A Look at LeBron James' Inspiring History of Activism in His Hometown and Beyond

The three-time NBA champion's outspokenness on social justice issues and politics was the next step for an athlete who's been dedicated to giving back throughout his career

By Natalie Finn Jun 18, 2020 7:00 PMTags
Watch: LeBron James' Long History With Activism

If you've been under the impression that LeBron James is merely just one of the greatest basketball players of all time, then you haven't been paying attention.

He may be more visible than ever right now as an activist, putting his personal politics front and center and sharing in no uncertain terms what he thinks about the systemic inequality plaguing this country. But that was only the logical next step for an athlete who's proud to follow in the footsteps of past sports greats who used—and risked—their platforms to speak up on behalf of those who don't have a public voice and demand change. 

"I'm inspired by the likes of Muhammad Ali, I'm inspired by the Bill Russells and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, the Oscar Robertsons—those guys who stood when the times were even way worse than they are today," James told the New York Times recently. "Hopefully, someday down the line, people will recognize me not only for the way I approached the game of basketball, but the way I approached life as an African-American man."

And he's not just talking. He's doing.

Inspiring Moments from Black Lives Matter Protests

With the 2019-2020 NBA season on hold since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, James and his fellow activist athletes have had more time to focus on their response to the deaths of Ahmaud ArberyGeorge Floyd and Breonna Taylor, considered by those crying out for change to be three more casualties of a virulent pattern of unequal, unjust treatment of Black people in this country.

In 2017, back when James still played for the Cavaliers, police responded to a call that the n-word had been spray-painted on a gate outside James' Los Angeles home.

"My family is safe. At the end of the day, they're safe and that's the most important," he told reporters before Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif. "But it just goes to show that racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America. And hate in America, especially for African-Americans, is living every day."

He counted himself in his synopsis, adding, "No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough, and we got a long way to go."

Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images

When he found out about what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, James was quick to express his anger and frustration.

"We're literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes! Can't even go for a damn jog man!" he wrote about Arbery on Instagram. "Like WTF man are you kidding me?!?!?!?!?!? No man fr ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!!! I'm sorry Ahmaud(Rest In Paradise) and my prayers and blessings sent to the heavens above to your family!!"

Arbery was killed in February while jogging in Brunswick, Ga., by 34-year-old Travis McMichael, who told authorities that he and his father Gregory McMichael, 64, confronted Arbery because he looked like a man suspected of some local burglaries and Travis shot in self-defense. The two men have been charged with felony murder; their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan, 50, who recorded the fatal encounter, was also charged with felony murder two weeks later. The arrests weren't made until after Bryan's video was uploaded to a local radio station's website on May 5, prompting a national outcry for justice.

Celebrities Attending Protests Over George Floyd's Death

The McMichaels have pleaded not guilty, while Bryan—who, per NBC News, told an investigator that he heard Travis say "f---ing [n-word]" after shooting Arbery—has yet to enter a plea, though his lawyer told reporters that Bryan did not commit any crime and had passed a polygraph test that exonerated him.

And when Floyd died after Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, another deadly confrontation caught on video shot by bystanders, James posted a screenshot from the fatal encounter (blurred as a warning that the image contained "sensitive content") juxtaposed with a photo from 2016 of then-San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick taking a knee while the national anthem played to protest police brutality—a move that led to Kaepernick being shunned by the NFL and turned him into a political lightning rod.

"Do you understand NOW!!??!!?? Or is it still blurred to you??" James captioned the image. (Chauvin has yet to enter a plea to second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The three officers with him, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. They have not yet entered pleas, either; Lane is currently free on $750,000 bail and his lawyer told the Minneapolis Star Tribune he planned to bring a motion to have the charges dismissed.)

Stars Donating to Black Lives Matter Organizations

James was solidly in Kaepernick's corner when the kneeling conversation turned into a loaded national debate and, during last year's NBA All-Star Weekend, James told reporters when asked about the still-unemployed quarterback who had just settled his collusion lawsuit against the NFL: "I stand with Kap. I kneel with Kap. I feel like what he was talking about nobody wanted to listen to. Nobody wanted to really understand where he was coming from."

