25 Years Later by a Long Shot

RiotsBy Tommy Airey

We have come over a way that with tears have been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

Last month, we posted up in the pews of an old black Baptist church in Watts for the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s powerful “Beyond Vietnam” speech. We belted out James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the so-called “Black National Anthem,” a song I first heard before the last college basketball game I ever played in (at L.A. Southwest Community College, just a few miles from where we sang in Watts).

A few days later, we joined up with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries to help staff “Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the L.A. Uprising,” organized by a group called ReconciliAsian, spearheaded by Sue and Hyun Hur, a Korean-American couple who pastor a Mennonite church in Southern California (keep Hyun in your prayers as he heads to North Korea this week). This space provided story-telling from different leaders (black, Latina, Asian and white) bearing witness to those chaotic days in the aftermath of the acquittal of three police officers in the Rodney King beating trial.

In 1992, I was a high school senior, in that strange dispensation between a CIF basketball championship and graduation day. My own analysis of what was going down fifty miles north was whitewashed with racial overtones of young “thuggish” black men “looting” stores and “burning down their own neighborhoods” while old “hyper-vigilant” Korean business owners protected their stores on rooftops with rifles. This scripting came from mass media and adults in my life, including leaders in the rapidly-rising Evangelical movement I was enmeshed in.

The event in Koreatown, though, dug straight to the roots of this social unrest. Martin Luther King described a riot as “the language of the unheard.” It is worth quoting a bit more from a speech he gave in suburban metro Detroit (“The Other America”) just three weeks before his assassination:

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.

The truth of the matter is that black and brown Americans continue to endure injustice and oppression at the hands of police brutality, mass incarceration, housing, education, transportation and economic policies that have crippled any hope of having the same opportunities that we had growing up in what King called “the sunlight of opportunity” in Orange County.

Ched Myers reminded us of the always-racialized history—in 1930, city leaders boasted that L.A. was “the whitest, most Protestant city in America.” Black folks were not allowed to live north of Adams Blvd. Latinos were banned from living west of the L.A. River.

Azusa Pacific University professor Young Lee Hertig proclaimed on the first night of the event, “the real perpetrator is always invisible.” Police caught on film brutalizing and/or fatalizing young black men walk. Banks charge skyrocketing interest rates for mortgages to black and brown families. Schools, largely funded by property taxes, are under-resourced. Jobs are few and prisons are aplenty. Voting rights and political representation are constrained. The media suffers a vacuum, giving very little time to the perspectives of poor and oppressed people. The roots of the riot (and all other “violent” acts) are not personal or cultural. They are political and economic.
I grew up during the advent of ESPN, the first-fruits of the NBA’s ongoing superstar harvest festival: Magic, Bird, Isiah and Jordan. This all neatly coalesced with a dozen years of Reagan-Bush, the culmination of a fierce white backlash from civil rights gains in the sixties. These superstars shined on the court, but unfortunately the powers pressured them to stay silent about what Dr. King called “the things that mattered.”

One of the rare exceptions was Craig Hodges, back-to-back NBA champion with Jordan’s Bulls and three-time three-point shootout winner. In 1992, just weeks after Los Angeles bubbled over with rage, Hodges was unceremoniously black-balled—released by the Bulls and not picked up by any other team in the league. To this day, young players in the NBA are counseled by agents and team management to stay quiet on political matters because, after all, “You don’t want to be the next Craig Hodges.”

Hodges’ just released autobiography Longshot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter narrates a rare story of the intersection of professional basketball and political outspokenness. Raised in a low-income black neighborhood halfway between Chicago and Gary, Indiana, Hodges got a full-ride scholarship to Long Beach State. He became one of the best long-distance shooters in the country, but more importantly, he got educated. He soaked up the teachings Maulana Karenga, a professor who revolutionized the concept of “black studies.”

Embracing the political legacy of his heroes—Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith and John Carlos—Hodges was deeply connected to the black struggle, speaking out against police brutality and corporate greed–Nike flourished (and continues to) by exploiting labor in faraway places while black kids at premium prices. He and head coach Phil Jackson were the only ones not cheering in the Bulls locker room in ’91 when the U.S. military invaded Iraq. He challenged teammates to join him in raising money for the black community in Chicago. He even tried to recruit Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to get both teams to boycott Game One of the 1991 NBA Finals:

we would stand in solidarity with the black community while calling out racism and economic inequality in the NBA, where there were no black owners and almost no black coaches despite the fact that 75% of the players in the league were African American.

Jordan told him he was “crazy” and Magic said it was “too extreme.” Hodges recounts charitably: “Michael didn’t speak out largely because he didn’t know what to say – not because he was a bad person.”

He wrote President Bush an eight-page letter to hand deliver in 1991 when the Bulls visited the White House after their first championship. He wrote:

The purpose of this notice is to speak on behalf of poor people, Native Americans, homeless and most specifically, African-Americans who are not able to come to this great edifice. . . . Being a descendant of African slaves, I feel it is very important our plight be put on the list of priorities.

The final nail in the coffin of his professional basketball career, though, was a New York Times article during the NBA playoffs in 1992, extensively quoting Hodges lamenting the lack of political understanding and outspokenness from the game’s stars, particularly Michael Jordan, who when asked about what he thought about the Rodney King case, conveniently responded that he didn’t know much about it.

Longshot is accessibly written and enjoyable. It is a humble account, candid, celebratory and confessional. More than anything, this is a timely offering, particularly after a year when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem and athletes, especially black athletes, are finding their political voices, especially around police brutality and the unique cringe-worthiness of  the Tr#*p candidacy and presidency.

Twenty-five years ago, Hodges was a lone black voice in the wilderness of professional sports, ever since held up as the example (by agents, owners, management and corporate sponsors) of what black athletes ought never do or say. His courage and resilience in the face of this full-court press deserves far more recognition and celebration.  After all, the arc of the moral universe that bends towards justice is long, but if those with a platform stay silent, it will remain a long shot.

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