Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the 1964 Harlem Uprising

“Everybody knows me. I’m the big basketball star, the weekend hero, everybody’s All-American,” 20-year-old UCLA star Lew Alcindor, known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after 1971, told a packed conference of 200 attendees in November 1967. He explained his reasons for boycotting the 1968 Olympics.

“Last summer I was almost killed by a racist cop shooting at a Black cat in Harlem,” continued Abdul-Jabbar. “He was shooting on the street — where masses of Black people were standing around or just taking a walk. But he didn’t care. After all we were just a bunch of n—. I found out last summer . . . We catch hell because we are Black. Somewhere each of us has got to take a stand against this kind of thing. This is how I make my stand — using what I have. And I take my stand here.”

The audience exploded in a five-minute standing ovation. Dr. Harry Edwards — then the lead organizer behind Olympic Project for Human Rights, which culminated in the 1968 boycott in Mexico City — called it “perhaps the most moving and dynamic statements” on behalf of the Olympic boycott that he had been attempting to organize.

Abdul-Jabbar’s speech was one of the greatest moments in athlete-activist history, but it was never filmed. As far as popular memory is concerned, the boycott itself was undocumented. Throughout his career, this dearth of visual remembrance compelled the athlete-activist to write extensively about the real impetus for his boycott: the historic 1964 Harlem Uprising.

The uprising, dubbed “The Harlem Riots” by the white press, was the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings of their day. It began after white off-duty police officer Thomas Gilligan shot 15-year-old James Powell to death in front of his friends and a dozen witnesses. Soon, hundreds joined the six-day uprising.

Abdul-Jabbar’s experiences with police terror, specifically during the Harlem Uprising, came into focus as the then 17-year-old basketball phenom emerged from the subway and “felt like he was stepping into a war movie.”

Abdul-Jabbar covered the uprising as an investigative journalist for the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU-ACT) journalism workshop, which was led by famed historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke. He later wrote, "I was reborn in Harlem in the summer of '64." The same year, the writer discovered and was immersed in Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1969 (Wikimedia Commons, Malcolm W. Emmons).

Abdul-Jabbar’s 1968 protest does not exist in a vacuum. Like Colin Kaepernick 50 years later, the rebellion of ordinary people propelled him. However, unlike Kaep’s kneeling or Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s iconic raised fists, Abdul-Jabbar’s 1968 Olympic boycott lacks any indelible visual cues to make its memory permanent. The same can be said of the 1964 Harlem Uprising itself. Perhaps this is why Abdul-Jabbar can’t stop referencing it in nearly half of the 15 books he has authored as the foremost athlete-intellectual of our times.

Abdul-Jabbar first publicly shared his Harlem Uprising experience in a 1969 Sports Illustrated article where he described how he “stood there trembling” amid the “wild and insane” chaos. Over the decades, he’s described a range of emotions: Fear (Becoming Kareem): “I ran. I ran as hard and as fast as I could, afraid my height would make me an easy target for a nervous cop and I’d end up like the 15-year-old kid.”

Anger (Giant Steps): “The fact that I [also] felt the impulse to put a brick through Woolworth’s front window, didn’t make me any less aware that it would do no good. I knew cops shot kids, I knew the cops were white and more often than not the kids weren’t.”

Purpose (On the Shoulders of Giants): “This summer had been a rite of passage for me, a leap from being a child of the projects to being a citizen of Harlem. I knew what my history was, who my people were— and where my future pointed.” Abdul-Jabbar’s experience during the Harlem Uprising pointed toward his 1968 boycott, but his journalistic activism began the very next day. “We interviewed people all over the Harlem streets,” he wrote in Giant Steps. “The conclusions at street level were inescapable: starting with the cop’s victim, a whole lot of innocent people had been beaten up and shot at by the police because they were black. It was that clear.” Abdul-Jabbar also lamented that national media “focused on property damage and police injuries, not Harlem’s powerlessness.” The media pathology of prioritizing property over people commonly occurs after protests for police accountability, but rarely after sports riots by white fans.

Activism followed Abdul-Jabbar out of New York City. He arrived at UCLA in 1965, just two weeks after the Watts Rebellion. In 1966, Malcolm X’s posthumous autobiography made “a bigger impression on me than any book I had ever read,” and in June 1967, he participated in the famous “Cleveland Summit” where a cadre of famous Black athletes supported Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War.

What’s notable about the famous Summit photo is that Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and the other athletes standing with Ali were mostly near the end of their professional careers, whereas Abdul-Jabbar’s hadn’t even started. His 1968 protest is akin to LeBron, Serena, and Kobe holding a solidarity press conference to support Kaepernick and being joined by Duke University basketball star Zion Williamson.

If Zion was tear-gassed in Ferguson in 2014, wrote about it in a local newspaper, announced that he planned to boycott the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to protest police brutality, and kept writing about it until 2070, then you might understand the unimaginability of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

And if you think the 71-year-old has mellowed, then you haven’t read his takes on the indentured servitude of college athletes, his immediate solidarity with Kaepernick, or the eight books he has churned out since 2012.

Abdul-Jabbar’s critics failed to understand that he had witnessed extreme racial brutality and poverty in Harlem, John Matthew Smith summarized in “Lew Alcindor and the Revolt of the Black Athlete.” His detractors also argued that Abdul-Jabbar was obligated to represent the United States in the Olympics.

“Yes, I owe an obligation to my country,” Abdul-Jabbar maintained, “but my country also owes an obligation to me as a Black man, an obligation that has not been fulfilled for 400 years.”

About the Author

Chuck Modiano is an educator, journalist, and youth advocate dedicated to exposing power, oppression, and privilege in sports and policing. He has amplified marginalized voices at protests including Ferguson, Baltimore, Standing Rock, Selma (#50), and Charlottesville. He is currently a sports columnist for the New York Daily News, and has been a contributing author to “Killing Trayvons” and “Football Culture and Power.”