for a Negro, or for any race in particular; it’s a part with no racial overtones whatever. That’s why I can say, before this picture is even released, that a lot of Negroes are going to come to see it.
Haley: How did you get the part?
Brown: Robert O’Brien, MGM’s president, was very happy with my Dirty Dozen performance and he discovered that unprecedented Negro audiences were attending. He said, “Hell, this is beautiful all around!” He called me about five one morning and said if there was a part I could play in Ice Station Zebra, he’d have me in Hollywood the next day. A white actor had been tentatively slated for this part, but he wasn’t signed, because he was still negotiating for something else; and the next day I was in wardrobe. In fact, they went over the whole script to be certain that no racial overtones would occur because a black man was in the role. I dug the part not only for that reason but because, again, I could personally identify. Marine Captain Anders is my kind of officer—a man, self-sufficient as hell, bad, uptight, ready to do a hell of a job. He doesn’t care who likes him or who doesn’t, so he doesn’t try to be liked. He’s a terrific soldier, very tough on his men, but fair, and anything he asks them to do, he can do better.
Haley: Have you gained any more confidence in yourself as an actor since Dirty Dozen?
Brown: I think so. It’s just like football: I had to get that first play under my belt before I’d stop trembling. I still get keyed up, but I keep it under control. And when I’m called to go before the cameras, like I used to do before a game, I just cut off my emotions and go act out whatever the script calls for me to do. The only difference is that in football, we didn’t have a specific script; the other side wouldn’t have followed it, anyway.
Haley: What made you decide to quit football so abruptly at the height of your career? Was it the movie offers?
Brown: Look—I loved playing football. It did a lot for me; it changed my life. Otherwise, I could have been some kind of gangster today; I led a gang when I was kid, you know. But, taking a realistic look at my life and my ambitions, at the things I wanted to achieve, it was time for a change, see? I find this new career just as satisfying, and even more rewarding financially, and something I can keep at far longer than I could have lasted in football. Besides that, my other activities are benefited, especially working to increase Negro participation in the country’s economic life. That’s very important to me. Sure, sometimes when the weather’s crisp outside and I’m watching a game on television, it’s hard not to be out there with the ball. But still, leaving the game when I did is probably as lucky as anything that ever happened to me. Of course, I had some concerns about giving up football’s certainties for the movies’ uncertainties. But the hard fact is that I feel I quit just in time. I go out still in my prime and without any injuries. I got out before I ever had to do like I’ve seen so many guys—sitting hunched over on the bench, all scarred and banged up, watching some hot young kid out there in their place; and, worse than that, just wondering if they’d slowed down so badly they’d never be called to go into the game anymore. You see, I believe a man grows up. He discovers there are other worlds. Basically, I’m a guy who has to progress or I feel I’m stagnating—I don’t mean just materially, but as a person. My interests have expanded in various areas—in racial relations, my various investments and, of course, my new movie career, but most of all in my sense of responsibility to my people. For the rest of my life I am committed to taking part in the black struggle that’s going on in this country.
Haley: Another of the factors involved in your decision to retire, according to reports, was a contractual dispute with Browns owner Art Modell. Four years before, he had supported you in yet another dispute—against Cleveland coach Paul Brown. Acceding to an ultimatum from you and several other players, Modell finally fired Brown at the end of the 1962 season. Why did you insist on his dismissal?
Brown: Well, first of all, it wasn’t any vendetta, at least no personal kind of thing against Brown. At one stage in his career, Paul Brown was a genius; he set new trends in the game. But the man’s ego was such that when other coaches openly stole his ideas, and added new twists, Paul Brown simply could not, or would not, change and adapt to the new styles of playing. And we players increasingly saw this. Our professional lives, our careers, were involved. We happened not to be the brainless automatons he wanted his players to act like. So we did what we had to do—in what we saw as the best interests of the players, the owner and the fans. And later events proved us right. That’s really all there was to it.
Haley: What were some of the adjustments you felt Paul Brown should have made but didn’t?
Brown: Well, the major thing, we felt, was that Paul immensely favored a ground game, with intricately devised through-the-line plays. And in passing, he liked only short passes. That’s just two major areas where his refusal to change cost us games we could have won. The game had accelerated very fast, see, until any coach not utilizing long passes or frequent touchdown-run threats was bound to become obsolete. Paul would only very rarely approve our trying the long-bomb pass, which other teams used often. And I was the Browns’ main runner. Man, I loved to run—especially on those outside sweeps; that was my major touchdown potential. But Paul refused to give me enough wide-running sweep plays. When we saw ourselves continually losing when we knew we could have won, it just took heart out of us. We lost that burning desire to win that a team has to have if it’s going to win. How do you think we felt coming off a field beaten, and all of us there in the locker room knowing that the tremendous power we represented simply wasn’t being used to its capacity? I don’t like to knock the man, but truth is truth, that’s all. If he had just been willing to compromise, to adjust only a little, he could have remained the top coach in pro ball. Anyway, some other players and I finally told Art Modell that unless the coaching methods changed, we’d either insist on being traded or quit. Well, any owner of a team is first and foremost a businessman. That next January—this was 1963—Art announced that Blanton Collier was replacing Paul Brown as head coach. We went into the new season a thinking, working team again. I had my best year and we took second place in the Eastern Conference. Then, in 1964, we won the league championship.
Haley: And you won the Hickok belt as the year’s best professional athlete. In your entire pro career, you accumulated 126 touchdowns among your 15 all-time NFL records. Do you think anyone ever will equal or better those records?
Brown: I think every record I’ve ever made will get wiped out, ultimately. Once people declared that my Syracuse records would never be broken; then Ernie Davis—the late Ernie Davis—broke all but three of them; and then Floyd Little broke all but one of Ernie’s records. Records are made to be broken. You remember the four-minute mile? The 10-second dash? The seven-foot high jump? Always, you’re going to have young guys coming along and improving. That’s great, the way it needs to be, because that’s progress, that’s advancement. My personal records were never that important to me, anyway. As a matter of fact, I almost hated to break a record when I was playing, because I always felt I was becoming more and more a statistic in people’s minds than a human being. But I never dwell on what I did; it’s history now. I have a lot of pleasant memories of a game that was a good part of my life.
Haley: Among the records you set, none seems likely to last longer than the 12,312 yards you gained in nine pro seasons—a large proportion of which you amassed in the spectacular sweep runs you made famous. Was the sweep your favorite play?
Brown: Well, like I said, I loved those long sweeps—but any play that gained yardage was a good play as far as I was concerned. Most plays, you understand, aren’t for long runs; they’re just after a crucial few yards, maybe one yard, maybe even inches, for a first down. That’s your power plays, which can be just as important as some flashy run. But you say I made the sweep runs famous; that’s very flattering, but the fact is that I never would have been able to make them without a lot of company—without guys like John Wooten and Gene Hickerson, the Browns’ guards, to clear a path for me. Once they did, once I was through the hole and into the other team’s secondary, that’s when I was on my own. Then I had a man-to-man situation going—me against them: that’s when I’d go into my bag of stuff. They’re in trouble now—I’m in their territory; 55 things are happening at once; I’m moving, evaluating their possible moves, trying to outthink and outmaneuver them, using my speed, quickness and balance. I’ve always had very good balance. I’m ready to use a straight-arm, high knee-action or shoulder-dipping. There’s the full or half straight-arm, or just the forearm, then the shoulder. In the leg maneuvers, I’d “limber-leg,” offering one leg, then jerking it away when somebody grabbed. Or high-stepping would keep a pair of tacklers from getting both legs at once. In that secondary, it was just a step-by-step thing, using brainwork and instinct; but sometimes it got down to just out-and-out strength and brute force.
