Ali Summit and Negro Industrial and Economic Union

The Ali Summit and Negro Industrial and Economic Union represented the emergence of civil rights activism, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and professional athletes’ involvement in national and local politics. Cleveland Browns players had a central role in organizing the summit and the Union.

John Wooten and Jim Brown. Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection.

The group was instrumental in forging a new concept of Black liberation by focusing on financial independence and providing job training to disadvantaged youth.

The Ali/Cleveland Summit

On June 4, 1967, Cleveland photojournalist Tony Tomsic took an iconic snapshot of some of the biggest names in professional and collegiate sports. Former and current Cleveland Browns players—Jim Brown, John Wooten, Curtis McClinton, Sidney Williams, Bobby Mitchell, Jim Shorter, Willie Davis, and Walter Beach III—then-attorney Carl Stokes, community activist Lorenzo Ashley, and basketball stars Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor all held a press conference to support boxer Muhammad Ali’s stance on his refusal to be inducted into the army to fight the war in Vietnam. 

Prior to the two and a half hour meeting, the group met privately for six-to seven hours to understand why Ali refused to serve. Initially, the men sought to persuade Ali to accept a deal to perform exhibition fights for troops rather than pick up a weapon. Some of the men were veterans, thus they understood the value of military service. But Ali held his steadfast position. Despite the unpopularity of Ali’s position, the men decided to support him on principle. At his trial, the court found Ali guilty of draft evasion. He was released on bail pending an appeal, but had his passport confiscated. Boxing commissions refused to grant him a license to fight, thus he took a hiatus from boxing. Three years later, the Supreme Court threw out Ali’s conviction.

The Ali Summit is a well-known story of conscientious objection and solidarity. It represented the emergence of civil rights activism, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and professional athletes’ political involvement in national and local politics. Although antiwar sentiment had increased by June 1967, most Americans supported the war effort. Thus, Ali’s decision was notoriously unpopular and the press lambasted him for it. But in the world of sports, Ali’s defiance against the status quo did not happen in a vacuum.

A short multimedia presentation put together by the Cleveland Restoration Society on the Ali Summit and Negro Industrial and Economic Union.

Uninterrupted discusses the Ali Summit in-depth with the men who attended the gathering. 

Negro Industrial & Economic Union

The civil rights movement led to a growing politicization of Black players in collegiate and professional sports. Black athletes caused an uproar on many campuses in the North and out West during integration in places with minuscule Black student bodies such as Oregon State University and the University of Wyoming. The same pattern occurred at the professional level. Although less remembered, the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, later known as the Black Economic Union, hosted the Ali summit at its headquarters in Cleveland. 

Founded by current and former Browns players, the organization promoted racial liberation through entrepreneurship and believed Blacks had to “become involved in the economic infrastructure of America.” In addition, Union members had long addressed racism in their personal lives and continued to tackle the problem while living in Cleveland and in its various other chapters around the country. Brown admired Ali’s racial consciousness and athleticism and formed a strong relationship with him in February 1966. Although the Union is most well-known for hosting and supporting Ali during the summit, its impact extended far beyond a two-and-a-half hour press conference.

Nolan and Allen Williams with John Wooten of the Negro Industrial and Economic Union. Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

The Members of the NIEU

The players who primarily organized the NIEU all came of age during the Great Migration and experienced racism on and off the field, which shaped their worldviews and eventual political activism.

Jim Brown was born on February 17, 1936 in St. Simons Island, Georgia as the only child. Raised primarily by his mother and grandmother, his family moved to Manhasset, New York when he was eight years old. He recalled white folks in Manhasset as loving compared to the overt racism he encountered while playing football in Syracuse, New York. The folks around him constantly compared him to Marion Farris, a freshman quarterback who gained notoriety for forming relationships with White women on campus. In addition, the staff believed Brown engaged in the same behavior, but he didn’t. Their skepticism waned as Brown performed well on the field, and later the Browns drafted him in 1957 as the sixth overall pick.

