Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is widely regarded as the greatest center of all time. He holds the record for most career points (38,387), as well as the record for defensive rebounds in a single season (1,111), and he has six championship rings — five of which he won during his 14 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.
However, while Abdul-Jabbar is most famous for the work he did on the court, he’s also done important work off the court as a social activist. In fact, before he even played his first game in the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar was one of the faces of the fight for racial equality in the 1960s because of his decision to boycott the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. At the time, Abdul-Jabbar — who then went by his birth name, Lew Alcindor — was the most dominant college basketball player in the country at UCLA.
Now, at the age of 72, Abdul-Jabbar promotes social activism through education, and on Wednesday, the documentary he executive produced and lended his voice to, “Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution,” will debut on the History Channel. The one-hour documentary recognizes the black heroes who fought on the frontlines of the Revolutionary War for US independence, including Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, Phillis Wheatley and James Armistead Lafayette.
Ahead of the release of the documentary, I talked to Kareem about his passion for Black History and why he thought it was important to tell these stories. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:
Silver Screen and Roll: For people that only know your work as a basketball player, can you talk about what drew you to a unique topic like black patriots in the Revolutionary War?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I was a history major at UCLA and Black History has always been something that’s very important to me.
SS&R: Would you say your decision to make this documentary was inspired by the absence of black history in your own American history books growing up?
Abdul-Jabbar: I don’t think it was covered at all. I know in my history books there was no mention of black participation in the Revolutionary War, and what I found out was that we would have not won the Revolutionary War if it were not for the participation of blacks and other people of color.
SS&R: The Revolutionary War was over 200 years ago. Why is it so important for people to know this part of history right now?
Abdul-Jabbar: I think it’s important because of the whole tribalism partisan animosity that’s going on in our country. When you see this, it’s kind of amazing because all different types of people enables us to achieve our freedom. It wasn’t just white people, okay? It was people of color: Black people, Native Americans. They all contributed to affecting the freedom of our country, and we have to find ways to acknowledge and appreciate that.
SS&R: Outside of the war story themselves, what do you hope people learn from watching this documentary?
Abdul-Jabbar: I hope they get an understanding that we’re all deserving of first class citizenship, we all deserve to have our rights respected and affirmed, because all of us have given something to what makes this country the great place that it is.
“Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution” will air on Wednesday at 6 p.m. PT on the History Channel.