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Jim Brown passes social activism torch to Ray Lewis

NFL legend Jim Brown poses after being honored

NFL legend Jim Brown poses after being honored in his hometown community as part of a special program called "Hometown Hall of Famers" at his alma mater, Manhasset High School, on April 29, 2013. Credit: Mike Stobe

NEWARK, N.J. -- The Hall of Fame running back walked slowly to the podium. Jim Brown is 79 now, a long, long ways from his Manhasset, Syracuse and Cleveland Browns glory days. But there was always more to this icon than football and then acting.

Social activism has defined him, too. So he was at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center Wednesday, speaking at a news conference for the "Summit II -- Redefining Public Safety," the panel discussions that followed on causes of gang and black-on-black crime and strategies to de-escalate that and acts of police violence. Then he summoned a 40-year-old former NFL star, Ray Lewis, to join him, a symbolic scene, passing the torch of activism.

"Because of what we won't do as a society or haven't done, we have allowed crime to get a foothold it should not have," Brown told Newsday afterward. "A lot of that has to do with the fathers we don't have to take care of their children and guide their children.

"Look what happens to the kids. They become a family of street people. Like right now, where's the influence? Right now, if Ray Lewis puts a call out to all these athletes and they respond, you're telling me that that's not going to have a great affect on these kids that need that kind of example?"

It was 1967 when top black athletes met in Cleveland to hear out Muhammad Ali on his refusal to fight in Vietnam. Brown convened that summit.

"He shared with me that he wanted to do a 'Summit II,' " said Aqeela Sherrills, the principal of The Reverence Project, which co-hosted the event with Newark and will bring it to other violence-plagued cities.

Brown passed credit to his Manhasset football coach, the late Ed Walsh, and the superintendent, Raymond Collins, for helping him find his way.

"I came up without a father," Brown said, "but I had great guidance from people in the community that was conscious of that and gave me a chance to get my education and encourage me how to make use of that."

Lewis called for songwriters and scriptwriters to change their messages, and for parents to rule with a firmer hand, even a literal firmer hand.

"Remove the message 'black lives' and put 'lives matter,' " Lewis said. "Because that's what matters, that we respect each other and treat each other the way we should."

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