Interviewer: Jackie Shearer
Production Team: B
Interview Date: March 3, 1989
Camera Rolls: 2103
Sound Rolls: 247
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 3, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
How old were you when you first heard of Cassius Clay, and what did you and your friends think about him?
I was fourteen or fifteen years old. I was in high school. Well, actually, Jeez, I was in grade school when he won the Olympic gold medal, and I became aware of him at that point, and his ability to verbalize. I thought that was kind of interesting, and I started following his career at that point.
Now when, after the Liston fight Clay announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam, I'm curious about what you, and the kids you were coming up with, thought about that.
Well, I thought it was a bold stand. I didn't really expect anything like that to happen. I just thought he was a colorful guy, and then he seemed to have some serious underpinnings that nobody was aware of.
OK, let me have that again, but if you could, um, have in your response something about when he announced he was--
OK, when Cassius Clay announced that he was actually Muhammad Ali and had joined the Nation of Islam--
When Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and announced his joining the Nation of Islam, I was surprised. I, I thought that he was just a colorful character, and that seemed to show that he had some serious underpinnings beneath all of the, the talk and exterior.
And what about his name change, did that have any particular meaning to you? Did you understand what that was about?
Ah, only on the surface. I really, you know, when he changed his name I, I really didn't have a firm grasp of what the Nation of Islam was about and those types of things. I knew that they had some political leanings and were trying to organize people, but I didn't know exactly what it was about.
But, since you grew up on the streets of New York you must have seen, uh, other people from the Nation of Islam around, so, when the, uh, the media and a lot of Americans were acting as though this were a big negative problem, what, what was your feeling?
Well, the media reaction really didn't affect me that much. By the time that he had changed his name, I, by that time I knew a little bit about what the Nation of Islam was about, uh, as I went through high school. But early on, I really didn't understand, uh, what it was all about, so, it was kind of a mystery to me. I, I enjoyed boxing so much that it, it really didn't bother me one way or the other.
OK, now, let's go forward in time. You were at UCLA and Muhammad Ali announces his opposition to the war in Vietnam. I'm wondering what you thought of it at that time.
Well, when Ali announced his refusal to accept the draft, I thought it was a very brave stand. I'd seen a number of people taking that stand, because while I was at UCLA, uh, the draft and a lot of issues around the Vietnam War became very prominent in everybody's lives, uh, people had to really seriously think about what it meant to be in the armed services and go fight in Vietnam. So, um, I knew it was a political stand. I knew he would take a lot of heat for it.
OK, now, the year after that, you were part of a group of prominent Black athletes who met with Ali. Do you remember that meeting? It was in June '67?
Yes, I do.
Can you go back to that meeting and tell me why, why you all decided to, uh, call it? How did you first get drawn into the group?
Well, um, when the meeting to help Ali was called, back in 1967, uh, I was a sophomore at UCLA and, uh, I'd gotten to know Jim Brown while I was out here in Los Angeles, and, um, he felt that I should be a part of the group, uh, just mainly to represent young people, I guess. And, uh, being a fan of Ali's, I was very happy to lend my support. I didn't know what we could do to help him, but, uh, I wanted to be involved.
And describe what happened in the meeting.
Well, uh, at the meeting, uh, we just basically tried to see what we could do to show support and to help Ali deal with the situation. But, um, aside from legal remedies, there was really very little that we as ordinary citizens could do, uh, to help him, um, beyond just showing our support.
Did any in the group question the extreme nature of his decision? I mean, was there any attempt to sort of pull him back to a maybe a more middle-of-the-road kind of stance?
I think, uh, when we had that meeting, the more pragmatic people would have advised him to accept it and to, um, just play along with the system, but, uh, Ali would have none of that. He knew it was wrong. He knew that he would be used as, uh, an example of the American support for the war, and because of that, because of the nature of, of the propaganda war that was going on here in this country, um, he refused to be any part of it.
Now, you say that you liked boxing and you must've admired him as a fighter. Did you feel that he was sacrificing his career? How did you feel about what he was doing?
I definitely thought that Ali was going to hurt his career and have to start dealing with harassment, uh, from the federal government because, um, they were going to use this case as an example. They were going to make an example of him. They had tried, through, uh, sport, to try to make an example of him, and because of his talent and his courage, um, they couldn't get him to lose in the ring so they had to defeat him in the courts, and use the courts as, uh, as a means to, uh, make him get in line.
And, did this meeting have any impact on you? Did Ali's presence, and, and his position have any effect on you?
Well, I was just, uh, happy to meet Ali. I, you know, just as, person-to-person, and it was nice meeting the other Black athletes and having some type of solidarity with them. The meeting, really, was, um, kind of futile in that it, really, we really couldn't do anything, but we let Black people around the country know that we supported Ali. I think that by that time, Black Americans understood that they were, their presen--their presence in Vietnam was highly disproportionate to their percentage of the American population, and that, uh, the front-line casualties were being absorbed by Black Americans in, in much greater numbers than they should have. And, um, this, this impact was, you know, obvious to everybody and I think this kind of heightened that.
Now, as you think back on--
OK, so thinking back on that meeting, do you remember any specific words that Ali said? Any, any exchange, any conversation?
Not really, I, I don't remember too much what was said. We had a press conference, uh, and, uh, the press conference was just a pretty straight-forward deal where we just announced our support for him, but, I don't remember anything specific that we said.
OK, now I want you to remember that we're back in the sixties and the whole notion of Black identity was a lot newer, and you were a lot younger, and I want you to think back on, um, what impact Ali as, as a Black man and an athlete and the combination of the two had on you.
Well, I think Ali's impact on, on young people was, was very formidable. I remember when I was in high school, um, the teachers at my high school didn't like him because he was so anti-establishment and he kind of thumbed his nose at authority and got away with it, and, uh, they didn't like that at all. The fact that he was proud to be a Black man, and that he was, uh, had so much talent and could enjoy it in a way that, uh, was not seen to be, didn't have the dignity that they assumed that it should have. I think that was something that really made certain people love him and made other people think that he was, he was dangerous. But, for those very reasons, that, that's why I enjoyed him.
OK, thank you, cut. I think we have it.