Haley: The great linebacker Sam Huff was once asked how to stop you. He said: “All you can do is grab hold, hang on and wait for help.” Detroit’s tackle Alex Karras was even more graphic about it: “Give each guy in the line an ax.” Why did they have so much trouble tackling you?
Brown: I’m the one that had trouble getting past them. You just don’t run over guys like them; I had to try and fake them some way, like maybe drop a shoulder and struggle to get by. Some guys, of course, if they were small enough, I’d just run over them. When we hit, I’d dip a shoulder, hitting his pads, and cross either with a straight-arm to the helmet or a clubbing forearm.
Haley: Speaking of that forearm, Matt Hazeltine of the Forty Niners has said: “Brown really shivers you. I wonder how many KOs he would have scored when there were no face masks.” Did opposing players ever try to retaliate for all the clubbings you dealt out on the field?
Brown: Oh, sure. If you’re a successful, aggressive back, a scoring danger, roughings are a routine part of the game. But it still got pretty hairy sometimes. The biggest thing I resented was guys going after my face—fingers under my mask, after my eyes. That’s the only thing that ever brought me close to turning chicken. I would get up, not dizzy, but I still couldn’t get my eyes clear. You know how you blink and your eyes still won’t clear? One time I remember, a Philadelphia Eagles defense man jammed his hand up under my face mask; I felt him clawing for my eyes and I got my teeth in that hand. Man, I tried to eat it up! I’ll bet it hasn’t run under any more masks since then. Later, there was a protest about my biting him. I said, “Look, I can’t bite anybody through a mask, can I? Any hand under there was under there for some purpose, right?” There was no fine.
Haley: On two occasions, you became involved in fights on the field. What made you blow your usual cool?
Brown: Well, once was when the Giants Tom Scott and I punched it out that time in Cleveland Stadium; the reason, again, was my eyes. In a Giant game two weeks before, I’d been hit and gouged in the eye seven or eight times, until I was half blinded for the next couple of weeks. I went to the eye doctor and got drops and stuff, and I made up my mind that if anybody ever again came deliberately close to my eyes, I would retaliate in spades. So when I felt Scott’s fingers grabbing for me, I just swung on him and we had that little scuffle. It really wasn’t much of a fight, but we both were put out of the game. The only other time I swung on anybody was with Joe Robb of the Cardinals. He hit me twice. I didn’t mind being hit; that’s part of the game—but he hit me for no reason, no reason at all, and that I did mind. So I hit him back. But generally, I felt that my best retaliation on some guy was to run over him on the next play and make him look bad. That could hurt him worse than a punch. Most things didn’t upset me too much, though. It’s natural for the players to get emotional and fired up in a game. In fact, sometimes funny things happened.
Haley: Like what?
Brown: Well, like sometimes guys would get all excited and call somebody a name. Once in 1963, we were playing a preseason exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. On a third-down play, I fell pretty heavily on Lou Michaels, who’s now with Baltimore. He was real mad about it, and when I got up, I was moving off and I heard him holler, “Why don’t you go back to the Mafia, Brown?” I stopped and hollered back, “Mafia? You’re mixed up, you dumb chump!” Lou was all flustered for something to say, and he finally stuttered, “I mean the niggers!” Man, it was so funny, it cracked me up!
Haley: In the course of your entire football career, despite all the fights and roughings, you were never sidelined by a major injury. Most sportswriters consider this almost miraculous. Did you really manage to avoid getting hurt or did you just avoid showing it?
Brown: A little bit of both—plus a lot of pure luck. It’s true that I was never hurt badly enough to miss a game, but I did get a lot of what you might call small injuries at different times—cuts, bruises, sprains, and so forth. That’s part of the game. Look at my hands; see those scars? I still can’t shake hands with much grip: can’t even get an ordinary grip on a doorknob. I got hit on a nerve once. And though most people never knew it, during the 1962 season I played all the way through with a badly sprained right wrist. It was tough for me to shift the ball from hand to hand in open field, as I liked to do when running. Of all the blows I got, though, there’s one I’ll never forget. It was either 1958 or 1959, against the Giants. I had to hit the line, just one yard, for a touchdown. The Giants did a lot of submarining; and whenever I met submarining lines, if the gain was vital, I’d try leaping over their line—which can get you hurt. Well, we had to have this touchdown, so I went up to the line, expecting to jump, but then I saw just this little sliver of daylight and I decided to go against all my principles of caution and just drop my head and take a chance of getting a hell of a headache and go through somebody’s stomach. Well, I stuck my head in there, and Vrooom! It was like I’d been caught in a vise between their tackle and end; then a Mack truck crashed against my helmet. Sam Huff! I had made the touchdown, all right—but, man! Bells ringing, afraid somebody was going to have to help me up and all that. I finally got myself up, slow, the way I always did. But it was like, Jesus! I was addled, you know? Nobody’s used to blows like that. I played it cool, though, walking off like I was all right, because I didn’t want anybody to know. But I guess the worst one-game injury was later that same year, also against the Giants. I drove into a charging line and in the pile-up, I got kicked in the head. My memory was knocked out; I stayed in the game, but I couldn’t remember anything—even having come into the stadium to play the game. Our quarterback, Milt Plum, explained my assignments in the huddle and I carried the ball by instinct. That was in the first half; but even in the second half, I was still dreamy. Nobody knew it, though, but my teammates. Every tackle, whether I’d just had a brush block or I’d really been clobbered—like this time—I always reacted the same way. I got up slowly and I went back to the huddle slowly, without expression. It kept people from knowing if I was hurt, because I never acted any different, see? Even if my head was ringing, I could make that slow rise and walk. That’s the main reason I had that no-hurt reputation.
Haley: Didn’t your physical condition have anything to do with it? Dr. W. Montague Cobb, a Howard University anatomist, has said, “Jim Brown’s bone structure must resemble forged vanadium steel—the hinging of ankles, knees, elbows; the ‘crawl’ of muscles, the dynamism of effort easily tapped are all in immediate evidence.”