Jim Brown new head coach Blanton Collier, 1963 Training Camp. Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

John Wooten was born on December 5, 1936 in Riverview, Texas, but the family moved to Carlsbad, New Mexico for better economic prospects when he was a young child. His father left the family in 1944, thus Wooten, his siblings, and mother found ways to make up for the financial loss. Even outside of the Jim Crow South, Black children in Carlsbad attended one school that housed 1st to 12th grades. Prior to Wooten attending high school, the community voted in favor of allowing Black students to attend the all-White high school in town. Wooten learned the power of having an opportunity. He later enrolled into the University of Colorado to remain close to home and encountered few incidents of racism there, but learned how his race restricted his ability to live and dine out where he pleased to go.

1959 Cleveland Browns Rookies study playbook. Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Walter Beach III was born on January 31, 1933 in Pontiac, Michigan. He first learned of the violence White people were capable of doing on a family visit to Mounds, Illinois, a small town in the Southern part of the state. His cousin challenged a group of White boys to race Beach. Beach won the challenge, which led one of the white kids to respond, “Niggers should not be able to run faster than White people.” Beach responded with a punch and a “youthful scuffle’ ensued. Child play almost turned deadly when a mob searched for Beach later that same day. His cousins dressed him in his sister’s clothes and sneaked him away from the mob.

Beach later learned in life that not all White people had ill-intentions as his teammates and coach in his collegiate years stood up for him when opponents called him “nigger” on the field and when he faced discrimination on the road. Similar to Brown, Beach’s coach unabashedly asked him about his interest in white woman, to which Beach responded with no. In response, the coach to told him to remain with Black women.

In Cleveland, all the Black players interacted with one another on and off the field. They gained a positive reputation among Black Clevelanders as some of them worked as a substitute teacher at Addison Junior High School in the Hough neighborhood. Wooten was a member of the Cleveland Community Action for Youth Project and Brown was intimately involved in Hough as he was a home visitor within the area and condemned the deplorable living conditions in the area. They also encountered racism and discrimination as professional athletes. Bobby Mitchell arrived to the Browns from the University of Illinois and won Rookie of the Year. When he and his wife sought to purchase a home in an all-White suburb, they struggled getting loans and brokers raised the selling prices for home viewers.

Overall, Black Cleveland Browns players all experienced racial discrimination in their childhood and as young adults on and off the field. Sports were not separated from societal prejudices and, in the case of Brown and Beach, fears about interracial sex amongst Black players. These experiences and living in Cleveland which had a booming Black population, all laid the ground work for these players’ political activism on and off the field and in the years to come after retirement from their team. 

Addison Junior High. Cleveland Public Library/Photography Collection.

Ideology & Activities

Founded in 1966, the Union formed as a self-help, entrepreneurial organization formed by Black professional athletes in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, largely from the Cleveland Browns. In an interview in Ebony magazine, Brown articulated an alternative approach to marches and demonstrations that dominated the most visible activism in the civil rights movement. “We believe that the closest you can get to independence in a capitalist country is financial independence,” he affirmed. Blacks, he argued, should become self-sufficient and not wait on the good will of Whites.

Brown and various Union members put their words into action. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Union developed training programs for Black workers and provided loans to Black businesses. It received praise from local institution such as WKYC-TV, which featured an episode on its activities. The Black press covered its plans to initiate programs for inner-city school students to expose them to the world of business. By March 1971, the Union had 150 Black businessmen willing to participate in weekly seminars to talk to high school students.

Union members were also involved in the political affairs of Cleveland’s Black community. Nearly one year after the Hough Uprising, Brown lambasted Black and White city leaders for avoiding to meet with Hough and Glenville residents to alleviate racial tensions. Through the Hough Progressive Youth Center, which was established through funds from the Greater Cleveland Associated Foundation, the Union provided work training and job opportunities to more than 130 Black youth in the Center’s first year. Youth jobs clocked in over 30 hours a week and were paid roughly $0.15 more than minimum wage. Browns players also taught courses on civil engagement, leadership styles, and democratic ideals. In their latter years, Union members turned their political agitation inwards towards their respective sport teams in regards to control over players, financial payments, and the National Football League Players Association.

