The most visible piece of The New Yorker is, of course, its cover. And as the magazine itself is so highly venerated, it's no surprise that over the years, the covers have come to be a reflection of the most important issues facing the country. This week, the New Yorker cover featuring Colin Kaepernick and Martin Luther King, Jr. follows perfectly in that pattern, and the artist has a striking explanation of why he chose to make this particular work of art.
"I asked myself, What would King be doing if he were around today?" artist Mark Ulriksen said about his work. The cover shows MLK Jr. kneeling between Kaepernick, the first athlete to kneel in protest of the continued police brutality against people of color back in 2016, and Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who has been very vocal in joining that protest. On Ulriksen's cover, both Kaepernick and Bennett are looking out, whereas MLK Jr. has his head bent in prayer, with his eyes closed.
While the protests have gradually drifted out of focus as the NFL season has gone on, President Trump has loudly and repeatedly denigrated the protests and the athletes carrying them out. By including King, the civil rights hero who has a national holiday to honor him coming up, this cover makes a strong statement against the president as well.
Ulriksen is based in San Francisco, where Kaepernick began his protests as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. In explaining where his inspiration for the cover came from, Ulriksen references the team where it all began — and how meaningful the whole protest really is.
This is 49er country, and my mom and I have been going back and forth — she's upset that players have brought politics into sports, but I say, How would you feel if you had to show up at work every day and salute a country that treats black people like second-class citizens? I'm glad that Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett are making it political. I'm sure that if King were around today, he'd be disappointed at the slow pace of progress: two steps forward, twenty steps back. Or ten yards back, as the metaphor may be.
Many have ruminated on what Martin Luther King, Jr. would think about today's issues, with the general agreement that he would have much to be happy about — a two-term black president, for example, of the success of the LGBTQ rights movement — but there's also much that would be heartbreaking to him.
NFL players like Kaepernick, Bennett, and the other athletes across the sports spectrum who joined them are point out exactly those issues: the ongoing repression of people of color, and the unwarranted and widespread police brutality in particular. This was already a problem when King was still alive, and very little has changed since then. The country still hasn't achieved the equality that King fought for, even 50 years later.
King was also very much dedicated to nonviolent protest, an important part of his legacy. No matter what Trump may say about how the kneeling protests are disrespectful to the country or to the flag, they are exactly the sort of protest that King would join in passionately. This makes Ulriksen's cover more than just powerful — it also makes it deeply believable. King's assassination is the only reason why he's not there to join in.
Kaepernick, who has already been roundly celebrated for his fight for social justice, would likely feel honored to see himself on this particular cover; same with Michael Bennett, who has also faced criticism from people on Trump's side for amplifying the protests. But given what the two of them are facing, King would probably also be honored to be pictured with them.