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Nothing in my whole life caused as unpleasant a commotion as the storm I got into over the Olympic boycott. My decision not to play was, in the end, one I made for myself; I felt I was right, I still feel I was right, and in the same circumstances I would do the same thing again.
The proposal to lay a black boycott on the whole Olympics first came up in November of my junior year. On Thanksgiving Day black athletes from the West Coast met with Harry Edwards, the sociology professor from San Jose State who masterminded the whole boycott idea. Let me say right here that Harry Edwards is a very intelligent and courageous man, and I am proud to know him. He stood up for black athletes long before anybody else, and in the face of all kinds of pressure. His two dogs were cut up and thrown on his front lawn, and that didn't even slow Professor Edwards down. He has guts and he is one of the great men. I feel the same about some of the other boycott spokesmen: John Carlos, Lee Evans, Tommie Smith.
At that Thanksgiving meeting we discussed the possibility of a boycott, but we did not make any firm decisions. We agreed that a boycott might be a good idea, and we agreed that we had to do something. We didn't want any more of that stuff where Cassius Clay walks into a restaurant with his Olympic gold medal around his neck and can't get a glass of orange juice. If white America behaved that way, then white America could win the Olympics on its own.
The next day the press learned about the meeting, and I gave one of my rare interviews. Right from the beginning of the interview the baiting started. I was none too popular with the reporters anyway, the idea of a boycott didn't appeal to them, and Harry Edwards was anathema, so they were loaded for bear when they turned on their television cameras and began. They asked me if we were going to boycott the Olympics. I said I didn't know, that we had discussed the idea but had reached no final conclusion—which was certainly the truth. Well, they asked me that question about eight times, as though I was lying to them, and when they saw that they were getting no place, one of them said, "How do you feel about an Olympic boycott?" I said, "Well, if you live in a racist society and you want to express yourself about racism, there's a lot of things you can do, and a boycott is one of them." But I emphasized that my mind was still open, which it was.
They kicked this around for about five minutes, and then they turned to another subject. What would I, Lew Alcindor, do to solve the racial problem in the United States? I tried to give a serious explanation, but there was so much interrupting and so much derision and negativism that I finally blew my cool. I said, "Look, man, why do you ask me these questions? Why don't you ask a sociologist? I'm not a sociologist or an anthropologist or a politician. Go ask the right people. I'm not qualified to talk on this."
I was annoyed. I sensed the ridiculous nature of all this questioning. These men in front of me didn't care about racial problems. If they had cared they'd have been out talking to the presidents of AT & T, Ford, General Motors, the representatives of the power structure. Why put it all on me, a 20-year-old basketball player? Of course, they were putting it on me because they wanted to exploit my name. They weren't interested in relieving my suffering. What they wanted was some kind of story they could pin my name on. And they were being very self-righteous about it, very pompous. When they couldn't pin me down to anything positive, because there really wasn't anything positive to say, they started getting annoyed and nasty and acted as though I was lying to them.
You can imagine how friendly the write-ups were. For a while I was deluged with hate mail. People said I was an uppity nigger. They said I was a traitor because I was considering boycotting the Olympics when sport had done so much for me. They said I should be thrown out of UCLA and barred from professional basketball. Some people said they would never watch another game till I was gone. But I'll give UCLA credit: the school never brought a bit of pressure on me, never remotely suggested that I should shut up or refuse to discuss controversial issues. And in the end, I made my own decision about boycotting the Olympics, and I will try to explain it honestly.
Does it shock you to hear that I am not a very patriotic person? Well, I'm not. Very few blacks are patriotic; we're too busy just keeping the food on the table to go around hollering about the land of the free and the home of the brave. I'm not knocking my native land, either. I think in most ways it is the greatest country in the world. But not in every way. Not by a long shot. So this entered into my Olympic thinking. I found it hard to understand why I should mess up my school year and lose my whole summer for the purpose of going all the way to Mexico City to win a gold medal for the United States in a basketball tournament. I was right on schedule at UCLA, maintaining a B-minus average, and going to the Olympics would have cost me at least a quarter, and maybe two, and I'd have had to postpone my graduation. In the second place, the United States was not going to lose the Olympic basketball gold medal, and we all knew it. There was no way. My going there would only have been redundant. How many times can you win the same games?
As it turned out, while the other cats were getting themselves together to form an Olympic basketball team, I went back to the playgrounds of New York City and did the same thing I had done the year before, with the same people: Emmette Bryant and Freddie Crawford. Instead of being in Mexico City that summer, I was in Harlem, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brownsville, in the East Bronx, in all the slums of New York City, talking to kids for Operation Sports Rescue, telling them to stay in school and to make men out of themselves. That was my summer job. I thought then, and I think now, that that job was a lot more important than winning a gold medal in the Olympics. A whole lot more. I was talking to little black kids who are going to suffer because they don't have any examples to model themselves on. I tried to give them some kind of an example. They dig basketball, so they dig me. They can relate to me, and if I tell them something, they listen. I look at it this way: if I can change 10 would-be junkies into useful citizens, turn them on to school and to useful lives, maybe get them started on how to run a crane at $4 an hour, that's the most important thing I can do right now. Because if each of those 10 turns on another 10 to decent and useful lives, the geometric progression builds up, and pretty soon you can see an end to some of the black suffering that goes on today. That, in my opinion, is where it's at. By comparison, an Olympic gold medal is a joke. I did what I thought—what I know—was best.
That summer I made a decision that had been forming in my mind all through college, ever since I had read the life of Malcolm X. I already knew the tenets of Islam; I had been studying this religion for a long time, and now I was ready to make my move. I could not go the route of Muhammad Ali and join the Nation of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad. You will never hear me put the knock on another black man—black people already have enough burdens to bear—but let me just say that I found Elijah's religion too narrow, too negative, and in my opinion not truly Muslim at all. The genuine Muslim bears witness that there is one God, that His name is Allah, and that all men—black and white—are brothers. There is no room in Islam for racial hatred of any sort, and I had come to realize that this was exactly the way I felt in my heart. I had worked past the age of rage. I could still become angered at individual acts of hostility and at the whole pattern of racial hostility. But I could no longer believe that the white man was inherently evil and cruel and black men inherently superior, as some of the other blacks are teaching nowadays. That is just the flip side of the old racism. I realized that black was neither best nor worst; it just was. I could no longer hate anybody. I could no longer afford to be a racist. If racism messed up a lot of people who had to take it, then it must also mess up those who had to dish it out. I did not want to be that kind of narrow man.