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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar explores relationship between his cop father and his activism

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A new essay titled "Black Cop's Kid" touches on an experience that sounds recent - news of a Black teenager killed by a white police officer and seeing the violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement that ensued.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

CORNISH: But this was in 1964 in Harlem days after the killing of 15-year-old James Powell.

KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, I was at 135th Street.

CORNISH: And that self-described Black cop's kid was the eventual author and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

ABDUL-JABBAR: There's a library there, the Schomburg Library, that's very well-known for being dedicated to Black studies. So I wanted to go by there, but I never made it. There was too much violence and chaos in the streets. And I got back on the subway and went home.

CORNISH: In his essay, Abdul-Jabbar reflects on how he saw his late father, NYPD Lieutenant Ferdinand Alcindor Sr. He saw him as a hero in their community, and he talks about how that view was shaken after seeing other officers target Black protesters during the Harlem riots of 1964.

ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, I didn't talk to my father about it. I'd never questioned it before. But, you know, for me in the moment, I saw, wow, it's not good to be in the middle of all of this. You know, it's something that you, as an individual, don't have the power to sort out.

CORNISH: Abdul-Jabbar told me more about his path towards sorting it all out and eventually following his father's footsteps in the, quote, "family business" - not law enforcement but, in his words, fighting for justice as an athlete and writer.

ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, you got to fight for your rights and privileges. That's a constant thing for Black Americans that doesn't ever turn off.

CORNISH: But you're also saying here that being in law enforcement doesn't necessarily mean you are fighting for that cause.

ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, being in law enforcement gives you some power in the debate, but it still doesn't exempt you. You have things to do. You have to enforce the law. And enforcing the law in a disproportionate way is wrong. Black cops get pulled in that direction. And, you know, sometimes you have to make a stand.

CORNISH: Do you think the country has the will or the interest in doing substantive police reform?

ABDUL-JABBAR: I think the country is ambivalent about it.

CORNISH: What's at the heart of that conflict, coming from a person who writes about being conflicted about being connected to law enforcement through family?

ABDUL-JABBAR: It's nice to be assumed to be innocent. And, you know, most white Americans can count on that. Most Black Americans have to deal with the opposite - to be under suspicion just because of the color of your skin. And this is something that seems to happen quickly and automatically when there's a problem. I was very affected by what Doc Rivers, who's a basketball coach - what he had to say. He said, we continually try to show our love for this country, and the country continually tries to show that it doesn't love us. And I think that statement really sums it up.

CORNISH: I want to talk about your first brush with activism. You talk about early in your career - this is while you're at UCLA - you end up participating in what became known as the Cleveland Summit. This was back in 1967, for people who don't know. It was organized by the NFL legend Jim Brown, and he brings people together in support of Muhammad Ali, who is in the midst of deciding that he was going to refuse to be drafted for the Vietnam War. Was it just about taking on the federal government? Or did you, as a young Black athlete, see him doing something even bigger than that?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, you know, I was intrigued at being invited because I'd been a fan of Muhammad Ali since the 1960 Olympics. I always thought that he was the greatest. So, you know, having a chance to go to a meeting that was going to try to help him was something I wanted to do. At the time, the federal government was not on the side of the civil rights movement. And I think that's putting it mildly. So you never know, you know, who in the federal government is on your side and who isn't.

CORNISH: You write in the essay that you see a direct connection between Black activism in sports and the general view that athletes should, as one right-wing commentator kind of put it a few years ago, shut up and play. Can you expand on that? What is it about Black activism that you think has, in a way, made it difficult or created kind of cautionary lessons for other athletes in general?

ABDUL-JABBAR: You know, statements like that are made by white Americans who want to see Black Americans just calmly wait to be given all the rights and privileges of American citizenship. I remember I had a teacher in high school who was like, you guys got to wait. And what do we got to wait for? We fought in the Revolutionary War. This is our country, too.

CORNISH: One of the most prominent athletes of our time on this issue, Colin Kaepernick - he's really started to feel like a lone wolf voice. Where are the rest of the athletes to take this kind of step? There hasn't exactly been, you know, a modern-day version of the Cleveland Summit. And what he's doing speaks directly to the issues you're talking about. Do you get the sense that there's any urgency or modern kind of movement of activism like you were a part of at one point?

ABDUL-JABBAR: I think that if another person came along like Colin Kaepernick, he would get support. People that wanted to support him didn't want to deal with the consequences with other people that they knew. There was a lot of that going on - you know, people saying, well, he's probably - he might be right, but I don't want to have anything to say about it. Some of the guys got behind him eventually. But sometimes it's hard for guys to have the courage to make a statement. So I'm really proud and happy that the NBA players made their statement about the same issues. And there were games that weren't played because of what happened to George Floyd, and that had to do with athletes making a statement.

CORNISH: In the end, what would you like people to take away from this essay? And what do you think we have to do in terms of bringing political will to have a substantive conversation about police reform?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, I think we will not have peace - real peace in this country until we can deal with the issue of racism, especially within our legal system and throughout law enforcement. And we have to have a dialogue. We have to talk about this, about some very tough issues and incidents. But we have to talk about them and enact legislation and circumstances that will make it possible for all Americans to feel that their rights and privileges are respected and defended.

CORNISH: That's award-winning columnist, author and NBA all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His essay "Black Cop's Kid" is available on Amazon.

Thank you for speaking with us.

ABDUL-JABBAR: It's been a pleasure. Nice talking with you.

CORNISH: And a final note - Amazon is a financial sponsor of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOM YORKE SONG, "ATOMS FOR PEACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.