Martin Luther King, Jr. Day presents a problem for American society in 2018. MLK himself is universally honored — and yet the people who are truly following in his footsteps don't necessarily enjoy the same regard. One tweet to think about on MLK Day perfectly sums it up, and it comes from someone who probably didn't expect to be the voice of social justice at this point last year: ESPN sports journalist Jemele Hill, who has gained both praise and notoriety this year for speaking publicly against the Trump administration.
To mark the day, Hill tweeted a photo of some characters from the Fox show Empire throwing some serious shade. "Me, watching people who criticized Colin Kaepernick for his nonviolent protest post MLK quotes today," Hill wrote along with the photo.
She was, of course, referring to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is currently unemployed after he started a movement of players kneeling for the national anthem. Once his actions caught on — and were repeated many times across the league — it angered NFL owners, Donald Trump, and legions of Trump-supporting fans who saw it as an affront to the flag or the military.
Kaepernick made it clear, however, that his goal was never to spread anger. It was simply a protest against what Kaepernick sees as the ongoing oppression of people of color. He had a platform, he found a method of nonviolent resistance, and he protested.
Kaepernick didn't hurt anyone, and he didn't force anyone else to kneel with him. He merely chose this method to express himself, and his choice was protected by the First Amendment — as was the NFL owners' decision not to hire him, for whatever reason they chose not to do so. Kaepernick's protest launched a storm of discussion, though, and while he's certainly received his fair share of love and support, he's also received a lot of vitriol, and a lot of it from very high places.
"Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’" Trump said at a rally in September, referring not to Kaepernick specifically but to anyone who joined in his protest.
Trump released a video tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday. The video contains no criticism of King's methods, no comments about how his multiple arrests were deserved — only platitudes about how America should still be fighting for his dream.
King was, like Kaepernick, a highly controversial figure in his time. It took a long time from the suggestion of a federal holiday to honor him to arrive at its implementation. People told King that he should wait, that his methods weren't right, that it wasn't the time to stir up such unrest.
If he hadn't persevered, of course, there would be no national holiday with his name on it. And while Kaepernick still doesn't, and likely never will, have the same profile as such a luminary as MLK, he's still carrying on MLK's legacy. He's nonviolently protesting against a situation that he can no longer bear to watch. The New Yorker cover of King kneeling with Kaepernick and Seattle Seahawks defensive end (and fellow protestor) Michael Bennett pointed out the similarities between the football players' movement and and MLK's own form of protest the week before MLK Day, and Jemele Hill has pointed it out again.
Those attempting to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. by repeating his words and ignoring his methods and his goals do him a dishonor. His words are only a small part of his legacy — as any kindergartener knows, actions speak louder than words. The people quoting King on the same Twitter accounts they used to criticize Kaepernick understand neither man's methods or goals. While they may mean to celebrate King, their previous words do the exact opposite.
Editor's Note: This op-ed does not reflect the views of BDG Media and is part of a larger, feminist discourse on today's political climate.