After weeks of debate among musicians and performers about the Super Bowl halftime show, the N.F.L.’s introduction to the game highlighted civil rights leaders of the past. After Gladys Knight sang the national anthem, the telecast cut to a video that intercut photographs and pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. with quotes from his speeches.
Then Representative John Lewis, who is known for his role in the protests in Selma, Alabama, and Bernice King, the 55-year old daughter of the slain civil rights leader, stood at midfield during the coin toss.
The nod towards host city Atlanta’s past as a locus for racial justice activism—King, Jr. was born in the city—comes as the N.F.L. is facing pushback over its response to athlete protests over the last three years. In May 2018, the league introduced a policy that banned kneeling during the national anthem, though players did have the option to remain in the locker room until the anthem was over. In September, they reversed that decision. No kneeling players were shown on the telecast of the Super Bowl, though it is unclear if anyone was kneeling off-screen.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who popularized such protests, is currently suing the league, alleging that its owners have colluded to keep him off the field in the wake of the controversy.
After the coin toss, Bernice King took to Twitter to explain her decision to participate, calling it ”A significant moment.” She added, “our efforts must include bridge builders, strategic negotiators and ambassadors.”