Thursday, May 22, 2008

Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X: A Trinity of Great Black Men

by Dr. Boyce Watkins

I got a phone call today. I get a lot of calls from “observers” (translation: supporters and haterologists), and I appreciate every single one of them. However, being as busy as I am, I usually don’t have time to call anyone back. I call my mama back and if my daughter would call me, she would be at the top of my list. I also call my grandmother. That’s enough to fill the free time at airports or on the way to the office.

If I call you back, I am returning the call because I either love you or respect you. I don’t return calls just because I think the caller is a “big shot”. In this business, everyone is into networking and butt kissing so they can meet this important person or that one. I’ve always felt that life is too short for that crap. For example, my homeboy Marc Lamont Hill at Temple University (one of the top black scholars in America), Al “The Inspiration” Duncan (an amazing public speaker and youth advocate) in Atlanta and Bill Thomason (a top black money manager) are brothers I always call back immediately because I respect their integrity. It’s really that simple for me.

On this day, I had some free time. I was driving to the office and I had a message from a woman named Karen. Karen’s family is full of Syracuse alumni. Honestly, most calls and emails I get from Syracuse alumni are not all that favorable. While I get cheers from the black and latino alums, the reality is that Syracuse has not had a strong historical black and latino presence. This is doubly true on the faculty, where a tenured professor of color is incredibly rare.

But I respect everyone, and I decided to use my free time to call Karen back. I was a little nervous, since I really wanted to talk to my grandmother. The risk was that I would miss a great conversation with grandma just so another alum could yell at me for being an outspoken black man.

But Karen was worth the investment because she was super duper cool. It also turned out that Karen is the daughter of the greatest alumnus in Syracuse University history, the great Jim Brown.

Jim was not amazing for what he did on the field. Yes, he had super human strength and was such an outstanding athlete that they changed the rules to find ways to stop him. But that doesn’t impress me, for black men have always possessed amazing athletic ability. Jim’s intellect impressed me far more than his athletic ability, for he is every bit as intelligent as he was athletic. But truth be told, while his intellect impressed the heck out of me, it didn’t impress the HELL out of me. Don’t get me wrong, he was a smart brother, but there are a lot of smart black male athletes, in spite of what the media tells you.

What impressed the HELL out of me was Jim Brown’s COURAGE. That is what left his mark on the university, and that is what will leave his mark on the world. While he may not be perfect, his strength inspires me as a black man to focus and overcome all that lies around me.

I have a Trinity of strength when it come to my black male “adopted fathers”. In this trinity, there is Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown. I adopted these men many years ago when I saw my intelligent, highly educated, rich, famous African American predecessors selling out in droves. It seemed that the only black men rising to prominent positions in American society were the ones who most readily allowed themselves to be fully emasculated. Sure, these men might speak big behind closed doors, but out in public, there was a degree of weakness, cowardice and commitment to self-preservation that made me shudder. These were the men who would tell me that speaking out in favor of the poor would get me into trouble. They would tell me to leave behind the brothers in prison and the kids in the educational system because it might jeopardize my chance to drive a Jaguar one day. While I listen to such men respectfully, I found myself having a midlife crisis at the age of 25, wondering if there was a way to have a more meaningful existence.

I miss the days when athletes used their platforms for something other than another McDonald’s endorsement. It is most sad and ironic that the athletes with the most wealth and greatest power also happen to be the least educated and the least willing to become educated. Individuals such as Michael Jordan become about as politically-neutral as a can of spinach, all so he can turn his $200 million dollar fortune into a $300 million dollar fortune. I have always been of the opinion that black prosperity and social activism can go hand in hand. We can all continue Dr. King’s work, whether it is on the streets or in the board room. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

I connected with Malcolm just because he was Malcolm. Malcolm X was clearly the greatest leader in American history. I connected with Muhammad Ali because he is from Louisville, my hometown, and also my second cousin. He taught me that a black man does not have to hold his head down in shame and weakness when the cameras turn on. I connected with Jim Brown because his spirit lives on my campus, Syracuse University. Jim created the path for me to do what I do today, and it was his ability to endure the firestorms of Syracuse controversy that remind me to stay focused in my endeavors.

The great shame of our generation is that someone convinced us that our existence is about one person. It is important for all of us to remember that we are part of something greater, and the greatest gift you can give to future generations is to clear a path for someone else to run through. Malcolm gave his life, Muhammad gave the prime of his boxing career, and Jim risked his life so that my generation could walk through doors that had been previously closed. I plan to march through that door with dignity and open another door for those behind me.

That is what scholars and intellectual leaders are supposed to do.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” For more information, please visit

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