Kentucky Blues

During a break in Kentucky’s dismantling of Alabama on the hardwood Saturday, announcer Kara Lawson noted that the movie “Selma” was playing in theaters around Tuscaloosa, as it was in theaters across the country. “We can’t forget the image of Governor George Wallace at the Alabama campus, standing in the school doorway, denying entrance to African American students,” she said, invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King on the weekend of his holiday.

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The colorful Alabama contingent: At least it wasn’t white sheets.

No, we can’t. Thank you Kara for bringing a little reality to this college game, my favorite game, on this important holiday weekend. There is an important back story about these young men, these students and dreamers who play this game at such extraordinary levels. In this game, as in many other college games across the country, they are almost all African Americans, and they are living the Martin Luther King dream as fully as anyone who strives to achieve in our society.

Kentucky has nine McDonald’s High School All-Americans, half just out of high school, almost all on the threshold of becoming millionaires. I hedge that bet, since I don’t know who among them will not make millions playing basketball, here or abroad. The record suggests that none will fail.

Basketball truly is an international game nowadays, and many of the most talented, skilled white players come from Europe. But in the college game, African Americans still dominate. The fact that they are the heart and soul of Kentucky, the winningest team in college basketball history, and perhaps fielding the greatest team ever with this 2014-15 group, is a testament to how far we have come in the past 40 years.

As a native Kentuckian, I am keenly aware of the ugly legacy of racism that accompanies the fabulous basketball tradition of my home state, and particularly its university. Adolph Rupp was one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time, but the evidence suggests that he did not seriously recruit the great black players – some of whom were Kentucky schoolboys. Was he a racist? Well, he was not doing the right thing.

I remember, as a high school senior working the sports slot at my hometown newspaper, the Henderson Gleaner, in March 1966, listening (only radio back then) in disbelief as Kentucky fell to Texas Western for the NCAA title. It was insane, Pat Riley and Louie Dampier and Larry Conley and that whole cast of brilliant Rupp’s Runts, losing to a bunch of unknown black players from a minor school in Texas.

Rupp had made half-hearted overtures to Clem Haskins (1963), Wes Unseld (1964), Michael Redd (1963) and Butch Beard (1965), all great Kentucky high school players who happened to be black. Now, in 1967, the year after being dispatched by an all-black starting five in Texas Western, Rupp had a chance to make amends, and to face reality.

Instead, in a year in which Kentucky schoolboys included 7-foot center Jim McDaniels and fellow African-American hotshots Jim Rose, Clarence Glover and Jerome Perry, Rupp whiffed. All those players ended up at Western Kentucky University, which beat Kentucky, 107-83, in the 1971 NCAA regional finals and finished third overall in the tournament that year.

Rupp retired in 1972 and Kentucky basketball hasn’t been the same since, except for the winning. Joe B Hall recruited two great black players from Lexington, Jack Givens and James Lee, in 1974, and the two led the Wildcats to the NCAA championship in 1978.

Kentucky has won eight NCAA championships, second only UCLA’s 11, the remarkable record of the Wizard of Westwood, Coach John Wooden, another Hoosier refugee. This year Kentucky could have No. 9 in its sights.

If you haven’t already bet on Kentucky to win it all, sorry, it’s too late. The Wildcats are the prohibitive favorites. They feature two teams, actually, each of which could play in the NBA, and will play in the NBA. Six of these players came back from last year’s national championship game, rather than going on to play in the NBA, including the twin guards, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, at 6-6 bigger than a lot of front-court players they’re playing.

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The Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, tower over opposing guards.

Willie Cauley-Stein is a 7-foot defensive demon who is an NBA lottery pick even without a legitimate offensive game. Karl Anthony Towns is a skilled 6-11 freshman center who may be the second player picked in the NBA draft this year. Trey Lyles, the smooth 6-10 freshman from Indianapolis, completes the first team, the White platoon. They are imposing, to say the least, from 6-6 to 7-foot.

And there is a second platoon, the Blue team, that features 5-11 sparkplug Tyler Ulis and 6-6 shooting phenom Devin Booker, who leads the team in scoring. Dakari Johnson is a 7-footer with muscle who pounds the ball inside. And 6-10 Marcus Lee is a shot-blocking machine. Kentucky’s most athletic player, Alex Poythress, suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the campaign, but that has made room for Kentucky’s high school Mr. Basketball Dominique Hawkins, now a sophomore.

This is a bunch of individual high achievers, playing like one smooth machine, in large measure thanks to Coach John Calipari, the maestro of the “one-and-done.” Yes, they’re all African Americans, and they’re the best of the best. And they’ve all come together to sacrifice for a common goal, to win a championship, playing together as a team. I don’t see the Wildcats losing a game this season, and I have decidedly mixed emotions about that.

In another of my graduating years, 1976 at Indiana University, one of the greatest college basketball teams of all time finished undefeated, 32-0. The previous year, the Hoosiers had only lost one game – to Kentucky in the NCAA regional finals. That was a team – with Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Kent Benson, Bobby Wilkerson, Tom Abernethy and John Laskowski – that played together flawlessly. No team has gone undefeated since.

I believe they’ve met their match with this Kentucky team. Just look at the stats. The Wildcats are choking other teams, setting defensive records, leading the nation in multiple categories. Even the two overtime victories during the SEC season show their resilience more than vulnerability.

I believe Dr. King would be proud of this advancement too, that Kentucky may be a little more color blind today because of the preeminence of African-American heroes. Whether it’s sports or cinema or business or politics, black leaders are assuming their roles in our society, and that is good for everyone.

