There’s so much more to the NFL protests besides controversy


“Taking a knee is not without precedent Mr. President,” tweeted Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, along with a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While history is busy repeating itself these days, how long has kneeling been a symbol of civil rights?

Martin Luther King Jr., kneeling, NFL, protest, civil rights, Birmingham, Alabama, Colin Kaepernick
Via Daily Mail UK, courtesy of Bettman Archive

Trump And The NFL

Earlier this week, Holder responded to President Trump’s comments regarding NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. While a Twitter storm about the political gesture has taken center stage this week, Trump’s latest response to the Internet continues to stoke the coals of controversy.

Via CNN, Fox News:

“I have so many friends that are owners and they’re in a box,” Trump said. “I mean, I’ve spoken to a couple of them, and they say, ‘We are in a situation where we need to do something.’ I think they’re afraid of their players, if you want to know the truth, and I think it’s disgraceful.”

NFL, Indianapolis, Colts, take a knee, kneeling, protest
Via USA Today sports
What’s The Point?

As a result of all the hyperbole and back and forth, the Internet keeps foaming at the mouth for more controversy. Trump, advertisers, the NFL, fans and the Internet want to know about those ratings. Are they going to drop? Even NFL players are asking, “What’s next?”

What about those First Amendment rights and freedom of expression?According to a law professor writing for The Hill, neither neither the President’s tweets or the gesture of kneeling are constitutionally protected free speech.

But, at the end of a long, controversial week, history plays the biggest role when it comes to social commentary. It has a way of prioritizing the present, by way of reminding us of the past. In this case, Alabama plays a role, too. The photograph that Holder tweeted was of King kneeling in prayer before being taken to jail during the civil rights movement.

Dr. King’s daughter Bernice first tweeted the photo of her father kneeling in Selma, prompting Holder to tweet in support of her rebuttal.

civil rights, Birmingham, Alabama, history, abolitionist movement
Via PBS, and reproduced by Trustees of The Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Staffordshire, England
History Repeats Itself

According to PBS, “the first and most identifiable image of the 18th century abolitionist movement was a kneeling African man.” The image was also shared on Twitter this week, pointing out just how far the gesture has come as a way of visually defining the fight for civil rights.

The Quakers designed the image as a seal to be worn and used both “artistically and politically”. Engraved underneath the image are the words:

“Am I Not A Man and A Brother?”

In 1788,  Benjamin Franklin received a consignment of the image engraved onto medallions, and they became a fashion statement for abolitionists and anti-slavery sympathizers in Philadelphia. While the symbol grew in its meaning once it , ironically, the Quakers who came up with the design only took issue with the slave trade and not slavery itself.

Abolitionists in Philadelphia gave the engraving its own meaning, by wearing to oppose slavery. Just as in the 60s, the engraving morphed into a physical stance, a similar but different nonviolent symbol to oppose slaver. And today, on the fields of the Nation Football League, the gesture continues to represent a similar-but-different meaning. This time of present-day racial injustices.

As Lee Siegel wrote for the New York Times:

It is a humility couched in a majesty of pride, dignity, strength and unusual accomplishment. Kneeling in protest is out of the playbook of Dr. King, not Malcolm X.”

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