Almost a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois called for worker actions not for higher wages or medical benefits but against racism. He believed that if the power of wealthy bigots could be crippled economically, then racist laws would go by the wayside. The importance of the “strike against racism” is rarely taught in school, but a critical part of our history.
“In the midst of the Great Depression, as workers were organizing and striking, Du Bois made the case in his magisterial Black Reconstruction in America (1935) that it was the ‘general strike’ launched by the slaves themselves against the peculiar institution which set the stage for Emancipation,” labor historian Peter Rachleff said to me. “The slaves’ heroic efforts would be echoed a century later in Memphis, Tennessee, when black sanitation workers on strike for dignity and respect as higher wages, and fair work rules, emblazoned their picket signs with the simple mantra ‘I AM A MAN.’ Our labor history is peppered with such stories, which all too often have remained ‘untold stories.’ If more of us knew more of these stories, our ability to engage the present and shape the future would be strengthened.”
That history was built upon this week when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver levied his unprecedented lifetime ban against Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Yes, Sterling’s racism had become a liability to the NBA’s business interests. Yes, sponsors were leaving in droves. But now we also know that in the days before Adam Silver levied this punishment, he had word that players had planned to walk off the court before the start of Tuesday night’s playoff games.
As Marcus Thompson II wrote for the San Jose Mercury News:
“The plan was set, the product of a 30-minute players meeting. The Warriors were going to go through pre-game warm-ups and take part in the national anthem and starting line-up introductions. They were going to take the floor for the jump ball, dapping up the Clippers players as is customary before games.
Then once the ball was in the air, they were just going to walk off. All 15 of them.
‘It would have been our only chance to make a statement in front of the biggest audience that we weren’t going to accept anything but the maximum punishment,’ [Warriors player Stephen] Curry said. ‘We would deal with the consequences later but we were not going to play.’
There are reports that the Warriors would not have been alone. The Clippers would likely have joined them in their walk-off and the Bulls Wizards playoff game—as much as this would have broken my heart, given that the Wizards advanced to the second round of the playoffs Tuesday night for the first time since 2005—may not have taken place as well.
What is particularly wild about all of this is that, Steph Curry’s concerns aside, it is difficult to imagine that the players would have suffered any kind of a punishment. The sheer tonnage of public opinion on their side would have meant that the NBA would have suffered a major financial blow without a peep, followed almost certainly with a lifetime ban.
Would this all have actually happened? Would players actually have walked off the court? In many respects, this doesn’t really matter. As any union organizer will tell you, a threatened strike is a tactic in and of itself. One thing that we do know is that Adam Silver was aware these actions were discussed and there cannot be a question that it played into his thinking on whether to issue the lifetime ban as soon as he conceivably could.
Yes, the fight is not over in the battle to wrest control of the Clippers from Donald Sterling. Even though he is “banned for life,” the possibility still remains that control of the team will simply be transferred to his wife, Rochelle Sterling, who is up to her neck in the same racist housing practices as her husband. Yes, we still need to know why it is the NBA’s former commissioner David Stern and the owners coddled Donald Sterling and his racism for so many years. But in a league where Jerry Krause would have the gall to tell Michael Jordan that “players don’t win championships franchises win championships,” in a league where Donald Sterling, as he said on tape, really does believe that owners deserve the credit for the financial successes in the league, in a league where during the 2011 lockout Dwyane Wade had to tell David Stern not to wag a finger in his face and that he was “not a child,” the players just got, for the first time in a long time, a taste of their own collective power. That is something not easily washed away. If Donald Sterling isn’t truly out of the league by the start of the 2014–15 season, perhaps we will see whether a players strike against racism was truly just a threat.