Brown: He’s looking at the wrong part of my anatomy. I’ve always made it a practice to use my head before I use my body. I looked upon playing football like a businessman might: The game was my business; my body and my mind were my assets, and injuries were liabilities. The first basic was to be in absolutely top-notch physical condition—even more than any coach would ask you to be in. I always tried to train harder than anybody else. I even developed my own set of extra calisthenics, things I could do in a hotel room if I had to. And over the years, I made for myself a careful study of what things usually cause injuries and, as much as I could, I avoided doing those things. For example, you’ll see backs constantly jumping into the air, over a line; they think it looks so dramatic. Well, it can work—in fact, I did it myself, as I mentioned earlier, whenever I felt there was no other alternative—but sooner or later, somebody’s bound to catch you up there in mid-air and break you in half. Another invitation to disaster is to use your head as a battering ram. If you do, pretty soon you’re going to get it unhinged, like I did with Sam Huff. You’ll also see some backs trying those fancy crossover step maneuvers—the left-leg-over-the-right-leg bit; I used to do that kind of thing at Syracuse; I was a regular fancy Dan. By pro-ball time, though—playing against guys who outweighed me by 60 or 70 pounds—I had learned better. I learned that if I was going to make it with the pros, I was going to have to develop something extra, something more than sheer muscle and flashy footwork. I was going to have to outthink the opposition. I would say that I credit 80 percent of the success I enjoyed to the fact that I played a mental game. The purely physical part—keeping in condition, running, passing, stuff like that—I’d credit with no more than 20 percent. It’s just common sense: Physically, many guys in pro football are more than my equals—big, strong, fast son of a guns. But some simply don’t get as much out of themselves as others. Why? Their mental game doesn’t match their physical capacity. My game pivoted on having planned ahead of time every move I intended to make on the field. The nine years I was in pro ball, I never quit trying to make my mind an encyclopedia of every possible detail—about my teammates, about players on other teams, about the plays we used, about plays I knew they used and about both our and other teams’ collective and individual tendencies.
I know you’ve heard that I was supposed to have a reputation for being distant, aloof and hard to get along with, especially in football seasons, most especially close to gametime. Well, maybe I was. Maybe I was rude to people and had very little to say to anybody. The reason is that I was focused mentally on that coming game. I was concentrating, visualizing things that I knew could happen and what I would do if it went this way or that way. I knew I had it working right when I started seeing plays in my mind almost like I was watching television. I’d see my own line in front of me, the guards, the halfbacks, the quarterbacks, and then the other team over there—especially big Roger Brown and Alex Karras, two of the best tackles in football. Both of them are quick, agile, smart, fast and big, and they like to hit hard. Notice I don’t just say they hit hard, but they like to hit hard—that’s mental; that’s positive thinking, see? I’d walk around in the locker room, seeing Roger Brown in my mind—for some reason, not his face or hands or shoulders, but those thighs of his. Massive thighs, like some huge frog. I always envision Roger hopping up in the air, jumping over blocks—all 300 pounds of him. And Alex Karras—in pro football, he’s just a little cat, just 250 pounds, but he’s built like a stump, with a boxer’s sneering mouth. I hear him growling; he actually growls when he’s charging. Positive thinking again, see? Anyway, I’d be watching them mentally across the line and sizing up the moves they might make against me. I’d see plays running and things happening—see myself starting a run and having to make spur-of-the-moment changes of strategy and direction. Every play I ever ran, I had already run a thousand in my mind. Right now, I can see a sweep run. I’m starting—my first three steps are very fast. Then I’m drifting, to let my guard in front of me get into position. There he is; now others are throwing their blocks; my guard is blocking their halfback to the outside. Now I accelerate and I shoot through the gap. That outside linebacker is my greatest danger now. I can see the order in which the tacklers are going to come. I’m looking for that end first, or maybe that outside linebacker, since no one could get to him right away. I see myself making all kinds of instantaneous adjustments, step by step, through their secondary—and then into the clear and all the way for a TD. Do you see what I mean? You get a jump on the game when you visualize beforehand not only the regular plays you run but also the hundred and one other things that might happen unexpectedly. So when you’re in the actual game, whatever happens, you’ve already seen it in your mind and plotted your countermoves—instantly and instinctively.
Haley: You’ve been talking only about plays on which you were the ball carrier. One of the few things for which you were criticized as a ballplayer was your alleged refusal to block for your teammates when someone else was carrying the ball. How do you—
Brown: Who said that about me?
Haley: Washington Redskins coach Otto Graham, among others. He has also said that the Browns would have been a better team without you.
Brown: Well, I never saw that quote, but I’ll assume it’s true, because Otto has made a lot of other comments disparaging my playing ability. I think maybe it’s time I reveal something I haven’t before that might cast a light on his real reason. See, Otto and I had always been good friends, and we were playing in a pro-am golf tournament at Beechmont Country Club in Cleveland, when Otto had a bad break. He drove a ball off the second tee and hit a man in the nose. Maybe two years later, this guy decided to sue Otto. I was busy practicing for a game when Otto’s attorney came on the field asking me a lot of questions about the event. I told him I remembered the man was about 25 or 30 yards away when the golf ball hit him, and I didn’t really remember too many other details. Evidently, the lawyer reported to Otto that I didn’t wish to be cooperative. Well, shortly after that, I read the sports headline that Otto Graham said I couldn’t or wouldn’t block and the Browns would maybe do better without me. I’ve always refused to fire back at him, feeling that he said it in the mistaken belief that I didn’t want to testify in his behalf.
Haley: But many others—coaches, players and fans alike—have made the same charge about you.
Brown: Look, in the Browns’ system, I simply wasn’t cast to do blocking; our offense was geared for me to run. I think I had only five or six blocking assignments in our whole repertoire of plays. I’d have been the league’s best blocker if the Browns had another guy doing the major running. But there are many, many great blockers in pro football and relatively few very good runners. If I had started blocking like the best guard out there and doing less running, we’d probably have won considerably less and my salary would have gone down by around $25,000. In fact, since the team depended on me running, I could even have lost my position. I always tried to satisfy the coach I worked for, and running was what they always asked of me—even in college. I always took Glen Kelly’s point of view: He said he wouldn’t hitch a race horse to a milk truck.
Haley: Throughout your first year at Syracuse, the coaches didn’t even want you as a starting player on the freshman team, let alone as its star fullback. Until your sophomore season was well under way, in fact, you were relegated to the fourth or fifth string on the varsity team. Why?
Brown: I was black, that’s why. You see, before I went to Syracuse, a Negro named Avatus Stone had been a great ballplayer there—a quarterback, a great punter. They wanted him to play end, but he refused and finally left and went to Canada. But the real rub was that Stone had been very popular among white coeds—which made him very unpopular with white males. So when I arrived, the only black man on the team, the coaches had nothing to say to me except, “Don’t be like Avatus Stone!” My whole freshman year, I heard so many sermons about what I should be like, I got so many hang-ups, that my attitude became as bad as theirs. In practice, I was snubbed and ignored until I got to where I’d just sprawl out on my back during drills and nobody said a word to me. I was as sullen as they were, and the freshman season ended and the sophomore season began with me on the fifth string. But I hustled like mad when sophomore training season opened; and when the games began, they had moved me up to second string. I got in a few games, but nothing spectacular happened until, finally, in the fourth game, against Illinois, we had a lot of injuries on the team and I started. We got badly beaten, but I carried 13 times, averaging five yards, and the fans caught that. When I was on the bench, they started hollering, “We want Brown! Brown! Brown!” Man, that made me feel 10 feet tall! Then came my really big break—against Cornell. We lost 14 to 6, but I made a long touchdown run, over 50 yards, as I remember; and altogether I gained about 150 yards. Then, in the next game, against Colgate, I made two touchdowns. That did it; overnight, the fans made me a campus celebrity and, man, did I love it! In my junior year, I opened thinking I had it made and Pittsburgh bottled me up for 28 yards in 12 carries and the coaches demoted me to second team. That made me so mad I saw fire; and in the next practice scrimmage, I left first-string tacklers lying out all over the field and ran four touchdowns in five plays. After that, they left me on the first string. That’s how I got accepted, you know? I mean accepted as Jim Brown, not Avatus Stone. And I’m saying nothing against Stone, because he’s a beautiful cat. I’m just saying my personality was my own and I didn’t happen to feel that white coeds had any monopoly on desirability for me. Anyway, once the coaches made up their minds, they were men enough to realize they had been wrong and they became fair in dealing with me, and then I gave them all I had. I think maybe having to fight my way up the way I did taught me more about being a man, too.
