How LeBron James Has Become a Powerful Voice for Activism On and Off the Court

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers wears an "I Can't Breathe" shirt in 2014
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LeBron James has always been about more than basketball.

While LeBron James is one of the best basketball players in NBA history, it's his support and actions when it comes to causes that are important to him -- namely education, racism and police brutality -- that may very well be his greatest legacy.

James, 35, has been a superstar in the league since he entered the NBA in 2003, but before that, was known for his already incredible skills playing basketball in high school. While it may seem that James has always led a charmed life due to his one-in-a-million athletic abilities -- he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2002, becoming the first high school basketball underclassman to ever do so -- his early life certainly wasn't ideal. James' mother gave birth to him when she was 16 years old in Akron, Ohio, and his father was not involved in his life. James and his mother moved often based on what she could afford.

James recalled his difficult childhood in a 2010 CNN interview with Larry King.

"My memories of those days was -- you know, every day that you woke up, you knew it was going to be a struggle," he shared. "For me, already being part of a single-parent household and knowing it was just me and my mom, you'd would wake up [at] times and hope that the next day you'd be able to be alongside your mother because she was out trying to make sure that I was taken care of. But all I cared about was her being home."

"When you live in the projects and you live in those circumstances, there's nothing you can -- you can't get away from it," he also said of his environment. "But sports carried me away from being in a gang, or being associated with drugs. Sports was my way out."

In order to give him a more stable life, his mom temporarily allowed him to live with a local youth football coach, Frank Walker, who introduced him to basketball. While the rest is history, James never forgot his childhood struggles. In 2004, he created the LeBron James Family Foundation, whose mission is to positively affect the lives of children and young adults in his hometown of Akron through education and cocurricular educational initiatives. In 2017, the foundation partnered with the Akron Public School District to open the groundbreaking I Promise School, which is dedicated to at-risk students at the elementary school level. He also partnered with the University of Akron to guarantee four-year college scholarships to all eligible students who graduate from high school and complete the criteria in the classroom and in the community. James has pledged to send up to 2,300 kids to school, potentially creating a $105 million commitment.

"Growing up in the inner city, the numbers are always stacked up against you," James said during a 2018 ESPN interview about his foundation's new school. "So you didn't really know what was possible. I think what happened for me was that I got some mentors and little league coaches and some teachers that I kind of started to believe in. And they started to make my dreams feel like they could actually become a reality."

"We're starting with 240 kids, 120 in third grade and 120 in fourth grade. And I believe that's where it all kind of starts," he continued. "And that's where it started for me. You know, fourth grade, I missed 80 days of school. That following year I met the Walker family, and they had a support system. I met some little league coaches playing basketball and football, and the following year I didn't miss one day of school. So I feel like this is the point where we can kind of get into the minds of the kids and let them know that we're here for them. And I think that's what kids ultimately want, they just want to feel like someone cares about them. And that's what we're trying to do here."

Aside from the impressive accomplishments of his foundation, James has also been outspoken about using his platform to speak out on important issues. In March 2012, James and his Miami Heat teammates at the time wore hooded sweatshirts as a tribute to 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was wearing a hoodie when he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Florida.

"#WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice," he captioned the powerful pic.

In an interview with CNN's Don Lemon, James said Martin's tragic shooting became a catalyst for him to become more involved more in speaking out.

"I think it starts with the Trayvon Martin situation, and the reason it starts with that, I believe, is because having kids of my own -- having boys of my own -- it hit home for me to see and to learn the story and to think that if my boy left home and he never returned," he said. "That kinda hit a switch. From that point on, I knew that my voice and my platform had to be used for more than just sports."

In 2014, when he announced that he would be leaving the Miami Heat to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, he hinted at basketball not becoming his final legacy.

"I feel my calling here goes above basketball," he said about his home state. "I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I'm from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there's no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get."

But upon his return to the Cavaliers, James continued to show his activism not just when it comes to issues affecting Ohio. In December 2014, James wore a shirt during warmups for an NBA game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, reading "I can't breathe." The shirt was in honor of 27-year-old Eric Garner, whose last words were "I can't breathe" as a police officer placed him in a fatal chokehold during an incident in Staten Island.

Rich Kane/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

"This is more of a motion to the family more than anything," James said about the gesture at the time, according to the New York Daily News. "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 shoutout to the family more than anything. They're the ones that should be getting all the energy and effort."

James made more made bold statements on the court. Introducing his Nike shoe, the LeBron 15, in December 2017, his shoes read "EQUALITY" in bright gold lettering. He's since donated the sneakers to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

"Us as Americans, no matter the skin color, no matter the race, no matter who you are, I think we all have to understand that having equal rights and being able to stand for something and speak for something and keeping the conversation going," he said at the time about pointedly wearing the shoes during a game against the Washington Wizards, which was played in the nation's capital.

He then made a thinly veiled jab at President Donald Trump.

