Interview. We spoke with the civil rights leader and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He said the uniting of different marginalized groups and increased awareness among whites gives this movement a fighting chance.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: ‘If one of us is not free, none of us is free’

Standing seven-foot-two with 38,387 points to his name over a 20-year pro basketball career, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will forever be the sky hook master. But he is also an eloquent thinker and an outspoken activist for civil rights.

A 73, the NBA legend is still active in the game and is an award-winning writer (he was twice handed the Los Angeles Press Club columnist of the year award). His most recent piece, published by the Los Angeles Times, captured the essence of a nation which finds itself on a familiar brink.

“Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible,” wrote Abdul-Jabbar. “Even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere.” In his editorial he speaks directly to those who would scold protesters for the clashes and looting which happened as the rage boiled over in the first couple of days.

“You’re not wrong — but you’re not right, either. The black community is used to the institutional racism inherent in education, the justice system and jobs. And even though we do all the conventional things to raise public and political awareness — write articulate and insightful pieces in The Atlantic, explain the continued devastation on CNN, support candidates who promise change — the needle hardly budges.”

Many black American athletes have had a historical role in leading the struggle for civil rights,  a role which Abdul-Jabbar took up at just 21 when he declined to represent his country — then freshly drenched in the blood of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy — on the basketball team headed for gold at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Those were the games in which John Carlos and Tommie Smith would indelibly protest American racism and bloodlust with gloved fists.

More recently Colin Kaepernick carried the torch, taking a knee against exactly the kind of police brutality which has finally revolted the country. The 49ers quarterback was rewarded with vicious attacks, presidential insults and finally blackballed from the league. It’s a possible measure of the current sea change that NFL commissioner Roger Gooddell has now publicly apologized (although offered no reparations) to Kaepernick.

Like his own idol, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has never lost sight of the priorities in his life and in that of America, especially as it experiences another convulsion in its troubled journey from original sin to redemption.

How do you see your role?

Well, I think the black athlete has played a central role for civil and human rights. :ook at Jackie Robinson, starting the year I was born, breaking the color barrier. Black athletes have been able to make significant contributions to the fight for civil rights. And sometimes they are successful and sometimes they take a beating. But it’s something that they continue to do.

People now can appreciate what Colin Kaepernick did. He was demonstrating on this very same issue that they kind of now have an understanding of, with the death of Mr. Floyd. So even though it might have seemed that Colin wasted his opportunity, people now understand what he was all about and this is confirmation of the stand that he took. So we have to appreciate the sacrifices that black athletes make and give them the support that they deserve when they try to make a stand.

How did you become a fighter for civil rights?

Well I think it started for me with the murder of Emmett Till. I was only 8 years old when he was murdered, and I asked my parents to explain why he was murdered and they couldn’t answer. They didn’t have the words, they weren’t articulate enough. And I just wanted to find out what it was about and hopefully not fall victim to what Emmett Till fell victim to, the racism and hostility that had no basis in reality. Black Americans were dealt with as stereotypes and really it was a very terrible existence. So just being able to make a statement by not going to the Olympics, at that time Dr. King had just been assassinated in April of 1968 and it really stifled any kind of patriotic feelings that I had had.

Did you meet leaders of the movement?

Yeah, I knew a number of them. Some of the leaders I knew, Stokley Carmichael. I saw different black nationalists that spoke while I was still in high school. Harlem was a very active place for civil rights and we were also addressed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and I got to meet Dr. King. It was a very important day of my life. I got to have a friendship with Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, the player for the Boston Celtics and one of the greatest winners in professional sports who ever lived. He was a mentor in many ways. So I had a whole lot of people that I could speak to that were friends. They had what they called a “Cleveland Summit,” which was a meeting to try to help. Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Bill Russell organized it and they invited me.

How different is the Black Lives Matter movement we see today?

Well, I think so many marginalized groups all understand that we are all dealing with the same problem. We can’t get equal protection under the law. LGBTQ people, Muslims, Jews, women — we all suffer from the same problem. So as we band together, we have a lot more power as we come together and we understand that if one of us is not free, none of us is free. And we are all banding together and we have a more powerful voice. And I am seeing that just recently in all the demonstrations, because people are starting to get through to them and are like, “Hey, we all banded together, because they are picking on us.” And it’s all about the same issue.

Why has it gained such renewed traction?

I think the graphic nature of the footage of Mr. Floyd being killed, really, it’s hard to take when you understand what is going on. And no one can say that that is not a horrible thing to see and a crime. So people got it at that point that black Americans have been saying all along that we are policed too much and we are policed violently, speaking about black Americans, that they are policed too violently and they are policed too much. And this is a result of a long history going back 400 years.

What do you think is the role of whites?

I think white people, all they have to do is speak the truth about what they see. Most white people don’t get vivid examples of how racism can make your life horrible, and they don’t see it because it doesn’t encroach into their lives. So it’s hard to have a subtle example of something that you are not aware of. So the more moral awareness you can raise, the better it is. My coach at UCLA John Wooden, famous coach here in America, did not understand how black Americans are stereotyped and dealt with in horrible ways, until I traveled with him with our team and he saw how some people had things to say beyond my earshot that were ugly and racist. He didn’t get it. But that was the first time he saw it. And I had heard the N word from the time I was a kid. So just increasing awareness has enabled people to get it.

I think the horror of Mr. Floyd being murdered is something that no one can dismiss. And the young lady that was there and filmed it with a camera, she had the courage to have her camera focused and show the world what black Americans have known from the experience of their lives.

Are you optimistic?

There’s no telling for sure what’s going to happen. I’ve always had hope, I’ve said that I am caught between hope and history. Our history is not too good on this subject, as you just suggested. The sharp focus that we have for a few moments fades and nothing gets done, that is the pattern. But what I have seen in the past couple of weeks has been remarkable, and I think this may be a time where there might have been some political will developed possibly for a change and I am hoping that that’s the case.

This is an election year. What are your thoughts?

I’m just worried that apathy or complacency might take hold with people and they don’t come out and vote. We have to vote and make sure to use the democratic process to express our feelings about the way our country is being governed. So it is my hope that all the people who want to see change, exercise their right to vote. And I will leave it at that.

Four years ago the majority of Americans rejected Trump and yet the country was dragged screaming along with him.

Well the Electoral College is an anachronism. And the majority of people in America live in cities and our legislative bodies don’t reflect that. So it’s a disproportionate means of delivering power to states that have very few people, but they have enough power in the Senate to distort the desires of the nation. Most people in a nation feel a certain way, but getting the electoral results that you need to reflect what the majority needs does not happen all the time. So we kind of have to figure out a way to deal with that. I hope. That is my take on the Electoral College. I don’t really think it serves the interests of the majority of voters, but that’s the system that we have.

What needs to change first?

I think systemic reform review should be a part of the process. And I hope that the police organizations, unions, what have you, benevolent associations, they become part of the process, because unless they buy into the reform, there’s not going to be any reform. So we have to have the police involved so that they can make it a reasonable situation where we still have the public protected. We need police, we just don’t need bad police.

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