Haley: Did you have to contend with race prejudice in pro ball as well?
Brown: Of course! Every Negro in this country, I don’t care who he is, is affected by racial prejudice in some of its various forms. Athletes probably enjoy as much freedom as any black men in this country—but they’re by no means exempt from discrimination. The relationship with white players is much better now; they respect whoever can help them win that championship bonus check. And the fan reaction is greatly improved, because so many Negroes are starring and there are now even black team captains. The problems arise off the playing field—and I’d say that the major problem area is related, in some way, to white women. It’s a major factor why black and white players don’t socialize, because sooner or later they are going to be in some situation involving women. The black athlete who is desirable to white women is going to run into all kinds of trouble. If he gets anywhere around white men with her, fellow athletes or not, pretty soon that black man is going to get reminded that he is not free, that he’s still black in white men’s eyes, star on the field or not. It’s one of the reasons black athletes no longer particularly try to socialize with, or even get along with, white teammates. When the game is over, the whites go their way and the blacks go theirs, with very few exceptions.
Haley: According to the Cleveland press, that separatism didn’t apply to white women, at least in your case.
Brown: I see I’ve got to remind you I’m married—married to a black woman. I think I’m no different from the vast majority of black men: I’m not dying to have a white woman. Stokely Carmichael uses a good statement in this area when that subject comes up. He says, “The white woman can be made! OK, we’ve got that settled—so let’s go on to something important!” When I was in college, I dated both black and white coeds. It didn’t matter to me. I’ve never seen any difference in white or black women. It’s a question of individual characteristics, personality, habits and tastes. All that mattered to me was pretty girls. I always went after the finest-looking, the real foxes! I have a nickname, “Hawk,” which comes from having very good eyesight. Visually, I appreciate anything that I consider beautiful—if it’s a car, if it’s a suit, a painting, a woman or what have you. And the woman I appreciate most is my wife, Sue, who seems to be happy and very much in love with me. I have never denied her and I have never denied those three big babies we have at home in Cleveland. So I’m sure that I’m doing no big damage by looking.
Haley: Speaking of babies, you were once the defendant in a paternity suit filed by an 18-year-old Cleveland girl. Though you were subsequently exonerated, it didn’t exactly enhance your public image. What were the details of the case?
Brown: Actually, I was sued for assault and battery. Then the same party sued me for paternity. I figured, hell, I’m strong enough to fight it out publicly, and that’s what I did. I sat a week in that hot courtroom, missing a number of important commitments. It never would have gone to court if I had been guilty; I would have dealt with it the way a man should deal with a thing of that nature. Anybody who doubts that doesn’t know me.
Haley: Quite apart from paternity suits, it’s fairly common knowledge that you’ve long been the target of demonstrative admiration by many female football fans. Is it just coincidence that most of them happen to be white?
Brown: You’re just tipping around the edges of the big question at the bottom of the mind of every white man in this country: “What about you blacks and white women?” Right? Well, OK, let’s talk straight about that. I’ll tell you the very first thing that always knocks me out about that question. Why is there always the implication that the white woman is just mesmerized, just helpless, if she’s with a black man? Everybody knows the smart, hip, 20th century white woman is in complete control of herself and does exactly what she damn well wants to do and nothing else. So what’s the reason the white man has her pictured in his mind as hypnotized and helpless with a black man? The other thing that bugs me about that question is the assumption by the average white man that any black man he sees with any white woman has got to be sleeping with her. To me, that instant assumption tells me a lot more about that white man than it does about the black man—or the white woman. Let’s assume he’s right that a lot of white women are either openly or secretly attracted to black men. It happens to be true—but let’s ask ourselves why. Well, the answer is that the white man himself has made his woman this attracted to us.
Brown: For generations, he has painted the black man as such an animal that it’s not only natural but inevitable that the white woman’s mind occupies itself with this big, exciting taboo. And, yeah, a lot of them do more than think about it; they decide to find out. And when they do, they find that the black man isn’t the gorilla the white man has painted; that he may be as much of a gentleman as any man she has known and may even pay her more respect than her own kind. You can’t blame her for responding—and you can’t blame him for responding to her, because he’s the same man who for 300 years couldn’t open his mouth or he would die, while he saw the white man having sex as he pleased with the black woman. Let me tell you something interesting to do. Every time you see a Negro from now on, just take note of his complexion. See how few are jet black and reflect how all the Africans brought over here were jet black. It might help you to do some thinking about who genetically changed the color of a whole race of people, diluted them from black Africans not into black Americans but into Negroes; even the word is a white man’s creation, a stigma, a kind of proper form for “nigger.” Historically, there’s been about a thousand times more sex between white men and black women than between black men and white women—and a thousand times more black man-white woman sex goes on in white men’s minds than ever does in fact. And I’m not in the least criticizing where it is fact. I believe that whatever any two consenting adults—black or white—do in their own privacy, without causing harm to any other party, is entirely their own business. The white man may consider it his business; in fact, most do; but I don’t feel that it’s mine!
I know, and I accept, that certain exposures to white women will likely encourage and develop friendships. I use the expression “friendships” because I don’t want to be guilty of doing the same thing that I accuse people of doing to me—just see me talking with some white woman and instantly they assume, “There goes sex.” I can’t tell you how many times that has made me sick in this country. I can’t remember once when someone wasn’t waiting to see me outside the stadium after a game—different friends, some of them from college days, some of them white women. Half the time, their husbands and children would be standing off to one side and they would run up and hug me. It was a very warm thing between the two of us; after all, we hadn’t seen each other in years—at least it should have been warm. But I can’t remember one single time when, before I got through the crowd, I didn’t catch some white faces giving me that frowned-up, dirty look that was saying, “Him and white women again!” Something beautiful and completely platonic disrupted by somebody who didn’t even know us. Hell, it didn’t even have to be a grown white woman! I’ve known it to happen with little girls! The autograph crowd is around, say, everybody excited and happy—and all of a sudden there’s this little girl, under 10, say, whose parent tells her, “Go tell Jim Brown hello.” OK, I bend over and the little girl, with instinctive affection, starts to reach up to hug my neck and kiss my cheek. You know? But I’ve been that route before. I anticipate the impulsive intent of a sweet, innocent little child—and I have to maneuver somehow to prevent her acting natural. Because too many times before, see, I had straightened up from a child’s embrace and caught the disapproving white facial expressions. Finally, I began to feel that I’d just rather not see my old friends in that kind of situation. Which meant that I was becoming prejudiced. Many a time since then, I have walked on through a crowd, not speaking to anybody, and it helped to build my “mean and evil” reputation. But this kind of bitter experience isn’t unique with me, or even with black athletes; it happens to every black man and woman in America.
Haley: Though you’ve certainly experienced many of the injustices familiar to all Negroes, isn’t it also true that you enjoy, as a celebrity, certain privileges that are denied to the average Negro?
