Are you a student trying to sign in? Click here!

Who is Jim Kelly? A Black American athlete, martial artist and actor.

February 23, 2024

Jim Kelly was a Black American martial artist and actor, most known for starring alongside Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon as well as his Karate championships. He passed on June 29th, 2013 with a reputation that preceded him. Kelly’s legacy is filled with passionate fights, memorable quotes, and incredible stage presence.

When Jim Kelly first began his rise to stardom, martial arts was dominated by Asian settings and culture. Kelly stood as a Black figure who was a Karate champion when most notable Black fighters were boxers. His acting roles would nod towards his model-esque look and feature his iconic afro. Some notable films that featured him include: “Enter the Dragon”, “Black Belt Jones”, “Three the Hard Way”,  “Black Samurai”, and more!



What resulted in Hollywood success wasn’t easy sailing. Jim Kelly began his athletic career in his hometown of Paris, Kentucky where he competed in basketball, football, and track and field at Bourbon County High School. His success led him to attend the University of Louisville on a football scholarship. Unfortunately, Kelly witnessed a coach use a racial slur against his teammate and chose to cut his time short during his freshman year. .

Martial Artist

When one door closes, another opens. After his time with football ended, Jim Kelly began training martial arts with Okinawan Karate under Sin Kwang The’ in Lexington, Kentucky. In the 1970s, Kelly soared to the top of the ranks and became one of Karate’s most decorated world champions. He won four prestigious championships in 1971 and opened his dojo shortly after in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. His dojo became a spot for many Hollywood celebrities, leading him to his path as an actor.


Jim Kelly was the first Black martial arts film star. His Hollywood career began with a martial arts instructor role in “Melinda” (1972). His appearance developed after the film’s writer asked him to join the cast when he taught star Calvin Lockhart martial arts. His career blossomed from there. Kelly co-starred with Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon” where he played Lee’s counterpart. This role came to him when the intended actor dropped out unexpectedly and producer Fred Weintraub heard of Kelly’s famous karate studio. When Weintraub visited, he was immediately impressed by Kelly and the rest became history.


As we celebrate Jim Kelly’s life, success, and accomplishments, we look back fondly at the legacy he created. He paved the way for many Black martial artists by making a memorable and powerful presence on screen. Regardless of the prejudice he faced during his journey, he overcame and worked towards success. As we conclude Black History Month it’s important to celebrate the accomplishments of Black people like Jim Kelly and their significant and diverse contributions. Whether it’s martial arts films, scientific discoveries, pop culture, or everything in between, we must recognize the great changes that have happened thanks to Black people of all ages and genders.