Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been fighting for more than 50 years.
Ever since age 8, when the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 changed his perception, Abdul-Jabbar has cemented his place in the struggle for equality in America.
“I didn’t know why. You know, I saw that he had been murdered and I asked my parents, ‘Why did they murder him?’ and my parents did not have the words to explain it all to me,” Abdul-Jabbar told Deadspin. “I was determined at that moment to figure out what was going on … I thought that, you know, life in America should not be me fearing that, for some trivial incident, I could lose my life.”
Since that traumatic day in 1955, Abdul-Jabbar has stuck to his word. He supported Muhammad Ali at the Cleveland Summit in 1967, where the best athletes in the world showed support for the boxing star after he refused to participate in the Vietnam War. Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, was only in college, at UCLA, when he made the bold choice to take part in one of history’s most iconic stands against social injustice. The next year, he refused to participate in the 1968 Olympics because the Olympic Committee had unfairly kept Jewish athletes from competing in the 1936 Olympics as their presence would have “annoyed” Hitler.
Abdul-Jabbar has been in this mix for a while, he isn’t new to this, he’s true to this. And now, following arguably the most impactful year of social awakening in decades, he’s back lending his voice to the cause on a national platform.
On Juneteenth, the History Channel will air Fight the Power: The Movements That Changed America, a documentary about the key moments that shaped the nation into what it is today. Abdul-Jabbar serves as an executive producer and narrator for the project, which is set to air at 8 p.m. EST on Saturday.
Movements like the labor movement of the 1880s, women’s suffrage and civil rights, to the LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter, have had a significant impact on this country.
For Abdul-Jabbar, the motivation to create this project was simple. It’s about understanding how all of these pivotal circumstances came to be, and the similarities they all share.
No one is free when others are oppressed
“I just felt that we don’t understand how all of these movements really started,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “Basically the same issue with people, not satisfied with how they’re being treated and dealt with here in America, and demanding change.”
It’s been a pretty consistent theme in this country that when oppressed groups have finally had enough of the mistreatment that they face daily, they rise up and take a stand. But there’s one thing that always has a major impact on these movements: when voices from people in other communities join in.
“I think when regular citizens understand that people are suffering, and add their voices to those of the people who are suffering, you know, that type of empathy really catches on,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “People get it. They understand what’s going on … it’s change. People will have better lives. Once that message gets across, and people support that, positive change is the result.”
As for Abdul-Jabbar, he’s seen the ins and outs of the fight for equality. To him, the key to achieving change is to not leave anyone behind.
“In order to achieve the equality that we want, I think we have to get to the point where we don’t leave anybody out,” he said. “We have to maintain our contacts with the various groups that respond and are affected by these issues. And if we do that, if we keep building the bridges, we will be able to get to where we want to get to. … We can’t leave other people hanging. We have to maintain the effort to make sure that all of us are free and all of us have freedom, justice, and equality in the correct measures that they should have.”
Abdul-Jabbar has seen what it takes to progress as a society. However, through the wisdom he’s gained from years of experience in the struggle and helping to stand up for others, he understands that we are still far from the promised land. This documentary is not just another explanation of how far we’ve come — it’s a reminder of how much further we still have to go in this country.
“I think that’s basically the nature of how this goes, you know, we make some progress and we also do have the people trying to pull this back into the Dark Ages,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “So we have to be really persistent and never take a day off. We have to go out there every day and confront these issues until they are no more.”