Brown: Well, I do have some of what you might call “back-door advantages.” Numerous doors and opportunities have opened for me personally, for the individual me. I’ve got a few dollars in the bank, and a home, and my family eats and dresses well and I drive a good car. When I consider that my forbears were slaves, I know I’m lucky to be where I am and have what I do. But to me, these are always a reminder of the fact that the same doors are not open for all black people. Although I appreciate the advantages for selfish reasons, this constant awareness of inequity makes them mean less to me. And there’s something else a lot of people don’t realize—that the more successful a black person is, the harder it is for him to live with the things that still go with being black. Let me give you an example, just one of the common examples. You’ve earned the money to buy yourself a better home in a better residential area, and you haven’t even signed the papers before the word leaks out and white people start running before they’d live near you. The poor, ignorant type? No! Your better-class white people. The people who in another setting would smile to see their kids rushing you for autographs. How is one supposed to feel about that? I never will forget being bluntly refused an apartment in Cleveland soon after I moved there. The landlady looked me in the face and said. “We only take whites.” I wound up buying the home we have now, in a nice, modest, predominantly Negro neighborhood. At the other place, I hadn’t been eager to live around white people; I had just wanted a place near the field where the Browns practiced, which would be more convenient for me. It wasn’t integration I was after; I just was bitter about being segregated, you understand?
Haley: Have you encountered any other kind of overt discrimination since you became well-known?
Brown: Are you kidding? I don’t even like to think about it. But I’ll give you just one example. There was nothing really uncommon about the incident itself in the average Negro’s experience, particularly in the South. But it had me choked up and bitter for a long time after it happened. It was in 1957 and I was in Army training down in Alabama. Three buddies of mine and I were in my convertible, with the top down, driving to Tuskegee. We had just gone through this little town, enjoying ourselves, when all of a sudden this police car roared up behind and barreled past us, cut us off and stopped; and, baby, I’m looking at this cop getting out with a drawn gun. “Get out, niggers!” We got out. “What are you making dust all over white people for?” Just about then, another car pulled up and stopped and another white guy got out. The cop was saying, “You hear me, nigger?” Well, my emotions were such that I hardly trusted myself to speak. “I don’t know what a nigger is!” I said. Then he jammed the pistol right in my stomach. “Nigger, don’t you know how to talk to white folks?” One of the guys with me said, “He’s not from down here; he’s from up North.” The cop said, “Nigger, I don’t care where you’re from. I’ll blow you apart! Where did you get this car, anyway?” I said, “It was given to me.” He said, “Given to you! Who gave you a car?” I said, “It was given to me at school.” “What school?” I said, “Syracuse University.” Just about then, the other white man came over closer and he said, “That’s right. I recognize this boy. He plays football up there.” That was my reprieve. The cop took the gun out of my belly and said, “I’m going to let you go, but you better drive slow and you better learn how to act down here, nigger!” So we got back in the car and drove on. I don’t know why I even told you that; it’s not good to dredge that stuff up in your mind again. But you see, you don’t forget a thing like that, not if somebody handed you every trophy in football and 15 Academy Awards. That’s why a black man, if he’s got any sense at all, will never get swept away with special treatment if he happens to be famous, because he knows that the minute he isn’t where somebody recognizes who he is, then he’s just another nigger. That’s what the Negro struggle is all about; that’s why we black people have to keep fighting for freedom in this country. We demand only to live—and let live—like any ordinary American. We don’t want to have to be somebody special to be treated with respect. I can’t understand why white people find it so hard to understand that.
Haley: If you feel as strongly as you say about winning equal rights for Negroes, why didn’t you ever join the Negro celebrities who participated with Dr. King in such nonviolent demonstrations as the Selma march?
Brown: I felt I could do more by giving my time to my own organization—the National Negro Industrial and Economic Union—than by flying to Alabama and marching three days, another celebrity in the pack, almost a picnic atmosphere, and then flying back home a so-called hero because I’d been so “brave.” I’m not knocking those who did; I’m just saying I felt differently about it. That kind of demonstration served its purpose well; but it finally outlived its usefulness.
Haley: In what way?
Brown: I’d compare Dr. King’s methods with Paul Brown’s brand of football. Like King, Brown was a genius in his time, but he refused to change and finally he became outdated. I think the sit-ins, walk-ins, wade-ins, pray-ins and all those other -ins advanced the movement tremendously by awakening the nation’s conscience—making millions of white people aware of and sympathetic to the wrongs suffered by black people. When the white population was at that point, I think the movement’s direction should have been altered toward economic programming for Negro self-help, with white assistance. Think what could have been accomplished if the nation’s black leaders, at that time, had actively mobilized the goodwill of all the millions of white people who were willing, even anxious, to help the Negro help himself. We could have had millions, white and black, working toward that goal, with tremendous results. That was what I felt and what I tried to do, in forming my National Negro Industrial and Economic Union. But no one listened—not in the movement and not in Washington. What happened, instead, was that the marching went on and on, getting more and more militant, until a lot of white people began to resent it—and to feel threatened. Whenever any human being feels threatened—it doesn’t matter if he’s right or wrong—he starts reacting defensively, negatively. We lost the white sympathy and support we’d fought so hard to win: Badly needed new civil rights legislation began to die on the vine; existing laws were loopholed, modified or ignored; poverty funds dried up. On the threshold of real progress, the door simply closed in our faces. The inevitable consequences of that frustration set fire to Watts, Detroit, Newark and two dozen other cities.
Haley: Police authorities in several cities have claimed that the riots were fomented not by frustration but by “Communist agitators.” Do you think there’s any truth to that charge?
Brown: If by “fomented” they mean planned, like some kind of revolutionary battle strategy, they just don’t understand the explosive state of every ghetto in this country. The average ghetto Negro is so pent up and fed up with white lies, hostility, hypocrisy and neglect that riots don’t need planning. All they need is a spark to set them off, and the cops usually provide that without any help from the Communists. Once a riot gets started, of course, the Communists, along with a lot of others, will be out there fanning the flames. Communist money and people are working in every ghetto, especially the major ones. It’s no big secret that the Communists’ main objective in this country is to attract a large following of Negroes. You’ll hear black kids standing around on corners talking defiantly about “feudalism” and “capitalism” and “man’s exploitation of man” and all that stuff; they don’t even know what the words mean, but it sounds hip to them, you know? If there’s anything the vast majority of Negroes in this country have proved, however, it’s that they aren’t Communist-inclined. They don’t need Communist indoctrination to tell them that they’re second-class citizens, and they don’t need Communist help to become first-class citizens. They can—and will—do it on their own, no matter what it costs. Black people are demonstrating that they’re willing to die for total freedom. There’s not going to be any turning back now. It’s going to be either total freedom or the concentration camps I hear they’re getting ready for us. If there’s anything the black man has learned thoroughly in his history in this country, it’s that begging, appeasing, urging and imploring has gotten him nowhere. He just kept on getting slapped around, and only when he started to slap back did he begin to get any kind of respect.
Haley: Are you an advocate of Negro violence?
