Basketball great and social activist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will present the 2018 Free Expression Awards given by the Newseum. The Newseum, in Washington DC, celebrates journalistic excellence, first amendment rights, and the power of transparency. Abdul-Jabbar will doubtless be the tallest presenter in the short history of the awards, but he will be commemorating two fellow giants of free expression — Dr. John Carlos and Dr. Tommie C. Smith. The two men created one of the most enduring images of peaceful, powerful protest when as American Olympians in 1968 they bowed their heads and raised their fists on the medal stand. It is one of the most recognizable images in both sports and civil rights.
Amazing! On this day in 1968, Tommie Smith + John Carlos protested racial inequality with a Black Power Salute at the Mexico Olympics. pic.twitter.com/t8iUWbirHB
— COMMON (@common) October 17, 2017
Abdul-Jabbar, whose excellent memoir had the apt name Giant Steps — after both what he and society must take, and after the John Coltrane album — skipped those same Olympics to protest what Smith and Carlos raised also their fists about: systemic racism in the US. It’s a problem that hasn’t gone away, though genuine awareness of racial inequality is far greater today than when Carlos and Smith raised their iconic fists in 1968. That awareness has a lot to do with the actions these courageous athletes undertook — actions which got them exiled from the Olympic team and saw their lives threatened. They inspired what came after. Abdul-Jabbar, who also famously supported Muhammad Ali‘s decision to avoid the Vietnam draft, is expected to stir the crowd with his thoughts on April 17, when he gives out the awards. Abdul-Jabbar himself was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.