Why is basketball Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar coming to Worcester to talk at an event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts? Why would the Federation invite the all-time leading NBA scorer to headline its fall event?
In retirement, Abdul-Jabbar has become a writer, and he’ll be talking about his book, Brothers in Arms, which tells the fascinating story of WWII’s all-black 761st tank battalion.
His talk takes place at 4 p.m. on Sunday October 17 at the Hanover Theatre in Worcester, Mass. It’s free and open to the public, but reservations are suggested as seating is limited. For more information and to make a reservation and obtain tickets, go to Jewishcentralmass.org/cotton.
The 761st battalion was never supposed to see action; they were trained primarily as a public relations effort, to rally black support for the war. However, the Allies were so desperate for trained tank personnel in the summer of 1944 that the 761stwas deployed. Its members served heroically on the front for more than six months, despite an extreme shortage of personnel and equipment and suffering nearly 50 percent casualties. Their efforts helped liberate some thirty towns and villages, as well as several concentration camps.
Although baseball great Jackie Robinson was the 761st battalion’s most famous member (he was ultimately transferred out of the unit and later subjected to court martial for refusing to move to the back of the bus while in training), it was an old friend of Abdul-Jabbar’s father who got him interested in the battalion. Leonard “Smitty” Smith worked with Abdul-Jabbar’s father as a transit policeman in New York City starting in the 1950s. Abdul-Jabbar learned decades later that Smith had been a decorated gunner in the 761st.
Abdul-Jabbar interviewed surviving members of the battalion and their descendants to recreate their story from basic training to the battlefield to their postwar experiences in the racially divided America.
The event is presented by the Federation in conjunction with the Harold N. Cotton Leadership Institute. Other co-sponsors include the Henry Willis Center, the New England Region of the Anti-Defamation League, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, and the City of Worcester Human Rights Commission.