SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — A photo of a 97-year-old Missouri 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. CT on Sunday, 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.
As of Monday morning, the post had been retweeted more than 123,000 times and "liked" by more than 322,000 accounts.
Colin Kaepernick started kneeling for the national anthem in 2016 as a way to protest police violence against African Americans. At the time Kaepernick was playing for the San Francisco 49ers. He is currently unsigned.
Civil rights activism is old hat for Middlemas. His desire to be inclusive is rooted in his time serving alongside black members of the military while deployed on a submarine.
In an interview, Middlemas said, "I wanted to communicate what I always told to my grandkids and everybody else. 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.
"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 Trump, whose comments at a campaign rally Friday in Alabama about athletes who don't stand for the anthem sparked the response from the NFL and others over the weekend. Trump said said 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 the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.
Middlemas, who was 93 at the time, was one of the last to finish the parade. He said then that he'd been marching for 45 to 50 years.
Middlemas always admired King, watched him preach and could recite his words. He had hoped King would one day be president, and he regrets King never fulfilled that dream, he said in 2013.
Contributing: Juliana Goodwin and Dean Curtis, Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. Follow Will Schmitt on Twitter: @ws_missouri