Brown: Don’t talk to me about Negro violence. The greatest violence this country has ever known has been on behalf of the various vested interests of white people, demanding whatever they were convinced were their rights. You could start with the American Revolution. Then the Indian wars—outright criminal violence, depicted in the history books and on television as heroic! Then the Civil War, in which the black man wasn’t really the true issue; he was nothing but the excuse. And on down the line to the labor movement. Heads got split open, people shot down, property destroyed all over the country. If you want to talk about race riots, the Irish, not black people, fought the bloodiest riot ever seen in America; in the late 1800s, they went looting and burning and killing down Lexington Avenue, which was then the richest, most fashionable part of New York City. There’s no point in dragging this out forever, if you see my point.
Haley: You’ve strayed from our original question: Are you an advocate of black violence?
Brown: I am a 100-percent advocate that if a man slaps you, you should slap him back. I know that if a man hits me, I’m going to try to hit him twice—harder—because I want him to do a lot of thinking before he ever hits me again. I am an advocate of freedom for everybody, freedom that isn’t something handed out at one group’s discretion and taken away if someone makes that group angry. The law is the law; that’s what I believe, and I believe right is right. We’re all supposed to abide by this country’s so-called laws—not only the laws against civil disorder but the laws for civil rights. There’s a very simply stated way to eliminate the race problem: Just enforce the same laws and the same standards for everybody, black and white alike. That’s the only thing the black people are after. Am I personally an advocate of black violence? I’m an advocate of stopping black violence before it starts—by facing the facts, by curing the reasons black people engage in violence. I’ve gotten frantic calls from high places when riots were in progress. begging me to “do something,” and my reaction has been. “Later for you! When I was trying to tell what our N.N.I.E.U. could do to prevent riots, you didn’t want to listen. Well, now you’ve waited too late!” Whatever I think, or any other black personality thinks, isn’t going to make any difference once riots get started.
Haley: Can they be stopped, or do you think they’ll escalate, as some predict, into a race war?
Brown: If nothing is done to prevent riots—and I don’t mean with more tanks—race war is a very real and immediate probability. Too many black people who have been kept methodically at the bottom of the ladder for centuries don’t really care what happens. They figure, what have they got to lose? The building up of police forces, the various thinly veiled threats, like concentration camps, have no deterrent effect whatever. All it does is make the blacks madder, and that will send them out in the streets quicker than anything else. As of right now, only a very small percentage of Negroes have actually rioted, or even have thought about physically participating in rioting. But the number grows with every threat. And there’s one thing in particular that I’d think about a long, long time if I were any city’s police chief or mayor or a state governor—and that’s the curfews that get slapped down whenever there’s trouble. After the Watts trouble, which involved only a few of the Negroes in Los Angeles, suddenly a “riot area” curfew was declared that went far beyond the locale of the rioting—all the way to the borders of the total black community in Los Angeles, excepting only the handful of so-called upper-middle-class blacks who happened to be living in so-called integrated high-income areas. With that single act, hundreds of thousands of Negroes—be they criminals, hoodlums, preachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, schoolteachers, firemen, policemen or politicians—discovered that it made no difference, that what really was being put down was black people! Nobody caught in that curfew net ever will think the same again. It was very obvious to them what was being said.
Haley: You said the riots may escalate if nothing is done to prevent them. What do you think can be done?
Brown: First of all, these mayors’ and governors’ offices have got to drop this implied revenge attitude I was talking about—building up police forces and beefing up the National Guard. That’s just working toward the concentration camps. There’s got to be, somehow, some truly sincere understanding achieved between Negro leaders and the concerned state and city administrations. And by Negro leaders, I don’t mean the Martin Luther Kings and the Whitney Youngs; I mean the people who have followings in the ghettos. They’ve got to be listened to, and worked with, and given respect, and urged to help with programing where money and other aid will actually filter down to the lowest level of the ghetto, where you find the people most prone to riot—those who are most bitter and alienated and frustrated and suspicious. So much has been done to them, it’s pins-and-needles job to make them believe anybody actually will do anything for them. But if the city governments are willing to listen to and work with these real Negro leaders, I think there is a tremendous chance of quieting racial disorders. I say this because I head up an organization—the N.N.I.E.U.—that offers, free, some of the greatest black talent in this country, most of it never used before. I can call upon 50 or 60 of the top black athletes in this country to run summer programs and work directly in communities with these young kids. But when I can’t get the Vice President’s committee to fund such a summer program, I think something is radically wrong.
Haley: Considering the mood of Congress in the wake of the riots, isn’t it unrealistic to expect the federal government to allocate funds for a program implemented by ghetto gang leaders who many whites feel were instrumental in starting the riots?
Brown: It was unrealistic, it seems to me, to expect that the people sealed up in these ghettos would remain quiet in them forever. If you’re trying to stop riots. I call any man qualified, street hoodlum or not, if he controls the people who riot. I know what I’m talking about; I’ve seen what can happen with these people. You’ve got to persuade the black men who are respected in their area to go in and crack the door, crack the ice. I’ve been able to do this myself a few times in a few places. The ghetto people know I’m straight, that I speak up and stand up and I wouldn’t betray them. I’ve gone into ghettos and talked with the toughest cats. I’ve told them, “Now, look I think you know I’m my own man. Now, here’s what seems to me a hell of a program, but it needs your help to get wide community support behind it.” In most cases, these guys will give 100-percent support. Give the toughest cats a certain respect, because they have respect from the people you’re trying to reach with help, and they’ll work with you. Sure, they’re hostile and suspicious, but they’ll talk sincerely with you if they figure you’re with them. You find their greatest disappointment and bitterness come from promises, promises that proved later to be some political sham or that just weren’t followed up. Whatever program there is has to be followed up, day to day. And the best people to monitor that is these tough guys: Give them jobs doing it. All they want is decent salaries; they have to eat, to live, just like anyone else. But I find that city administrations don’t like this idea. They’re still after political points. They want to dictate the terms, and the ghetto people resent anybody bringing them any program with white strings, so naturally it gets nowhere. And that’s why we’re likely to have more black uprisings, which lead to more white “revenge” talk, and threats, and the vicious cycle continues. I hope that black freedom can be won peaceably. That’s my hope. But things I keep seeing make me skeptical. Historically, great battles for freedom have seldom been won peaceably.
Haley: Have you read the polls that show that a large majority of Negroes think the whites would lose in a race war?
Brown: Yes, I have. That’s emotionalism. Because, without a doubt, black people couldn’t win any mass encounter. How could they? Outnumbered 10 to one? With a handful of guns, some homemade Molotov cocktails, sticks, rocks and switchblades? Against the white man’s jets, tanks, chemical warfare and H-bombs? That’s just plain silly. I think anybody who doesn’t realize this simply isn’t being a realist. But this is just one of many facts of life about which black people, especially the extremists, aren’t being realistic.
Haley: You were affiliated, as an official of Main Bout, with the Black Muslims who ran the organization. Do you feel that the Muslims’ extremist philosophy of separatism is realistic?
Brown: No, I don’t. Like many, many Negroes—maybe 90 percent of us privately—I agree with much of what they say, but I don’t personally accept their separatist philosophy, and I’m not a member. My business relationship in Main Bout with Herbert Muhammad and John Ali was a very pleasant and compatible one, however, and I respect the organization for instilling black people with pride in their race and for teaching black people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and take care of their own. I also respect the Muslims’ right to practice their own religion—a right legally recognized by the government, if not by the white press, which I feel has grossly misrepresented them. The main reason they’re so disliked by whites is that so much of what they say about the black condition is the truth, and white America doesn’t like to hear the truth about its own bigotry and oppression.
