written by abdul-rehman malik, muslim leadership lab director What does…
Dwight Hall’s Muslim Leadership Lab (MLL) held its fifth annual Dr. Betty Shabazz & Malcolm X El Hajj Malik El Shabazz Lecture on March 6, 2023. With support from the Yale Chaplain’s Office and Yale Divinity School, MLL hosted Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, an activist and former professional basketball player often called the “Kaepernick before Kaepernick” for his decision to not stand for the U.S. national anthem during the 1995-96 NBA season in protest of American racism and imperialism.
Abdul-Rehman Malik, MLL’s Founder and Program Director, explained how the lecture series celebrates and continues the work of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, and recognizes how their work was shaped by their identities as both Muslims and Black Americans.
“We’ve specifically wanted to hear from thinkers, artists, activists, organizers, academics, writers, and doers who are coming from the Black Muslim experience… and from the BIPOC Muslim experience more broadly. Our lectures every year have represented, in some ways, the cutting edge of thinking and research around the African American Muslim experience and its connection to social justice.”
When planning the 2023 lecture, it was clear that Mahmoud encapsulates the values and principles of the lecture series, both in his experience as a Black Muslim and as an activist who stood up for his beliefs in the face of great resistance.
“For my generation, [Mahmoud’s decision not to stand] was an iconic decision. And it was directly tied to his growing sense of what social justice was and what justice looked like at home and abroad…I think his Islam, and its connection to Malcolm X in particular, was a motivating factor in him making the decision not to stand for the national anthem, in 1995 and 1996, which led to this firestorm where for a while, it seemed like he was the most hated man in America.”
Indeed, during his lecture Mahmoud discussed the backlash he received for his decision, from media and fan outrage to fines and censure from the NBA, to his eventual blackballing from professional sports. But he also argued that to be silent on issues of racism would be just as much a political statement as speaking out. So, if he would be making a statement either way, Mahmoud believed it was important to stand up for his beliefs.
Abdul-Rehman emphasized the extraordinary perseverance of Mahmoud in the face of enormous racism and anger. “The even more remarkable part about it is that after his house is burned down by the Ku Klux Klan, and after he is shut out from employment in professional sports, he recreates his life—he becomes a trainer, he goes out there and speaks to young people. He does humanitarian work around the world and he mobilizes and engages with young people.”
During his short trip to Yale, Mahmoud spoke to and inspired many in the community. In addition to his lecture, Mahmoud also held a breakfast with staff, students, and community members at the Yale Divinity School, spoke with student leaders at the Afro-American Cultural Center, met with the Yale basketball team, and interviewed with a reporter from the Yale Daily News.
Further, his lecture was followed by a panel with Mahmoud, Ph.D. student Precious Muhammad, and Professor Zareena Grewal, which took questions from the audience and discussed Mahmoud’s life and work. The panel highlighted Mahmoud’s place in a legacy of Black activism in sports, from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, and the power such stories have to inspire and invigorate others. Finally, the panelists mentioned how Mahmoud was inspired by reading Malcolm X’s autobiography years after he had been killed, and how Mahmoud’s lecture at Yale was taking place decades after he was blackballed by the NBA. In that way, his presence demonstrates that teachers of the past—Mahmoud, and also Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz—continue to teach and inspire into the present.