On Sunday morning, Brennan Gilmore received a photo of his grandfather John Middlemas kneeling in a garden and staring into the camera from beneath a “World War II Veteran” cap.
Gilmore knew it was a powerful image.
But he had no idea that it would soon become an Internet sensation.
Two nights earlier, at a rally in Alabama, President Donald Trump had told the crowd that NFL players who demonstrate during the national anthem should be fired, condemning their actions as an act of disrespect against the American flag.
The president’s comments were cheered by the crowd. But beyond the rally, they began to snowball into a backlash.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called the comments “divisive.” Players contemplated action. Team owners, including many who had contributed to Trump’s 2016 campaign, criticized the president.
Still, Trump, as he is wont to do, doubled down, railing against athletes who “disrespect . . . our Great American Flag,” saying they “should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
Roger Goodell of NFL just put out a statement trying to justify the total disrespect certain players show to our country.Tell them to stand!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag — we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the anthem last year to draw attention to police violence against African Americans. He is out of the NFL now, but the debate over his preferred form of silent protest rages on, with the president commenting on it across four consecutive days.
Gilmore, who lives in Charlottesville, said he saw the president’s comments as an attempt to use veterans and patriotism to say people don’t have the right to protest.
Who would have more moral authority than a World War II veteran to speak about what patriotism really means? That’s what Gilmore thought on seeing his grandfather’s photo, taken about 1,000 miles away in Springfield, Mo.
Gilmore tweeted the photo Sunday morning, assuming that it would be seen by his friends and small group of followers, he said.
The message from Middlemas, the nonagenarian war veteran: “Those kids have every right to protest.”
My grandpa is a 97 year-old WWII vet & Missouri farmer who wanted to join w/ those who #TakeaKnee: “those kids have every right to protest.” pic.twitter.com/LurCj7SLUB
— Brennan Gilmore (@brennanmgilmore) September 24, 2017
Gilmore’s tweet exploded on social media. It has been shared more than 165,000 times, with the number of “likes” topping 400,000.
The rapper T.I. posted the photo to the 20 million followers on his Facebook page, saying: “It ain’t about color, it’s about equality & oppression!!!”
Gilmore’s aunt, Maile Auterson, said that they are a family of Democrats and that her 97-year-old father is no fan of Trump, whom he described as having a “garbage mouth.”
A father of six and grandfather to 32, Middlemas served in the Navy for 21 years, including on submarines during World War II, before settling on a farm in Missouri, according to his family.
The flag is a really big deal to him, Auterson said.
Martin Luther King Jr. was killed for what the flag represents, which is equality and freedom, Middlemas told The Washington Post through Auterson, who said her father has some difficulty hearing.
Auterson quipped: “I guess what it means to him is not the same thing it means to our president.”
On Sunday and Monday, many NFL players knelt or stood and locked arms with one another in response to Trump’s comments, while team owners issued statements in support of the players’ right to free speech.
Trump has held firm to his stance that kneeling during the national anthem shows a lack of respect for the flag, and he pushed back on the notion that his comments are racially motivated.
The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 25, 2017
The president also shared a tweet about former NFL player Pat Tillman, who left the league to join the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. That tweet included the hashtag #standforouranthem and #boycottnfl. Tillman’s widow issued a statement saying, “Pat’s service, along with that of every man and woman’s service, should never be politicized in a way that divides us.”
Middlemas said that kneeling during the national anthem is “not disrespectful at all” and that he had great respect for the NFL players, “because their belief is exactly the same as mine.”
Auterson said her father’s photo has led to an outpouring of love from strangers.
“We’re such plain people and it’s a sensation; he’s just grinning,” she said.
Gilmore shared more photos of his grandfather on Twitter, saying he appreciated the positive messages.
Grandpa is very appreciative of all the positive messages people have sent. Here are a few favorite pics, from the Navy and from the farm. pic.twitter.com/c9dC8gb0b0
— Brennan Gilmore (@brennanmgilmore) September 25, 2017
Both Auterson and Gilmore spoke of Middlemas’s deep commitment to civil rights.
Four years ago, Middlemas took part in a rally to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s March on Washington, where the civil rights icon delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
A local television station interviewed Middlemas that day. The WWII veteran, with his cane in hand and more than nine decades of his life behind him, expressed admiration for King, saying: “His dream is coming true now. That’s what I like.”