Originally posted as a Special to ESPN.com, April 3, 2009.
The image is striking: An African-American man who is a Muslim talking to audiences about Jewish people who were leaders in the early civil rights movement and how African-Americans and Jews shared a common fight against oppression. And to add to this eye-catching image, the speaker — the man working to rebuild bridges between the African-American and Jewish communities — is a giant in the sports world.
The man is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It’s happening. Abdul-Jabbar is a speaker in high demand at Holocaust events and for groups fighting anti-Semitism. And to those who know him, that role isn’t surprising at all.
Kareem recently told me, “It is important that African-Americans and Jewish Americans understand their common history, especially at the beginning of the early civil rights movement. Jews supported what African-Americans were trying to achieve in attempts to attain equality. Jewish lawyers worked for the NAACP and played a key role.”
Forty years ago, Abdul-Jabbar, still playing as Lew Alcindor, ended his amazing college basketball career with a third straight national championship, this one coming in UCLA’s 92-72 victory over Purdue, as well as a third straight award as the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA tournament. That season, 1968-69, he also won the first Naismith College Player of the Year Award.
Twenty years ago, he retired from the game as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, a six-time league champion, a six-time league MVP and a 19-time All-Star. Many consider him the greatest player of all time.
I met Lew Alcindor when I was a 13-year-old and he was 12, and we remain friends to this day. He is the most intelligent athlete I know — a person of conscience who stands up for what he believes.
Last year, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose Black Power salute on the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics is one of our most enduring images of the civil rights movement, were finally and rightly celebrated for their courage. That moment was captured in statues; their story was told in documentaries made in the United States, Britain and Australia; and they were honored across the globe for their bold protest against injustice at the Games. It’s easy to forget, however, that Smith and Carlos competed in Mexico City because protest organizers could not pull off a proposed boycott of the Olympics by black athletes.
Alcindor, then a 20-year-old UCLA junior, and a handful of others did not compete in the Olympic basketball trials because they believed the boycott was going to happen. Therefore, they were not part of the Olympic team. Those players were as passionate and outspoken as any who were ostracized by much of America and later celebrated for their fight against discrimination.
In that era, many white Americans did not welcome African-Americans speaking out against racism, whether the protestors were civil rights advocates such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King or athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell. I believe Ali, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar were able to keep competing because they simply were so extraordinarily gifted athletically, although Ali was kept out of boxing for three years for his stance against the Vietnam War. An outspoken athlete with lesser talent than those three brought to their sports would not have been able to continue his athletic career.
Now, years later, Ali is perhaps the most beloved sports figure of all time. After many years of estrangement, Boston and Russell are in a lovefest. And Abdul-Jabbar is a renaissance man.
Kareem has written six books on, among other things, Native Americans, the Harlem Renaissance and World War II. He knows martial arts through his friendship with Bruce Lee. He does yoga, is a jazz historian and breeds horses. He has appeared in movies and on TV; has his own blog; and is about to produce a multimedia show with music, dance and theater in New York, Philadelphia and at Washington’s Kennedy Center, culminating with a performance at the White House.
My favorite Abdul-Jabbar quote is this: “I can do more than stuff a ball through a hoop. My greatest asset is my mind.”
When I was growing up and becoming active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the strong historic alliances between African-Americans and people in the Jewish community were inspiring to me. But a rift slowly grew between blacks and Jews after the ’60s. With the assassinations of leaders like King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, many African-American activists withdrew to their own community to fight for their rights, and old alliances with whites withered. The closest of those alliances — with Jewish people — fell victim to the times. I became saddened to see two groups that should be working together, perhaps more than any others in their common goals and histories, going in different directions.
I often wondered what it would take to bring those groups back together. I had a dear friend in Boston named Lenny Zakim who was the head of the New England Anti-Defamation League. Lenny, who died too young at age 46 in 1999, was a civil rights hero in Boston, where there is a long history of overt racism. Zakim’s work included efforts to bring different groups together, especially the Jewish and African-American communities in Boston. When he died, the city named a new bridge in his honor — the Leonard Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge — and one of his heroes, Bruce Springsteen, performed on it the day it opened.
I introduced Lenny to two of his other heroes, Ali and Abdul-Jabbar. Lenny, who worked with presidents and popes in his quest for unity, was dazzled by both men. I was struck that this Jewish leader held these two African-American men, both of whom were Muslim, in such high regard.
Recently, I went with Abdul-Jabbar to a fundraiser for the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, which had invited him to speak at its annual event. Again, that could seem like an odd choice for those who don’t know Kareem. But he might have been the perfect choice. It is hard these days for nonprofits to sustain their previous levels of fundraising, yet Kareem was a great draw and the event sold out.
Many people, no doubt, came to see a basketball legend. But no one could have left thinking only about Abdul-Jabbar’s athletic fame.
Among his books is “Brothers in Arms,” about the 761st Tank Battalion of African-American soldiers who fought at the end of World War II. Perhaps the most famous member of the regiment was somebody who never got to fight with it in Europe: Jackie Robinson, who was facing a court martial for insubordination after he refused the order of a white driver to go to the back of the bus in 1944. The charge eventually was dismissed, but he left the army before the battalion was deployed on its heroic mission. Jackie used sport in his own way as a vehicle for social change.
The 761st fought in the Battle of the Bulge and in five countries. It helped liberate Dachau, the Nazi death camp, and thus came face-to-face with the Holocaust. In the book, Abdul-Jabbar describes the horrors the soldiers saw in the death camp — jars full of human eyeballs, shoes and clothes left in storage bins, deteriorating bodies and, of course, the infamous showers and ovens where millions of European Jews died.
Kareem, a student of history, saw a connection between the Holocaust and the African slave trade, where an estimated 10 to 15 million Africans lost their lives.
About that night in Florida, Kareem said, “I thought the audience was interested in what I had to say. So many told me they had no idea that black soldiers helped liberate the death camps. They gave me a very warm reception.”
Like so many others, Abdul-Jabbar formed his own values in part as a response to that historic destruction of human life, and he came to comprehend the phrase the Jewish community uses about the Holocaust: “Never before, never again.” He read about the Jewish community in Harlem and the active role of Jews in the early civil rights movement. He wrote “Brothers” to inform America about a group of soldiers who were heroes in battles thousands of miles away and then were forgotten at home, much like their Air Force counterparts, the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Airmen became better known after books were written, a movie was made and numerous documentaries were produced. That increasing awareness is one of the reasons Abdul-Jabbar wrote about the 761st Tank Battalion. He wanted people to know those soldiers’ stories, too.
President Jimmy Carter finally acknowledged the 761st with a Presidential Citation in 1978.
In the process of writing the book, Kareem’s sense of horror about the Holocaust was renewed. What he wrote resulted in his desire to reach out to the Jewish community.
My late friend Lenny Zakim must be smiling, knowing his hero, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, is carrying on his work of bringing Jews and African-Americans together.
Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Cenal Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 13 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.