Why you should care
Because nonviolent protest in any era is bound to create its own dissent.
When OZY recently put former NFL football player Colin Kaepernick’s image atop an email from our managing editor promoting the upcoming season of our history podcast The Thread — about the history of nonviolent protests leading up to and emanating from Martin Luther King Jr. — we received a number of responses from readers who were not thrilled with the juxtaposition of the two men. “MLK = Real rights for all U.S. citizens when there was blatant disparity,” Reta wrote in to say, while “Kaepernick = A person who has no idea of sacrifice.”
But even though a half century has passed, is there really that much separating King and Kaepernick’s peaceful demonstrations about racial injustice — and our reaction to them? As we cover in The Thread (Episode 1, on MLK, is now available for download), King’s nonviolent methods radiate out today to all corners of the globe, and yes, even to the playing fields and locker rooms of the National Football League. And if there was ever a person who could identify with the onslaught of criticisms and vitriol being directed at Kaepernick, it would certainly be Martin Luther King Jr.
This past January, The New Yorker put King kneeling next to Kaepernick and fellow footballer Michael Bennett on its cover. In designing the cover, artist Mark Ulriksen said his mind kept returning to the same question: “What would Martin Luther King Jr. do if he were here today?” Ulriksen’s answer — and that of many other observers — was that King would also take a knee. It would not have been a novel act of protest for King. Not long after the backlash to the cover, another image went viral across social media, this one of King kneeling in prayer on a sidewalk alongside dozens of other civil rights protesters in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
— The King Center (@TheKingCenter) September 23, 2017
And while King was not an athlete himself, he admired sports figures who used their positions as a platform for pursuing social justice, and he did not shy away from the collision of politics and sports. When others criticized U.S. track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos — who later raised their fists in defiance at the 1968 Olympics — for being patriotic while they were considering boycotting those Olympics, King offered his public support. King once called Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s color line in 1947, “a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
King also was no stranger to the criticisms that have been voiced against Kaepernick since he first began kneeling during the National Anthem to draw attention to police brutality in America. In fact, he addressed most of them directly in his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” that he wrote while incarcerated in an Alabama prison in 1963. King, for example, often heard the criticism levied by many well-intentioned critics like Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan, who said Kaepernick had chosen the wrong time and place (i.e., during the National Anthem at a sporting event) to protest injustice. “My Dear Fellow Clergymen,” King begins his famous letter, “while confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’ ”
King’s response to the notion that he was untimely, or that the Atlanta, Georgia, native was somehow an “outsider” (as Kaepernick is often accused of being since he is a wealthy professional athlete) who had no business engaging with Birmingham’s problems, was simply: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” memorably adding: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Like Kaepernick, King also had little patience for those who focused on the manner of the protest he was engaged in and not the reasons for it. “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham,” he wrote. “But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”
But is the act of kneeling during something as sacred to many as the National Anthem so needlessly divisive that it falls short of MLK’s ideal? No less than liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has called the protests “dumb and disrespectful.” King’s niece, Alveda King, said on Fox News that while she respected the reasons for the protest, “[W]e do have to have respect for our flag, for our anthem.”
King, though, also had an answer for those who accused him of being divisive or disrespectful. In many ways, the nonviolent protests that King led were designed to be divisive, to get people’s attention and to force a response. As King put it in his letter: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
Like it or not, what Kaepernick and other kneeling athletes have done is grab the collar of a nation and point its head at an issue that it has too long ignored. “One day the South will recognize its real heroes,” King wrote of the courageous civil rights protesters he had fought alongside during the 1950s and ’60s. And one day we will hopefully come to recognize our own as well.
What do you think? Would Dr. King kneel alongside Colin Kaepernick today? Please tell us in the comments below. Also, be sure to listen to our podcast, The Thread: A History of Nonviolence. Check it out at OZY.com, subscribe to it on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts, follow us on iHeartRadio or listen wherever you get your favorite podcast fix.