Kareem Speaks…

Kareem Speaks…

by Aja Witt

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks with University of Iowa Vice President for Student Life, Melissa Shivers at Hancher Auditorium, March 25, 2018.

NBA legend and long time civil rights activist, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar visited Hancher auditorium at the University of Iowa to discuss political activism, the Take A Knee Movement, and the ‘68 Olympics, on Sunday, March 25.

Hearing about the event, I knew I had to be in attendance. For one, it’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I’ve known of him since childhood, when I first attempted his trademark “skyhook” (it didn’t work out too well because… uncoordinated). For two, I’ve been researching the Take A Knee Movement, and other social justice movements, for my honors thesis — I’m fascinated by social media’s impact on movements of the 21st century and the role the mainstream news media plays in distributing the activist message.

First impression… Wow. I hope when I’m 70 years old I still have the patience to speak gently about systemic inequality. No, seriously. I was amazed by the level of optimism Abdul-Jabbar possesses after 50 plus years of activism. I’ve merely dipped my toe in the activism pool and already I’m wanting to get out.

Lobbying this past summer was hard. Having to sit across from politicians and political aides, practically begging them not to do away with SNAP, or sign on to a deadly healthcare bill, nearly took me out. But reporting on these issues was infinitely worse. Attending anti-assault rallies and hearing survivors speak, discussing the Iowa City education gap with members of the school board, or talking to affected citizens about the 2017 travel ban. I’m already feeling the mental and emotional strain of being a digital age activist, so careers like Abdul-Jabbar’s truly give me hope.

The Makings of an Activist

A student at UCLA during the mid to late 1960s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar credits the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the moment he knew he needed to be an activist.

“For me, the time that really jumps out to me is 1968… right after Dr. King was assassinated,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I realized that despite the advances that we’d just made, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Voting Rights Act had just been passed… in the hearts of too many people there was hatred.”

So in 1968, a year that lives in sports infamy for Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute on the Olympic podium during the national anthem, Abdul-Jabbar would forgo the trip to Mexico City, deciding instead to demonstrate on campus.

Abdul-Jabbar (33) in 1989 performing his “skyhook” as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — a team he won 5 NBA championships with. (Associated Press)

During these demonstrations he was asked a question that is all too familiar for, not only Black, but any person of color who chooses to pick up a basketball, sing a song, or run for office: “Why are you complaining?” For Abdul-Jabbar, this question was preceded by the statement, “you’re getting drafted,” but the idea of anyone needing to feel grateful because their assimilation has allowed for relative ascendancy is asinine and dangerous.

This question is constantly thrown in the faces of minorities, basically telling us to ‘shut the hell up’ if it doesn’t concern us. The problem is, it does concern us. Being drafted doesn’t make Kareem any less Black. It doesn’t symbolize systemic equality, or erase the centuries of oppression the majority has inflicted, and continues to inflict, on the minority in America and around the globe. Questions like these, and the assumptions that come with them, are very much so the reason why we need social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, Take A Knee, #MeToo, and #YouOKSis, today.

Taking A Knee and Taking A Stand

From the very beginning, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been outspoken about the Take A Knee Movement — for an end to police brutality and racial injustice — and Colin Kaepernick. Going so far as to call Kap a “hero”, Kareem has identified the national anthem protests as “highly patriotic”, and I thank him for that.

Patriotism, as a love and support for one’s country, should never be blind. I should never be more in love with a hymn, or a piece of fabric, than I am with protecting the lives and ensuring the rights of actual human beings.

It’s true that we are all born with rights, and shouldn’t have to be given these rights, but the rights of all persons is not recognized in the U.S. and abroad. Those with power and privilege have used it to deny full citizenship to marginal groups for centuries and we’re tired of it.

Abdul-Jabbar is recognized with the 2018 Distinguished Lecturer award for the UI. This award goes to renowned individuals and notable speakers who serve as role models and are addressing diverse topics nationally and within our communities.

Speaking in front of a packed Hancher crowd, Abdul-Jabbar stated, “you can’t enjoy the rights of citizenship then question [the actions of] those who are being denied those rights,” and I nodded in agreement. I looked around at all the hands clapping harshly and wondered if these people were co-signing, as John Carlos said, a movement or a moment.

I’m not sure I have what it takes to coddle the oppressive class until they get it right, but I know I have to. I know that as a minority that’s expected of me, and we’re all supposed to hoot and holler when the majority gets it right just some of the time. Hopefully, before too long, they’ll all realize that we’re human beings just like them and deserve to be treated that way. But for now, as Abdul-Jabbar said, “[we’ll] do what we do, because in the end, it’ll be justified.”