Haley: Do you feel the same way about such black-power firebrands as Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown?
Brown: I feel there is a need for them. Unfortunately, the average white seems to need a good scare from the Carmichaels and Rap Browns before he’ll listen to less dramatic requests. Speaking for myself, I think it’s too easy to just go out and threaten Whitey. What is that doing to help black people? At the same time, I’ve been turned down by so many administration officials, seeking money and support for our self-help program—and not just turned down but suspected of being “subversive”—that I’ve been tempted to take the easy way, too, and start hollering against Whitey myself. As long as administrations refuse to sponsor programs that give black people constructive alternatives to violence, I can’t really blame these guys for their extremism. I think they symbolize a lot of those their age who are sick of passive resistance, who are really fighting for freedom—young Negroes with great pride in themselves and their race. They are not trying to be assimilated; but they believe there should be, and must be, equality. Like them or not, they are what the white man is going to have to deal with more and more. They’re brash and fearless and they’re going to fight in any and every way they feel necessary to be respected and to win their freedom in this country. Where I disagree with guys like Stokely and Rap is that it was a mistake for them to get identified with merely defining and defending black power. It has deflected their energies from effective programming into sloganeering.
Haley: How would you define black power?
Brown: First and foremost, I’d define it as a creation of the white press. From the moment Stokely Carmichael used the expression in a speech two years ago—though he quickly explained that he meant it in the sense of political and economic power—the press, and millions of white people, instantly interpreted those two words as an ominous threat of black mass uprising. It says more to me about the interpreters than about the two words. To me it says white fear, white guilt seeking a justification, a target. It was whites, not blacks, who turned it into a hate thing and used it to label exponents of black power as advocates of racial violence.
Haley: Would you call yourself an exponent of black power?
Brown: I’m for black power the same way I’m for Irish power, Jewish power, labor power, doctor power, farmer power, Catholic power, Protestant power. I’m for all the special vested-interest groups using their economic and political strength to demand that others pay them respect and grant them equality. Only I call it green power. That’s my idea of what needs to become the black people’s special interest. I want to see black people pooling their monies, their skills, their brains and their political power to better themselves, to participate more fully in the mainstream of American life. And that requires white support. The black people simply don’t have the money to support the programs needed to train them in what they can do for themselves.
Haley: When you say you need white financial support to help Negroes help themselves, does that mean you share the deepening cynicism of such militant Negro groups as CORE and SNCC about the direct personal involvement of white volunteers, however sincere and committed, in the civil rights movement?
Brown: Speaking for my own organization, the one I’ve founded—which is the only one I can really speak for—we know that there are many, many sincere and truly committed white people, and one of our major efforts is to get more and more of them to help us. But we no longer want or need the same kind of help they’ve offered in the past: We don’t want them to march with us anymore, because marches are a thing of the past; and we don’t want them to work with us in the ghetto anymore. We want their moral and financial support—as long as there are no strings attached to either—but we want them to work with their own kind and leave us alone to work with ours.
Brown: Simply because the people in the ghetto just don’t trust whites, no matter how sincere or well intentioned they are; hell, they don’t even trust the average so-called accepted black leaders—which is to say, the black leaders approved of by the white establishment. The suspicions and hostilities, born of 300 years of white bigotry and betrayal, run too deep. But that’s where we can use all the help we can get from concerned whites: in uprooting racial prejudice where it originates—in the hearts of other whites.
What it comes down to is: Who can work best where? For the same reason a white man would last about five minutes preaching brotherhood on a Harlem street corner, black people can’t run around in white communities trying to change white attitudes; they’d get arrested for “disturbing the peace.” Sincere white people have got to go to work upstairs, downstairs, next door, down the block—talking, teaching, reasoning, organizing, whittling away at white prejudice wherever they find it; and they’ll find it everywhere. Our job, the job of sincere and committed blacks such as the athletes in my N.N.I.E.U.—who may be the only kind of guys the toughest street cats will accept and listen to—is to work inside the ghetto to eliminate the effects of racial prejudice and discrimination by helping black people acquire the green power they need to make life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a tangible reality rather than an empty catchphrase.
Haley: How did you evolve this strategy of liberation through economic self-help?
Brown: Well, when I was with the Cleveland Browns, as you know, for some time I had a summer-season job with Pepsi-Cola. I had access to much of their internal operational program, and they had me do a lot of traveling to various places, as a representative. In the process, I began to get a pretty good understanding, better than any I had before, of how economics is the very foundation of this country. When I say white people have got to face some hard truths, I also believe that black people have got to face some hard truths; and the most basic of these truths is that, for all the crimes committed against him, the black man in America still has not begun properly to take advantage of even the limited opportunities that he has had. We have become a consuming people and we have produced almost nothing. Therefore, automatically, what few dollars we make don’t circulate among us, to help us; they go into other pockets instead. We’ve wasted too much time hollering and complaining that we don’t have this, we can’t do that, and so forth—all because of Whitey. We’ve squandered energies that should have been spent focusing upon what we could have and could do with what we do have! As a race, we suffer from a terrible mistrust not only of the white man but of each other. That’s why we’ve never really been able to get together, why we haven’t had more cooperative business ventures. For another thing, we’re just not economically oriented by nature; we’re too impulsive, impractical, unpragmatic and emotional about money. It’s the sad truth that we continue to drink the best imported Scotch, to wear the finest shoes, to drive the biggest Cadillacs, and we don’t own one single distillery, shoe factory or Cadillac agency—at least not to my knowledge we don’t. Right now, for instance, there are thousands of jobs going begging that industries are offering to black youth. The message in that fact for black people, I think, is loud and clear: Get off the streets and into the schoolrooms and the colleges and the libraries.
Now, in saying all this, by no means am I letting the white man off the hook. He has sinned; he has held the black man down for centuries. I’m just saying that the black man, in hard fact, hasn’t done enough to help himself. We’ve used our being a minority as a crutch. We’re said to be 10 percent of the population; but the Jews are only about three percent, fewer than 6 million, and they came here with far less than black people now have in resources and they met all kinds of prejudices. But they worked together; they used their brains and the law and money and business acumen, and by now you can’t find any ethnic group in America commanding more respect. Commanding it! Do you know that once Jews weren’t wanted in Miami? So they bought it. Same with the Catskills. I rarely give a speech today without suggesting the Jews as a model of what black people need to do with themselves economically.
