SPRINGFIELD, MO. - A photo of a 97-year-old Willard man kneeling to show solidarity with black football players has been shared thousands of times as his message of peace and acceptance spreads across the internet.
The photo of John Middlemas was posted to Twitter by a younger relative at about 9:30 a.m., a few hours before numerous National Football League players knelt while the national anthem was played.
"My grandpa is a 97 year-old WWII vet & Missouri farmer who wanted to join (with) those who #Takeaknee: 'those kids have every right to protest,'" wrote Brennan Gilmore as a caption to the photo of Middlemas.
By 1 p.m., with many NFL games underway, the post had been shared more than 25,000 times and "liked" by more than 59,000 accounts.
The kneeling tradition, which is meant to protest police violence against African-Americans, is a relatively new symbolic display. The gesture was started in 2016 by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then playing for the San Francisco 49ers.
This form of protest may be new, but civil rights activism is old hat for Middlemas, who consented to a brief interview with the News-Leader with the help of his daughter, Maile Auterson.
"I wanted to communicate what I always told to my grand-kids and everybody else," Middlemas said. "When they'd go to bed at night, we'd tell the kids we wanted to be like Jesus."
By that, Middlemas wants to communicate a message of peace and acceptance. His desire to be inclusive is rooted in his time serving alongside black members of the military while deployed on a submarine.
"I'm trying to say that you have to love everybody," he said, adding he hopes "the whole world" will get his message. "We don't kill people. We want to make people live."
One member of Middlemas' intended audience is President Donald Trump, who has been outspoken with criticism against athletes who don't stand for the anthem. Trump recently stated he believed NFL owners should "fire or suspend" players who protest.
The Willard farmer, not a fan of Trump, called the president "garbage-mouthed."
In 2013, Middlemas participated in what he called "the most important march I've ever made in my life" — a Springfield event called the "Unity March" meant to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.
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