The cover of the January 15 issue of The New Yorker depicts Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. kneeling on the sidelines between two football players—and former division rivals*—Michael Bennett and Colin Kaepernick. The image, “In Creative Battle” by Mark Ulriksen, depicts a sideline demonstration reminiscent of NFL players’ protests meant to bring attention to police aggression against black men and boys and society’s racial injustice. Both Bennett and Kaepernick have been outspoken critics of racial injustice in America and have sought to raise awareness through their civic engagement and philanthropy.
Ulriksen’s image suggests that—were he alive—Dr. King would stand, or, as the case may be, kneel, in solidarity with Bennett and Kaepernick. Like the nonviolent protests of the 1950s and 1960s, in which black men, women, and children sat at counters, on public buses, in restaurant booths, and classrooms where they were not permitted by law, their quiet act on stadium sidelines proved powerfully symbolic.
“In Creative Battle” also portrays Dr. King as brother-in-arms with two players who have been maligned and disparaged for their activism, much like King was in his day. During his lifetime, the Nobel Laureate and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient was viewed by many as an agitator, a nuisance, and un-American. Two years before Dr. King’s assassination, only 37% of Americans had a favorable opinion of Dr. King, and 44% held a strongly unfavorable opinion him. King was an inconvenience to the powers allied against justice, equality, and human rights.
In Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April, 1963), King responded to local clergy critical of nonviolent resistance. The letter’s signatories—including two Episcopal Bishops, a pastor from the First Baptist Church, and the Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El—urged King and fellow activists to pursue justice through the courts or direct negotiations rather than through protests. Protests are disquieting. They are uncomfortable to watch. They are inconvenient. This is their aim.
As Dr. King broadened his focus from civil and voting rights for blacks to his objection to the Vietnam War to economic justice, his burden was to convince those around him that these causes were not only just, but worthy of sacrifice.
King’s legacy lives on in the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), and the generations of activists, agitators, advocates, and conscientious objectors that practice peaceful nonviolent protest. Their actions amplify the voices of the marginalized. We celebrate Dr. King because he was a charismatic, principled, and persuasive “drum major for justice” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Atlanta, 1968). Ulriksen knows that behind every prominent name and face—every King, Bennett, and Kaepernick—there are countless others who risk injury, relationships, and economic hardship speaking out for others. Their kneeling is an act of humble submission “in justice to others”.
As in previous years, we encourage our community to join fellow Seattleites in spreading Dr. King’s message on Monday, January 15, at Seattle’s MLK Day March. This year’s theme is Take a Knee for Justice!
Have a wonderful weekend.
*The players are former rivals because Kaepernick is no longer in the league—having failed to make the roster of any of the thirty-two NFL teams as starter or backup—and because there is very little to the rivalry given the poor play of the venerable team from San Francisco. Both teams missed the playoffs following the 2017 season.