Some still consider kneeling a slight against the national anthem and the American flag (though Kaepernick and now countless others have explained that that's not the intention, that it's a protest against police brutality and racial injustice), but the NFL has come around. Commissioner Roger Goodell, who two years ago called kneeling during the anthem "divisive," made a video earlier this month in which he stated that he and fellow league officials "admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest."

Critics pointed out that he didn't even mention Colin Kaepernick in his initial statement. A week later, asked about his position on the possibility of the former 49er returning to the league, Goodell told ESPN, "If he wants to resume his career in the NFL, then it's obviously going to take a team to make that decision. But I welcome that, support the club making that decision and encourage them to do that."

Though still divided, public opinion largely seems to be smiling in hindsight on the quiet knee in the wake of weeks of widespread protests, triggered at first by Floyd's death but which rapidly expanded to honor Arbery, Taylor and a long list of Black lives unnecessarily lost, as well as demand real systemic change.

The demonstrations have largely been peaceful, but clashes with police and instances of vandalism and looting have battled for the spotlight.

This month, James also re-invoked Fox News host Laura Ingraham's 2018 comment that James should "shut up and dribble"—an air ball when it comes to advice but which became the name of James' three-part Showtime series examining the changing role of athletes in the public arena in these fraught political times.

"You thought I would [zipped-lip emoji]??...I'm louder than EVER," James promised.

And he was already pretty loud, though in more of an actions-speak-louder sort of way.

In addition to the three NBA championships and four league MVP Awards, not a year of his already legendary career has gone by without James coming up with a new way to give back, pay it forward or otherwise help lift up the generations following in his wake with the tools they need to succeed. His vision started with the kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, where he was raised by a single mom and benefited from mentors taking him under their wing on his road to becoming, first, the best prep school basketball player in the country.

Long before he vowed to never just shut up and dribble, here's how he was already using his voice:

Planting Roots

The LeBron James Family Foundation got off the ground not long after James went No. 1 in the NBA draft right out of Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School and joined his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in 2003.

Over the years, the foundation has poured millions of dollars into helping to lift up the city's youth who were considered at risk of dropping out, getting them on a path to college and providing resources to help whole families stay engaged with their kids' education.

"From the beginning, when I started to do my foundation work, I wanted to do something that would be sustainable, and not just do 'one-offs,'" James explained to the Northeast Ohio Media Group in 2014. "You do something one summer and then it's over and done with. I wanted to do something that they would be empowered by, that was going to be sustainable, something that would last for generations. And to this point we've done such a great job."

By then, more than 800 kids were on the graduation path with help from the foundation's I Promise program.

Princely Gestures

James started the annual King-for-Kids Bike-A-Thon in Akron to benefit local youth programs. Bicycles were given to the children as part of his foundation's Wheels for Education program (which also donated backpacks and laptops to students starting in the third grade), and they got to ride alongside LeBron and some of his NBA star pals, such as Chris Paul, pictured here in 2009.

The Decision

As much flak as he and ESPN got for turning his decision to take his talents to Miami into a televised spectacle, LeBron earmarked $2.5 million of the proceeds the 2010 special brought in for the Boys and Girls Club of America, an organization he has worked with at chapters around the country.

Paving the Way

In 2015, James' foundation announced, through a partnership with the University of Akron, a four-year scholarship to cover tuition and general school fees for the 1,100 kids participating in the I Promise program and enrolled in the Akron public schools system, a roughly $42 million endeavor. 

"It's the reason I do what I do," James said at an event for kids held at Cedar Point Amusement Park, per ESPN. "These students have big dreams, and I'm happy to do everything I can to help them get there. They're going to have to earn it, but I'm excited to see what these kids can accomplish knowing that college is in their futures."

The first class of scholarship recipients is on track to graduate in 2021.

"It means so much because, as a kid growing up in the inner city and a lot of African-American kids, you don't really think past high school," James also said. "You don't really know your future. You hear high school all the time, and you graduate high school, and then you never think past that because either it's not possible or your family's not financially stable to even be able to support a kid going to college."

King of The Land

It certainly didn't hurt local morale when James led the Cavs to their first-ever NBA Championship in 2016.

The Greatest

James, his foundation and his longtime friend and business partner Maverick Carter kicked in $2.5 million to help fund the Muhammad Ali: A Force for Change exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture when the institution opened in its new home on the National Mall in 2016. 

