Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali stood together to fight injustice

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The impact of Muhammad Ali (2:37)

Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap share stories and discuss the impactful legacy of Muhammad Ali. (2:37)

In Cleveland, it's tough to think of Muhammad Ali without thinking of Jim Brown.

The two are almost inextricably linked, products of their race, their abilities and their times.

Both were supreme athletes who set new standards in their respective sports. Both transcended sport, going beyond in an attempt to end the evil of discrimination and prejudice.

"We had the same attitude about who we were," Brown said in a 2014 interview with Larry King on Ora TV on Hulu. "We never accepted second-class citizenship, and we made it known. We gravitated toward each other. I don't remember when I met him. I don't remember when I met the great Bill Russell, who is my best friend now.

"But we (Ali and Brown) had the same attitude about being an American and our rights and our equal rights and being outspoken about it, and never taking a back seat to freedom, equality and justice."

NFL Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell was once asked what he learned from Brown in the time the two played together in Cleveland. Mitchell's answer: "How to stand up as a black man."

In the time of Ali and Brown, black men did not sit down with whites, drink from the same water fountain or stay at the same hotels.

Brown and Ali stood up against it, together and individually. Their actions and deeds forged a bond. As Brown posted on Twitter after Ali's death, Ali was "a warrior for the fight against discrimination" and "a great friend."

One of the most memorable instances of the two standing together occurred at the "Ali Summit," which took place in 1967 in Cleveland, when Brown and Ali were joined by Mitchell and several other black men willing to stand up — people such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Russell and Willie Davis and John Wooten.

They met with Ali when he refused his draft induction because of his religious principles. They badgered Ali with questions to ensure his sincerity, then publicly supported him.

The summit took place two years after the Watts riots, one year after riots in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood, the same year as the Newark and Detroit riots, and one year before the killing of Martin Luther King Jr.

A couple of years ago, Mitchell reflected on the meeting and what has become an iconic photo of Russell, Brown and Jabbar sitting by Ali while surrounded by other prominent African-Americans, including Carl Stokes, soon-to-be mayor of Cleveland.

"A lot of people don’t understand that when we decided to have the meeting with Muhammad Ali about going into the service and brought him to Cleveland, all of us could have lost our jobs," Mitchell said. "All of us. But it’s again standing up. As we said to Muhammad, 'If you are saying that you can’t do this, you can’t go in the service, it’s against your religion, then we’ll back you no matter what happens to us.'"

Larry Holmes talked about Ali's decision in the Buffalo News: "He was an example for black people to stand up and fight for what we believe in."

Old Cleveland Municipal Stadium had concrete ramps that wound round and round from the upper deck to the lower deck. The Indians in the '70s drew sparse crowds. But one night, as a game wound down, a loud sound came from the ramp's upper levels. It was unusual, and as it amplified, people at the bottom of the ramp turned to see what was happening.

Eventually, a group of perhaps 200 kids wandered around the corner, a moving amoeba with Ali at its center. He walked, smiled, talked and laughed with the kids, none of whom were older than 10 or 11.

When Brown was filming The Dirty Dozen in England in 1966, Ali was training in London. Brown asked to fight Ali, believing he was athlete enough to compete. Ali met Brown in Hyde Park. As he stood with his hands at his sides, Brown swung and missed over and over. Ali then hit Brown quick and fast, and Brown walked away saying he understood the point.

From that point forward, Brown and Ali fought together -- for far more important principles.