From dusty streets controlled by bigots in small-town Texas in the '50s, to football fields across America in the '60s, to the fractured neighborhoods of Oakland today, Clemon Daniels has dedicated his life to fighting battles he never sought.
He loses some, wins most, eventually, but the struggle is perpetual and his personal wiring won't let him walk away.
"I learned pretty early that if you want things to change, you have to ask for it," he says. "Or demand it."
Sitting in a crowded San Leandro coffee shop, sipping his morning brew and munching on crumb cake, Daniels is reflecting on his experiences. The former Raiders halfback -- the team's first legitimate star -- will be honored next Thursday at the Oakland Marriott, where he will be forced to endure testimonials from friends such as Bill Russell, Joe Morgan and Jim Otto, along with the Bay Area's most famous Willie Browns, the former San Francisco mayor and the former Raiders Hall of Fame cornerback.
Somewhere in the room, too, will be the presence of Al Davis, the late former Raiders owner who over a half century was Clem's boss and friend and enemy and father figure.
The event is long overdue recognition of Daniels' football career -- he's the AFL's all-time leading rusher, in several Halls of Fame if not the one in Canton.
Moreover, it acknowledges his commitment to standing on the front lines of so many causes. Social causes, football causes, labor causes,
If Daniels saw something that wasn't right, he felt obligated to address it.
If he was made aware of something that might provide general benefit to the community, he was eager to support it, if not take the lead.
Much of Daniels' commitment to social causes was developed growing up in segregated McKinney, Texas, a town of about 10,000 sitting 32 miles northeast of Dallas. A commencement speaker at the 1955 graduation ceremony at all-black Doty High, Daniels recited lines from the Langston Hughes poem, "I, Too, Sing America."
"Then I started talking about the bigotry and oppression and how folks called black boys they didn't know by three names. We were all 'George or Willie or Lee Roy.' I got halfway through the speech, the audience was standing."
Thanks to Daniels', um, agitation, there would be no more commencement speakers at Doty, which closed in the 1960s.
If there was a single, solitary moment that galvanized young Clem, it came the afternoon he saw the raw agony experienced by his mother, Ida Louise. She worked as a housekeeper for Gibson Caldwell, a bank chairman and civic leader who was among McKinney's wealthiest citizens.
Daniels was summoned to the Caldwell estate shortly after graduating from Doty, riding his bicycle over, ringing the bell and being invited in by a servant who escorted the boy to the study, where Caldwell sat behind a desk.
"He got up and shook my hand, told me he wanted to commend me on the job I did, graduating from high school and getting the opportunity to go to college (historically black Prairie View) on a full scholarship," Daniels recalls. "He said, 'You've done very well for yourself and I wanted to wish you well.'"
A few weeks from turning 18, Clem expressed his appreciation and left, riding his bike back home. A couple hours later, he heard his mother in the kitchen preparing supper and humming a spiritual, which she had a tendency to do when something was gnawing at her soul. The boy she called "Bo" pestered her until she called him into the kitchen.
"When you left today, Mr. Caldwell came in to see me," she said. "He said next time you come to the house, you make sure you come through the back door.
"That's when I noticed the tears streaming down her face."
Daniels says he consoled his mother and made a vow to himself.
"That was my affirmation," he says. "I had to do whatever I could to see that things got better for all of us."
A few years later, after Clem had signed his first AFL contract and bought a new car, Caldwell's bank manager insisted "you get your momma to co-sign" for the financing. Daniels immediately took his bank business across the street.
He maintained his principles after settling in Oakland in 1962, opening several businesses and becoming a civic and business leader. If there was a hotel in the 1960s south unwilling to admit black clientele, he -- with the backing of Davis -- would arrange a boycott. If there was an East Bay neighborhood in the '60s or '70s systematically excluding people of color, it likely heard from Daniels.
When Oakland's Sequoyah Country Club, founded by developer Wayne Valley, one of original Raiders owners, had zero black members in 1985, Daniels quietly pressed the matter until he reached Valley at his business office. Valley conceded his bigotry but told Daniels he was welcome to join. He was one of the "good" ones.
Clem declined, reminding Valley of the larger issue. Not until the next year, a few months after Valley's death, did Sequoyah integrate.
It's altogether likely no current or former pro athlete has invested more of his personal time and money into the Oakland/East Bay community. And Daniels is still going. He's committed to helping the likes of young Eddie Heard Jr., the fabulous McClymonds High athlete, with preposterous potential, reach college and succeed.
So if there is a bit of stoop to Clem Daniels' posture, he has earned it.
Pity him not, though, for 10 minutes at his feet is enough to realize his backbone is steel.
Contact Monte Poole at email@example.com.