"Muhammad Ali is such a cornerstone of me as an athlete because of what he represented not only in the ring as a champion but more outside the ring—what he stood for, what he spoke for, his demeanor," James told USA Today at the time. "I think of him every day. Without his passion and goals and morals, I don't know if I'd be sitting here today talking to you about it."

Fellow big donors to the exhibit included Michael Jordan, who gave $5 million, and Magic Johnson, who added another $1 million.

From the Heart

LeBron's choice, along with teammate Kyrie Irving, to wear the "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt they'd been sent from the Brooklyn Nets' Jarrett Jack on Dec. 8, 2014, in the wake of 43-year-old Eric Garner's death after an NYPD officer put him in a chokehold, marked a political turning point for him when it came to speaking out publicly and more pointedly about race and police brutality.

Jack wore a shirt during warm-ups before that night's home game against the Cavs as well, as did teammates Kevin Garnett, Deron Williams and Alan Anderson. Around the league over the ensuing days, Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant were among those who also wore the "I Can't Breathe" shirt.

"I think it's really important that we show our respect to the families," Irving told reporters in the locker room before the game. "More importantly we're in the city where tragedy happened and it's really important to us that we stand up for a cause, especially this one. It hits close to home and means a lot to me."

James had called it a "possibility" that he'd wear the shirt out on the court. Asked what the gesture meant to him later, he replied, "I don't know. It's not for us to figure out. It's just for us to understand what we're going through as a society. I've been forwarded over and over about what's been going on. This is more of a notion to the family more than anything. As a society we have to do better. We have to be better for one another no matter what race you are. But it's more of a shout-out to the family more than anything because they're the ones who should be getting the energy and effort."

Global Reach

Kids of all ages love him everywhere. LeBron met with young fans at a father-son event in Hong Kong in 2014.

Setting an Example

James and Stephen Curry visited students in 2015 at the High School of Graphic Communication Arts in New York as part of NBA FIT, a league program that promotes physical and mental health wellness for fans of all ages.

He Was With Her

James endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, speaking at a rally in Cleveland two days before the election.

Preparing Today's Youth to Lead Tomorrow

The LeBron James Family Fund, in collaboration with the Akron Public School District, celebrated the opening of the I Promise School in July 2018, what will eventually be a 1st-through-8th-grade school tailored to give students an enriched, state-of-the-art learning experience, as well as access to medical services and other necessities.

While it's a taxpayer-funded public school, the foundation provides over $1 million a year to go toward teacher salaries, having enough staff to limit class sizes to 20 students, after school programs, tutors and other resources for families to utilize.

Meanwhile, the I Promise Network serves kids through 11th grade, and they're looking to add 12th by the 2020-21 school year.

Hometown Boy

When COVID-19 forced public schools to shutter around the country, the foundation arranged for I Promise's Family Resource Center to stay open to give people access to medical care, mental health resources, food and shelter.

They also teamed with Smuckers and Akron Food Bank to prep and give care packages filled with food, toothpaste and toilet paper to its 1,443 enrolled students and their families. James also started doing Taco Tuesdays for the kids and their families in March, providing meal packages that could feed four or five people for each of the school's 340 students.

Hardware for Hard Work

Capping off a good year, LeBron was presented with the NBA Cares Community Assist Award in 2018 for his dedication to bettering the lives of children in his hometown.

"To be able to support and create opportunities for the kids in Akron who are in danger of falling through the cracks means everything to me because I was one of those kids," he said at the time. "I'm proud and excited to create a school and provide resources that will help these students earn an education that will change their lives and give them a better future.

But the 35-year-old father of three is also fully aware that change doesn't happen overnight, nor does it magically arise from our sports heroes' Instagram accounts.

On June 10, James announced the launch of More Than a Vote, a nonprofit organization he and a group of fellow athletes and entertainers have started to combat voter suppression, raise awareness about voting rights, register eligible Black voters and encourage everyone to cast a ballot in the presidential election on Nov. 3.

James and Maverick Carter, his pal since childhood and partner in SpringHill Entertainment, are providing the first wave of funding for the group and calling upon their deep-pocketed friends and colleagues to keep the money flowing.

"Because of everything that's going on, people are finally starting to listen to us—we feel like we're finally getting a foot in the door," James told the New York Times, while discussing his latest venture. "How long is up to us. We don't know. But we feel like we're getting some ears and some attention, and this is the time for us to finally make a difference."