On September 23rd, Bernice King, Marin Luther King Jr’s daughter, tweeted this picture with the caption “The real shame & disrespect is that, decades after the 1st photo, racism STILL kills people & corrupts systems. #America #TakeAKnee @POTUS.”
Soon after, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change tweeted the image below of King kneeling with protesters in Dallas in a brief moment between a march to the courthouse and on to jail for the arrestees.
These likely connected posts are two in a long line of media writers and well-known commentators to draw this comparison between football players kneeling during the National Anthem and Civil Rights actors. A Washington Post writer, for instance, wrote an article on the resurfacing of these MLK photos alongside the NFL protests and a Time Magazine article stated that the NFL protests were part of a long tradition of kneeling in sports tied to the Civil Rights Movement.
For movement scholars, I there are some critical elements to unpack. First, it seems—although empirical research could confirm—that the comparison between the NFL protests and the Civil Rights Movement is movement-generated. It has certainly received significant support from movement actors. For instance, Reverend Barber, former North Carolina NAACP President called NFL players who took a knee “sons of Justice, taking their place in the river of resistance that has brought us thus far on our way.” If this is true, it both shows the ability of powerful actors to influence emergent discourse and the openness of media to this framing.
Second, this is an interesting example of a protest tactic overshadowing the content. As the Washington Post columnist noted “constructive conversations can seldom reach the underlying reasons for the protest because of pushback against the methods of protest themselves.” While not a new phenomenon, this is certainly a strong example of the separation between tactic and purpose. There has been a simultaneous discourse on the “acceptable forms of black protest,” which can be summarized by Chicago Tribune writer Steve Chapman’s comment that “The problem is not how blacks raise their complaints about American society; it’s that they raise them.” Perhaps any tactic used then would be separated from the content.
Finally, comparison provides an opportunity for contrast. I presented these two cases to my students this past week and I asked them to also think about contrast between the two; what makes them different? A few students were really struck by motive. They felt that Colin Kaepernick’s protest a year ago was undeniably an act of disobedience in support of racial justice. Kaepernick himself explained that he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…” But my students worried that the same players that would not support Kaepernick and even publicly criticized him were now the ones kneeling. Did they kneel for racial justice or because they felt their own personal liberties were threatened by Trump’s comments? The target, they suggested, was Trump more than racial inequality. My students generated a critical view of likening the NFL protests to the Civil Rights Movement, despite understanding it’s value for the movement, which presents an interesting opportunity to unpack further the role of contrast in this increasingly popular comparison.