Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on documentary "Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution"

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on "Black Patriots" doc

Last Updated Feb 11, 2020 12:12 PM EST

NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is shining a light on the role African Americans played in the American Revolutionary War.

Abdul-Jabbar is an executive producer of the new History Channel documentary "Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution." It highlights significant African Americans who stood up to British rule and helped establish this country, including the Continental Army's Rhode Island Regiment, which featured a large number of black infantrymen.

"I think the history that we're taught, it's taught to us in a way that kind of minimizes or marginalizes the contributions of people who were not of European descent, and I think that's the problem," Abdul-Jabbar said on "CBS This Morning" Monday. "They are only focusing on one segment of society and what they contributed."

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A new History Channel documentary, "Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution," examines the role of African Americans in the Continental Army.  History Channel

What drew him to the Revolutionary War specifically? "I think just living in the part of Manhattan that I was raised in, it was the last part that George Washington held on to before he had to skedaddle down to Valley Forge and I realized that happened in my neighborhood. Wow! It kind of has always drawn me in. There's an old Dutch farmhouse on Broadway and 203rd Street. That gentleman that owned that farmhouse had slaves."

Co-host Gayle King noted one comment Abdul-Jabbar makes in the film: "We could not have won the Revolutionary War without the contribution of black Americans, and success in the war would come to whoever armed blacks the fastest."

Abdul-Jabbar said, "The manpower shortages affected both the revolutionary side and the British side. So, they both needed to have people for reinforcement and to support just to do the menial things that enable an army to win, and that required manpower. And slaves who were idle on the side were considered to be a valuable source of manpower."

Did he learn a lot doing this?  "I learned a lot more than what I was taught, because I wasn't taught anything," he said.

Among the key figures covered in the documentary is James Armistead Lafayette, a slave who worked as a double-agent, providing intelligence to the Continental Army. "James Armistead Lafayette was wildly crucial," said Abdul-Jabbar. "He got the information that enabled George Washington to pin [General] Cornwallis on a peninsula and he was stranded. And that defeat really just tired the people in England; they said, 'We've had enough of this.'"

"Why did you feel it was so important to tell these stories you were not seeing in history books?" asked co-host Tony Dokoupil.

Telling these American stories is important, he said, because "black kids are raised without understanding that this is their country. They think this country was established for people other than them, and that they are seen as marginal, and of no use."

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, executive producer of the new History Channel documentary, "Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution." CBS News

Abdul-Jabbar also spoke of the recent death of NBA icon Kobe Bryant, who joined the Lakers nine years after his retirement, and became one of the most inspiring of NBA players. "I think Kobe was very important, especially to his generation. He left high school and took a chance on being a professional athlete. Risky. He did it in style, and absolutely was a figurehead for the kids in his generation who are adults now. And just the fact that it's such a senseless loss. It didn't need to happen. I think that's the worst part of it. 

"For me. I remember Gianna [Kobe's daughter, who also died in the helicopter crash], I used to play peek-a-boo with her, when she was five or six years old. In was coaching and I would see her all the time."

"We need to remember Kobe in a lot of ways that people aren't talking about. The fact that he was interested in women's athletics and promoted that, I thought that was remarkable. …

"By encouraging women's athletics, he'd really done a lot for the females in our country that have something to aspire to now. My granddaughter now is thinking about playing softball. That's awesome!"

He also spoke of Lebron James, who recently surpassed Kobe Bryant's position on the all-time scoring list, besting Bryant's 33,643 points, to become the third-highest scorer in NBA history. (Abdul-Jabbar is NBA's all-time leading scorer, with 38,387 career points.)

King asked, "Are you sitting here thinking, 'No, you can stop now,' or are you thinking, 'Records are made to be broken'?"

"They are made to be broken," Abdul-Jabbar replied. "They give us an idea of where we've gone and where we're going."

King asked if he believes James will break it? "He's got a great shot. You never know. There's an injury out there or there's not. That's why we watch!"

"Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution" premieres on the History Channel on February 19 at 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. CT.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.