"Obviously I've been very outspoken and well spoken about the situation that's going on at the helm here, and we're not going to let one person dictate us, us as Americans, how beautiful and how powerful we are as a people," he continued. "Equality is all about understanding our rights, understanding what we stand for and how powerful we are as men and women, black or white or Hispanic. It doesn't matter your race, whatever the case may be, this is a beautiful country and we're never going to let one person dictate how beautiful and how powerful we are."

In 2017, James again powerfully brought the issue of racism into the forefront when someone spray-painted the N-word on the private gate of one of his homes.

"It just goes to show that racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America," he somberly said at an NBA Finals press conference when asked about it. "Hate in America, especially for African Americans, is living every day."

"No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, you know being Black in America is tough," he continued.  "And we got a long way to go, for us as a society and for us as African Americans, until we feel equal in America."

James didn't let the ugly incident deter him from continuing to speak his mind on political issues, including openly criticizing Trump, and he's clearly hit a nerve. Trump himself responded in 2018, insulting James' intelligence by tweeting, "Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn't easy to do. I like Mike!"

Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham then infamously told James to "shut up and dribble" in widely panned comments.

"Must they run their mouths like that?" Ingraham said on air. "This is what happens when you attempt to leave high school a year early to join the NBA. Keep the political commentary to yourself. Or as someone once said, shut up and dribble."

Aside from getting the support of his NBA colleagues, James responded following an MVP performance in the NBA All-Star Game.

"I will definitely not do that," he said of being told by Ingraham to stay quiet about politics. "I mean too much to the youth. I mean too much to so many kids who feel like they don't have a way out."

"It'd been the same as telling Jackie Robinson to shut up and slide into home base, or Jesse Owens to shut up and just go triple jump," he continued. "I can't do that, because of so many people that's looking up to me, and so many that's going to come after me."

In his 2018 ESPN interview, James again addressed his decision to speak out.

"Well, for me, I have a voice. I have a platform, and I have so many kids and -- not only kids but also adults that look for guidance and look for someone to lead them at a time when they feel like their voice isn't powerful," he said. "And when you see something that's unjust and you see something that's wrong and you see something that's trying to divide us as a race or as a country, then I feel like my voice can be heard and speak volumes."

"Especially coming from the point of sports," he continued. "I live in sports. Without sports, we all wouldn't be here. .... You know, sports, it stops race. Every race comes together to fight for one common goal, and that's to win and to have fun and to have camaraderie and things like that. And for someone or a body or parties to try to divide us by using our platform of sport -- sport has given me everything I could ever ask for -- I couldn't let that happen. By using my voice and letting the youth know and the people that need the guidance know that I care for them and that I'll be their voice, it's passionate for me because, like I said: Sports is just the ultimate way to bring people together. That's what I'm here for."

James eventually turned the Ingraham drama into a positive. He executive produced a three-part documentary series called Shut Up and Dribble, which explored the evolving role of athletes -- professional basketball players in particular -- in the current social and political environment.

And true to his word, James has remained outspoken about issues of racism and social justice.

Speaking about Ahmaud Arbery's shooting after being confronted by a white father and son while he was jogging in Georgia, James tweeted, "We're literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes! Can’t even go for a damn jog man! 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!! #StayWoke #ProfiledCauseWeAreSimplyBlack."

In May, after the tragic death of George Floyd, James shared a juxtaposed image of former police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck with an image of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee on the NFL field to peacefully protest the systemic oppression of Black people in the United States.

"Do you understand NOW!!??!!?? Or is it still blurred to you?? ??‍♂️ #StayWoke?," he commented.

Later, James wasn't afraid to call out popular New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees for saying in an interview that he still didn't support anyone kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games amid nationwide protests following Floyd's death.

"WOW MAN!! ??‍♂️. Is it still surprising at this point. Sure isn't!" he tweeted. "You literally still don't understand why Kap was kneeling on one knee?? Has absolute nothing to do with the disrespect of [the American flag] and our soldiers (men and women) who keep our land free."

"My father-in-law was one of those men who fought as well for this country," James continued. "I asked him question about it and thank him all the time for his commitment. He never found Kap peaceful protest offensive because he and I both know what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong! God bless you. ??✊??."

Brees later apologized for his comments. But James hasn't stopped there. In June, he expressed that he "won't stop" speaking out when he responded to a Twitter user who shared a video comparing Ingraham's critique of his remarks in 2018 juxtaposed with Ingraham's reaction to protests against Brees' remarks, in which she said Brees is "allowed to have his voice about what kneeling and the flag means."

"If you still haven't figured out why the protesting is going on. Why we're acting as we are is because we are simply F-N tired of this treatment right here!" James wrote. "Can we break it down for you any simpler than this right here????"

"And to my people don't worry I won't stop until I see ... CHANGE!!!" he continued.

Most recently, James has set his sights on the importance of voting, once again, enacting meaningful change. James, alongside other prominent Black athletes and entertainers, are starting a new group called More Than a Vote, which aims to protect Black Americans' voting rights.

“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 about the important project. "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. ... There's a lot of people that want change in the black community. If you actually don't put in the work or if you don't have the mind-set, there's never going to be 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," he added. "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."