Anyway, this was the trend of the private thinking I had been doing for a long time—about how the black people could truly become a part of American society and share in its good things. Well, the Pepsi-Cola experience gave me the insights and the know-how I needed to put that thinking into action—by getting others who feel as I do to help me form an organization to help black people help themselves economically. The first thing I needed was a staff to whom black people would listen, from whom they would take advice and guidance. And I knew of one ideal group—black athletes. It may sound immodest, but it’s a fact that we tend to be heroes among black people, especially black youth. Something that’s haunted me for years is that look I have seen so many times in some of those black teenagers’ eyes looking at me up close: For just an instant, that animal hipness and suspicion leaves the face and you see a look in the eyes that seems to say, “For God’s sake, for just a minute, will somebody care?” It gets to me, because I was that kid once, see? So it’s one of those “There but for the grace of God” things with me—and it’s the same for all the other athletes I know. So among my own teammates, and wherever we played, I filtered the idea around. And that’s where I got my first major encouragement. They just snapped it up! It was funny, man! On the field, cats were trying to run over each other, break each other in half; then the evening after the game, we’re all huddled together excitedly discussing this new project. Guys like John Wooten and Walter Beach of the Browns, Bernie Casey of the Atlanta Falcons, Brady Keys of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bobby Mitchell of the Redskins, Leroy Kelly, Bill Russell, Curtis McClinton, Timmy Brown, lots of others. We mapped out an organization that would sell memberships to anybody and everybody for from $2 to $100, to raise money to finance good ideas for small black businesses, because so many good black ideas can’t obtain financing. And we decided to make use of black professional people—these “middle-class Negroes” we hear so much talk about—to draw them in with us, to lend their talents to young Negroes in all the various ways they could. And we decided to use the image value of black athletes in personal-contact programs with black youth, especially in the ghettos.
We all put in some of our own money to get it started. I personally donated more than $50,000. Then we hired a secretary and rented an office in the ghetto area of Cleveland, where people wouldn’t feel uncomfortable coming to see us. Well, we’ve been almost two years now working, researching, recruiting, opening another office in Los Angeles and operating limited programs in four other cities. With more financing, I think we have the potential of being one of the most meaningful and effective programs anywhere in this country.
Haley: How many Negro athletes are involved now?
Brown: About 100, at least, from stars to rookies, from old-timers like me down to young kids like Lew Alcindor. He works for us like a Trojan in his off time. Quite a few white athletes have come in with us, too, as investors in black business ideas. And you wouldn’t believe some of the nonathletes who have volunteered to come and work with us for nothing but subsistence! People like Spencer Jourdain, a Harvard graduate, who quit a great job at Corning Glass to work full time for us, just for subsidy, because he’s so committed to our idea.
Haley: With so little city, state or federal support, financial or otherwise, how much have you been able to achieve?
Brown: Well, aside from a couple dozen new black businesses now in operation, I think we could rightly claim some major credit for the fact that last year, Cleveland didn’t prove to be the nation’s number-one riot area, as had been predicted by the so-called experts. We got together with the city administration and with the Greater Cleveland Foundation and persuaded them to cooperate, through the N.N.I.E.U., with those who were truly in control of the ghetto—the kind of people who really control every ghetto, people your average sociologists couldn’t even talk to, because they don’t know their language, even. The really tough cats, you know? The kind who are the most dangerous people in any society. Like this young man called Ahmad, who has a very sizable following and influence in Cleveland’s ghetto. We got together with him and we got him to agree to serve on a committee to discuss ghetto needs, to offer plans, and we saw in Ahmad a very changed attitude—because suddenly this guy was given some respect, see? Now he works to do constructive things for the area. We were also able to get the Greater Cleveland Foundation to fund a youth center for us. One of the first things we did was establish courses in black history, business administration, economics and many other such self-help subjects. We offer entertainment, too—dancing, theater, talent night; the kids love it. And we’ve developed a job-procurement program. We involved everybody we could get our hands on, with special emphasis on redirecting into constructive channels the energy of special groups who were capable of starting trouble. One young fellow, who had been viewed generally as a prime troublemaker, we were able to turn into a crackerjack director of our youth center; we have six Cleveland Browns athletes doing volunteer work under him. We’re headed into the 1968 summer now. The popularity of our youth center has so overflowed it that we’re asking the Greater Cleveland Foundation to fund five more of them for us. I truly think that if we can expand, we’re capable of conducting special programs simultaneously in at least six major cities. We want to open formal offices also in Washington, New York, Boston and Chicago. Given more city-administration aid and cooperation, I know we can prove what we can do. If anybody else wants to help us, or just find out more about us, would you be good enough to print that our N.N.I.E.U. headquarters address is 105-15 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44106?
Haley: Gladly. On another front, how do you feel about the election of your former N.N.I.E.U. legal counsel, Carl Stokes, as mayor of Cleveland—and about the victories of several other Negro candidates for high city office throughout the country?
Brown: Cleveland—and the country—will benefit. Carl won not because of—or despite—his being a Negro, but because he’s a takeover guy who’s going to produce a positive, dynamic administration for black and white alike. As for other Negro mayors and city officials in the North, like Hatcher in Gary, it simply had to happen, because otherwise, with the big Northern cities becoming more and more Negro-populated as white people rush to the suburbs, we wouldn’t have representative city government. But the most heartening sign to me is the fact that Negroes are competing with—and winning against—white candidates on the basis of personal qualifications rather than skin color, and winning with white support.
Haley: You seem to be much more optimistic about the racial situation than you were a few years ago—and much less cynical about the prospects of white cooperation. Why?
Brown: The only change is that once I dealt with the negative aspects; now I deal with what I see as positives. I’m working now trying to do something about what ails us black people. Now I have an organization. I have responsibilities toward the people who believe in me. We’ve talked, talked, talked about discrimination for years. Now I’m trying to help get rid of it.
Haley: With the kind of movie schedule you’ve been keeping, do you feel you’re giving all the help you should?
Brown: Not nearly as much as I’d like. But the other athletes carry on full time when I’m away, as their schedules permit. And whatever success I earn in the movies is going to be invested in building and promoting the N.N.I.E.U.; so I don’t feel like I’m neglecting my duty. What bothers me more is that I haven’t been able to be at home with Sue and the kids more than a few weeks at a time for about 18 months now. I don’t think the kids will suffer too much because of it, thanks to the great job Sue is doing in keeping them well adjusted; but I’d like to be there more, all the same. I’m getting older, you know, and I want my family ties to be as strong as the ties to my people. The best way I can see to strengthen both of them, in the long run, is by doing what I’m doing: trying to become a good actor. I may not make myself any more popular by saying some of the things I’ve said to you today, but I’d lose respect for myself if I told anybody just what I felt they wanted to hear. Just about whenever I’ve stood up and spoken my mind about situations that bothered me as a black man, somebody I thought I trusted, somebody I thought knew and understood me, has advised and urged and all but begged me—with the best of intentions—not to express my objections publicly. “Jim,” they tell me, “it’ll hurt your image. It’ll alienate the goodwill of your public”—meaning the white public. Well, I don’t need that kind of concern for my welfare. I’m not going to be anybody’s little boy. I’m a man, a black man, in a culture where black manhood has been kicked around and threatened for generations. So that’s why I don’t feel I need to take too much advice about how I’m supposed to think and act. And that’s why I have to tell the truth like I see it. Maybe some people will holler; maybe they’ll hate me for it. But I’ll just stick it out, walk tall and wait for the truth to be vindicated.
Haley: How long do you think that will take?
Brown: I can’t say how long; I can’t worry about that. That doesn’t even matter to me. All that matters is to see more and more black people mobilized and working toward constructive self-help goals. I want more black people to realize the hard fact that unless we do this, all the other gains aren’t going to make any difference. If in my lifetime I can see that this idea really has taken hold, then I will have the satisfaction of knowing that true freedom—as black men and as black Americans—will finally be within our grasp.
(The above interview by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It first appeared in the February 1968 issue of Playboy. © 1968 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)