Colin Kaepernick and the Civil Rights Museum

Disclaimer: Any perceived “virtue signaling” is entirely unintentional, because all of these social justice warrior buzzwords are inherently grossly narcissistic.

Serendipitous might not be the precise word, but last weekend I went on one of my “amuck in America” jaunts. I drove to Memphis, Tenn. The state is beautiful. Memphis, not so much. It is a fascinating city, however, and the home of the National Civil Rights Museum.

It is not a perfect museum, but it is an engrossing place that examines many of our nation’s self-inflicted wounds regarding race relations. It is absolutely worth a visit.

Unless, of course, you prefer to wage social struggle at your keyboard. If that’s the case, you post about Kaepernick and his Nike ad this week.

Full disclosure: I have no problem with the former NFL quarterback/civil rights provocateur being the male model for a Nike ad campaign. A job is a job. Besides, even after visiting the museum I would be a damned fool to claim I’m an expert in civil rights. At best, I am merely a student. All I can say about him as a quarterback is that once defenses figured out the read-option, he was pretty much done.

But regarding this alleged controversy and “the struggle,” I have to confess something: I just can’t see an advertisement for a shoe company as a civil rights triumph. It doesn’t anger me. It just seems so, so cynical. Like the quest for justice has gone corporate. So small.

I can’t see it as a victory. Not after Rosa Parks. Not after the sit-ins. The Freedom Riders. Not after Diane Nash, John Lewis, E.D. Nixon.

Not after the Rev. Martin Luther King, who was slain at the Lorraine Motel, which was refurbished into the museum I attended.

Maybe I am still blind.

Look, you go to the museum and you learn that legions of famous black performers and dignitaries stayed there because it was the only hotel in the city that would welcome them. Imagine going to see Aretha Franklin in concert, but she gets denied entry at the hotel you are staying in.

Then you learn that the wife of the motel owner was so traumatized by King getting shot that she had a stroke that night and died. That’s in the first exhibit.

Much of the museum is organized around King’s leadership. He was a reluctant authority figure, recruited by Nixon to lead a lengthy boycott of the Montgomery, Ala., bus system in the aftermath of Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat. (A side note: The bus exhibit is disappointing. We don’t know if it is the actual bus, and to make people feel the discrimination, sensors in the bus trigger “the driver” to order you around. It’s quite distracting while you are trying to read the display.)

From there, you pass exhibits where you learn of dangerous moves black men and women felt compelled to take to simply assert their humanity — in education, economics, where to go to the bathroom. You learn who embraced the message in Washington and who shied away. Sure, President Johnson was assailed for the Vietnam War, but it was apparent he accepted the call moreso than JFK, which to me was a little startling. My family reveres Kennedy.

What resonated with me on a deeper level, though, was one of the latter exhibits. Sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike when two black coworkers died after being forced to work in dangerous winter conditions. They died a week after I was born. The strike eventually inspired a visit from King, which led to his death April 4, 1968. I wasn’t even three months old.

It moves me even now, sincerely. When you consider life expectancy now, King could have been alive today.

Now, I think of all I learned last week in Memphis, the men and women who lost their freedom, their lives. Real blood, real pain, real death … and now I’m supposed to feel the same way about a shoe ad?

I can’t.

Again, if you want to appreciate Kaepernick, do so.

But a shoe ad is not the same as a letter from Montgomery jail.

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