Take Kara Lawson, for example, our sports narrator during the Kentucky-Alabama game. Kara is an African American woman who rose to stardom playing basketball in my neighborhood, at West Springfield High School in Fairfax, Va., while I was coaching my daughters in a neighborhood league. She went on to star at the University of Tennessee for the great coach, Pat Summitt, and on to a WNBA championship and an Olympic gold medal.

She may be the best basketball commentator on television today, able to reflect on the messages of our times as well as the plays of the game. But her most important role may be leading my Washington Mystics back to the WNBA playoffs this season. I’m counting on her.

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Getting Back to the Dream

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot while on a mission to Memphis, where he’d gone to rally sanitation workers trying to organize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. This was an ongoing mission for Dr. King, elevating work and the value of labor through unions. He helped move organized labor to the center of the civil rights movement; few knew better the importance of organizing for economic and social justice.

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Memphis sanitation workers deliver an important message with a strike in 1967. Five months after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in 1968 while supporting them, they won their union. (Photo by Richard L. Copley)

Today, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., in honor of his birthday, which occurred a few days ago. If he were alive today, he would have been deeply saddened that anti-union forces in two industrial states – Michigan and Indiana – were able to pass “right-to-work-for-less” laws last year, further undermining not only unions but also the working and living standards for workers everywhere.

Dr. King exposed the lie of “right to work” this way: “We must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. … Wherever these laws have passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights.”

Thus, while Dr. King would have been proud to see the second inauguration of President Barack Obama today, he would have called on his friend in the White House to expand the opportunities for all Americans to achieve a piece of the dream that he famously evoked in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial nearly 50 years ago. Yes, we have made great strides in elevating civil rights, but we are losing ground in the struggle for worker rights, for economic justice.

The evidence that we are losing the battle for economic justice is in the yawning divide between the incomes of the rich and the incomes of the rest of us. The middle-class is being squeezed into extinction as more wealth goes to the top 1 percent, and more Americans face poverty with the downward pressure on wages, and on the availability of good jobs.

This is not some invisible hand leading us down this primrose path to greater inequality but the result of specific policies, as the Economic Policy Institute reveals. Not only have these policies and laws rewarded investment at the expense of work, but they also have shut off avenues of opportunity for those who labor in the virtual vineyard of the American economy. Particularly onerous are laws that undermine the viability of unions – not just “right to work” but also regulatory hurdles that frustrate the desire of workers to gain the opportunity to bargain for better conditions.

Dr. King’s dream of equal justice under the law will not be realized as long as corporations wield their economic power, through their legislative and policy-making surrogates, to block workers from forming unions and gaining a seat at the table. A case in point is the tactics of American Airlines, which has used the bankruptcy courts to steamroll over contract agreements and to shred jobs and retirement security for thousands of workers unprotected by union contracts.

Dr. King would be proud today of the campaign by the gate and reservation agents at American Airlines who have been scapegoated and sacrificed before the altar of corporate greed. CEO Tom Horton and other executives of the company will walk away with millions of dollars when this deal goes down while many dedicated employees are pushed out the door, with little to show for their years of service.

Hundreds of agents from across the country rallied outside bankruptcy court last year, demanding a chance to be heard and urging support for representation by the Communications Workers of America. Here are some of the voices from across American:

On Jan. 15, the National Mediation Board declared that the agents at American Airlines were unsuccessful in gaining representation, falling 150 votes short – 3,052 to 2,902. It was a triumph for a multimillion-dollar anti-union campaign and a huge loss for customer service at the airline. It means that the steady degradation of these jobs and compensation is likely to continue, including the outsourcing of key passenger services to independent contractors who pay as little as minimum wage. The agents’ only hope now is a merger with a competing airline, US Airways, where agents already are represented by CWA.

American Airlines and US Airways management is now negotiating with the bankruptcy court, the creditor’s committee and the unions representing employees from both airlines – pilots, flight attendants, ramp workers, mechanics, and the agents at US Airways.  Only American Airlines’ agents do not have a seat at the table during this process, thanks largely to the underhanded tactics employed by American Airlines management.

CWA filed for the representation election in November 2011. The company did not cooperate with the agency, refusing to turn over mailing address labels of employees as the NMB sought to determine eligibility. Working through CWA, the agents turned in their own mail address labels, urging the board to proceed with the election without the cooperation of the company. To prevent this, the company filed suit, claiming the NMB should adopt new rules pushed through Congress three months after CWA sought the election.

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American Airlines agents join CWA organizers in marching to the National Mediation Board and presenting a set of mailing labels, urging the vote for representation to proceed without the company’s cooperation, if necessary. (Photo by Ben Dalgetty)

The company, having declared bankruptcy with $4 billion in the bank, has now spent more than $2 million just on the court actions to stop the vote, not including the payments to union-busting firms for communication and slick videos opposing the union. They found a district court judge in Texas to issue a stay to stop the election, but that decision was unanimously rejected by a federal appeals court and refused also by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Even after a year’s delay, as the NMB was set to count the votes, American Airlines wrote that it was prepared to challenge the decision before the full Supreme Court, tying the hands of agents once again. Deep pockets, along with the cooperation of policymakers and the courts, frustrate the will of ordinary working people under current U.S. labor law. Until our nation confronts this built-in injustice in the American system, we cannot get “to the Mountaintop.” We cannot realize the dream that Dr. King tied to the aspirations of Lincoln, the hopes of every American.

If he were alive today, I believe Dr. King would urge Obama to fight for “card-check” legislation during his second term, to overcome the innate advantage that corporations have in blocking unionization and to give workers a fair shot at gaining a voice at work. If more than half of all employees say they want a union, signing a card, they should be able to get it – before the company mounts its multimillion-dollar campaigns to thwart the will of the majority.

That’s how we can restore the economic vitality of our nation and realize Dr. King’s dream of economic and social justice.