Kareem Abdul Jabbar
Kareem Abdul Jabbar (1947- ) was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr., in New York City. He grew to be seven feet three inches tall. He played basketball for UCLA from 1967-1969, where he guided them through to three NCAA titles. As a result, he was named NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player three times. He also earned the title of College Player of the Year from 1967-1968 from The Sporting News, United Press International, The Associated Press, and the U. S. Basketball Writer’s Association. While at UCLA he converted to Islam and took his Arabic name.
In 1969 he was the NBA number one draft pick, and went on to play for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. During his twenty-year career, he was named the NBA Most Valuable Player six times: 1971, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1977, and 1980. He also won six NBA championships—the first with the Bucks in 1971, and then five times with the Lakers.
The excerpt below is from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Alan Steinberg, Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African American Achievement (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1996), 204-206. In pages 199-204 the authors provide an overview of the Emmett Till case, after which Abdul-Jabaar then speaks personally as to its affects upon his own life. What follows is his personal reflection. The excerpt is presented as divided by the original pagination.
In the late sixties, when I was at UCLA, I read an amazing book that affected me profoundly. It was Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi. Moody was fourteen when Emmett Till was lynched. His murder was so savage, it petrified her. This passage about it in her autobiography has never left me
Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me—the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears. I knew once I got food, the fear of starving to death would leave. I also was told that if I were a good girl, I wouldn’t have to fear the Devil or hell. But I didn’t know what one had to do or not to do as a Negro not to be killed. Probably just being a Negro period was enough, I thought.
I remember when I first read this, it gave me chills. I felt like I was living inside Anne Moody’s skin. It made me recall, vividly, how Emmett Till’s lynching affected me when it happened. And I
started feeling uneasy all over again. I was eight years old when I saw a photo of Emmett’s body in Jet magazine. It made me sick. His face was distorted, gruesomely bloated. I had no idea what happened to him, but my parents discussed it at length; and the Jet photo left an indelible image I could never forget.
But that was the point; Emmett’s mother had insisted on an open casket and a public viewing because she wanted people to see what senseless racism had done to her child. The day of his funeral, she was addressing the world as she asked reporters: “Have you ever sent a loved one on vacation and had him returned in a pine box so horribly battered and waterlogged that someone needs to tell you this sickening sight is your son—lynched?”
That was her way of putting people on notice.
And it worked. Thousands of Chicagoans viewed Emmett’s body that day and millions saw the grisly photo from Jet. (In 1955 black newspapers, like the Chicago Defender, Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh Courier, and Baltimore Afro-American, and magazines like Jet and Ebony, were among more than two hundred black publications reaching African Americans.)
The murder shocked me; I began thinking of myself as a black person for the first time, not just a person. And I grew more distrustful and wary. I remember thinking: They killed him because of his color. In a way, I lost my childish innocence. I felt like I was living in Transylvania; all of a sudden, the color of my skin represented a danger. From then on, I was always aware, like Anne Moody, that I could be hurt or even killed just for being black.
Pretty soon, my relationships started changing in school. For example, I remember that the day we had to rearrange our desks in sixth grade, I was out of the classroom. When I came back, my desk was the only one set apart. One of the kids said, “Yeah, he’s segregated!” And everyone thought it was funny, except me and the only other black kid in the class. I think the reason I remember the innocuous incident is because it was part of an aftershock from Emmett Till.
The same apprehensions kept bubbling up all through my adolescence. When I was at parties with my parents, there were often discussions about black-white relations, and I started to listen. I remember a man from the Cape Verde Islands who lived in New England and was married to my mom’s best friend. He had what people back then called black consciousness. He would speak in terms of “The Black Man”; around 1960, that was a flamebrower. Lightning in the sky: The Black Man.
As an adult looking back, it always intrigued me how Emmett Till’s murder became so momentous. Of the thousands of black lynchings in this country since Emancipation, his was the one that racists could not sweep under the rug; Mamie Bradley had seen to that. Author Clenora Hudson-Weems, a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who wrote Emmett Till: Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement, said about Emmett’s photo, “His bloated face was the ugliness of American racism staring us right in the eye.” That was how I experienced it; and how millions of other African American’s experienced it, too.
Certainly, Rosa Parks. Because when her opportunity came up, she put some people on notice. And like Emmett Till, she changed all of our lives.