Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Why I Took Part in the Biden-Harris Inauguration

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on inauguration day, with inset of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images; Rob Carr/Getty Images; oe Scarnici/Getty Images

"I felt honored to be an active part of the relaunching of the ship of state with a real captain at the helm," says the Hollywood Reporter columnist, who helped introduce the new leaders with words first recited by Abraham Lincoln.

The last year has been like a horror movie in which a terrified family battles relentless brain-eating zombies all night, but finally emerges victorious into the bright sun of the dawn. For me, the inauguration of Joe Biden is like that hopeful dawn in which those with brains still intact emerge from the darkness to reclaim our country and everything it stands for.

Being a participant in President Biden’s inauguration ceremony, I felt honored to be an active part of the relaunching of the ship of state with a real sea-worthy captain at the helm (think salty Capt. Lee of Below Deck), not a sea-sick imposter who stole the uniform and bluffed his way into the wheelhouse. My role in the inauguration was simple: I was one of several celebrities who would each read sections of various presidents’ inaugural addresses with the entire compilation presented during the Celebrating America special hosted by Tom Hanks. In 1854, Lincoln spoke of “the monstrous injustice of slavery,” so I couldn’t help but wonder what he might think about a Black man reading his words to the entire nation he so ably defended against insurrectionists.

It’s appropriate that the Biden inauguration takes place in the same week as Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, because Dr. King dared us to dream big by sharing his own dream for a unified and equitable America. Our country has always encouraged dreamers who just want a chance to develop their full potential on an even playing field. Dr. King was optimistic that Americans would continue to strive for a place where everyone had an equal opportunity to follow those dreams. But he was also a realist and knew that even the most well-meaning people sometimes needed a push to do the right thing. I’m hoping the inauguration, with its display of diversity, inclusion and eager hopefulness, will be that inspirational nudge for some skeptics.

For many Americans, the last four years have felt like we were jammed into a tight barrel with a small breathing hole while someone tried to plug up the hole. It was hard to dream, or even encourage others to dream, because the Trump administration worked so hard to suppress the basic rights of so many groups, including women, LGBTQ+, Muslims, Blacks, Latinx and immigrants. Worse, his lies, foot-dragging and incompetence during the pandemic led to 400,000 American deaths, many preventable. Even his economic plan resulted in billionaires (about 200 people) adding $1 trillion to their bloated portfolios while average American incomes languished.

Some are touting the inauguration as a kickstart ceremony to end the divisiveness in America. Even President Biden’s inaugural address emphasized his goal of unifying America. I’m all for that. But in fact, we are already more unified than reported. The so-called “divisiveness” that is chanted at us daily from every media megaphone across the political spectrum is not as wide or as evenly divided as they would have us think. The rioters who attacked the Capitol Building on Jan. 6 didn’t just vandalize property, kill a cop and call for the lynching of the vice president — they created a deep, ideological chasm between themselves and other conservatives who previously had been all lumped together as "Trump supporters." A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that 75 percent of Americans think Trump bears some or most responsibility for the riot. Trump will leave office with the lowest approval rating of his presidency: 29 percent. (By contrast, Barack Obama left office with an approval rate of 57 percent.) Another January survey indicated that nearly half of Americans think Trump will be remembered as one of the worst presidents in history.

To me, these numbers show that the country is not divided in half. Only about a third are true believing MAGA puppets who have been used as unwitting tools by billionaire Republicans and ambitious, unscrupulous Republican politicians looking to shove democracy into a meat-grinder if it means squeezing out a couple more cents of profit or power. It works in their favor to make America believe that they have a lot more popular support and therefore political clout than they actually do. This vocal third is easily manipulated by trigger words like "freedom," "socialist," "radical left" — all so vague as to be meaningless. What freedoms do they lack? Is anyone trying to suppress their voting rights? Are they afraid of getting pulled over by cops who might shoot them or choke them to death? Do they have to Anglicize their names to apply for jobs? Are they afraid their children will be torn from them and put in a cage? Nope. They just want to make sure they can strap a gun to their ankle and go maskless to the grocery store.

This group of election deniers who claim Biden didn’t legitimately win don’t care that Trump picked their pockets for $207 million to fight the election, but spent only a $8.8 million. He keeps the rest, suckers. Refuting the election results may be a matter of blind faith to some, but it was just business strategy to Trump and his cronies. Trump-supporting governors, judges and election officials have all said there was no voting fraud. Yet, that loyal Trump Third still howl at the election-fraud moon because no evidence will convince them. They will always be divided from the rest of the country because they don’t understand what the country actually stands for. They just want a despot to tell them what to think and do. Truth is, I don’t want to unify with those who don’t share the goals the country was founded on.

For me, watching and taking part in the Biden inauguration is a return to the Age of Reason, in which decisions are made based on evidence from reliable and expert sources. In which compassion and conscience guide us in our policy-making. In which the cowardly and greedy politicians who have been looting our sacred American ideals for the past four years will be finally seen by the electors for what they are. In which we commit to building an economy that prospers all Americans and not just the already wealthy. In which we foster an education system that isn’t afraid of teaching truth and gives all students an equal opportunity to enrich their lives.

Maybe I’m dreaming too big. But I’m encouraged because a lot of Americans share my dream. Thomas Paine said, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." But he also cautioned, "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must … undergo the fatigue of supporting it." After four years of the fatigue of watching America torn apart, I’m eager to shoulder my share so that we all might reap the blessings of freedom.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an NBA Hall of Famer and the all-time leading scorer, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. Follow him @KAJ33.