The Union achieved remarkable small successes, but overall fell short of many of its goals and could not overcome how race and capitalism are intertwined. Most of Black capital went outside of Black residents’ communities and Black-owned businesses often lacked the necessary managerial skills and financial capital. Neighborhood exclusion limited where Black entrepreneurs opened shop. Many of the enterprises the Union backed were short lived.

Despite its limited successes, the Union and its members represented a significant ideological pillar in the civil rights movement. By promoting “Green Power,” it sought an alternative solution to racial inequality. But through osmosis, it adopted notions of Black Power and instilled racial pride into young people and advocated for self-determination. Amidst contemporary athletes’ political activism, the Ali Summit and the Negro Industrial Economic Union remain part of a larger story of professional sports and its inextricable link to racial, political, and economic matters.

Contemporary Sports Activism

Sports have never just been sports. Instead, they  reflect various societal issues and have always been sites of contention regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity, economic inequality, and a host of other issues. Black athletes have long noted the contradiction of White fans cheering for them on the field and expressing racial hostility towards them in civilian life. Racism in sports has also been institutional. The NFL once excluded Black players from the league and when integrated, coaches refused to put them in the “thinking” positions of quarterback, middle line backer, and center. However, players and coaches continue to face racial discrimination on and off the field to this day.

Sports are more dominant in American Culture today than in the times in which members of the NIEU lived. Athletes receive larger salaries. The elimination of racial covenants means Black athletes are free to live wherever they desire, often in exclusive neighborhoods leading them to have little to no informal interactions with the most downtrodden citizens. Player marketability also means some athletes have more to lose compared to the past when engaging in protest would have made them just one out of many people at an event, and their presence would have gone unnoticed by most attendees.

Political activism among collegiate and professional athletes is often remembered as episodic and players’ ideology are rarely examined. Critics often dismiss outspoken athletes as overpaid, arrogant, ungrateful, and anti-American. Yet, many Black athletes have persevered and used their money and influence to highlight issues and help marginalized communities. Controversy ensued in the NFL when players, led by former San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Current political activism spearheaded by players continues the tradition.

Oral Histories

walter beach III

Walter Beach III joined the NFL at the age of 30 and joined the Carl Stokes administration after retiring. In this interview, he discusses his upbringing in Michigan, his awareness of white terrorism at the age of 9 when he was almost attacked by a lynch mob, his years playing collegiate and professional football, and his political activism during and after his playing years.


Further Readings

Bennett III, Robert Anthony. “You Can’t Have Black Power without Green Power: The Black Economic Union.” PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2013.

“Black Economic Union Helps Students.” Call and Post, March 20, 1971.

Eig, Jonathan. “The Cleveland Summit and Muhammad Ali: The true story.” Andscape, June 1, 2017.

“Jim Brown, Baxter Hill Say, Meet with Ghetto.” Call and Post, April 8, 1967.

Larkin, Brent. “Cleveland photojournalist Tony Tomsic was one of only five journalists to cover the first 48 Super Bowls,”, April 21, 2019.

“Lorenzo Ashley was an unsung hero of the 1967 Cleveland Summit whose story has never been told.” Andscape, February 18, 2022,

Lower, Wesley and Jacob Bogage. “Fifty years after the ‘Black 14’ were banished, Wyoming football reckons with the past.” Washington Post, November 30, 2019.

Lunch, William L. and Peter W. Sperlich. “American Public Opinion and the War in Vietnam.” The Western Political Quarterly 32 (1979): 21–44.

“‘Montage’ Scores Reporting Black Economic Union’s Goals.” Plain Dealer, November 28, 1968.

“Negro Athletes Fail to Sway Clay.” Boston Globe, June 5, 1967, 23.

Oriard, Michael. Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Rhoden, William. “Ex-Brown Walter Beach Recalls Black Athletes’ Support of Ali.” New York Times, September 28, 2014.

Underwood, John. “The Desperate Coach.” Sports Illustrated, August 25, 1969.

Waxman, Oliver. “This Football Player Fought for Civil Rights in the ’60s. Here’s What He Thinks About National Anthem Protests.” Time, September 8, 2017,

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