Justin Britt, the son of a U.S. Army veteran, grew up in this rural factory town on the edge of the Ozarks, about 30 minutes from Ft. Leonard Wood.
As of the 2010 U.S. Census, the population of 14,454 is 94.1 percent white and 1.3 percent African-American.
It’s the seat of Laclede County, which voted 80.4 percent for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
All of which may conjure some superficial assumptions about the worldview from here.
Never miss a local story.
All of which says nothing at all about how any given individual here thinks — something you already might know if you have friends from this part of the state.
So, yes, it may seem improbable that Britt, the Mizzou grad and Seattle Seahawks’ center, would make the empathetic and conscientious gesture he undertook last week by putting his hand on the shoulder of teammate Michael Bennett, an African-American son of a military veteran, as Bennett sat during the national anthem in protest of racial oppression.
But with the Chiefs preparing to play at Seattle on Friday night, defying labels is at the very heart of the momentous story of what Britt did (sandwiched between similar acts by Philadelphia’s Chris Long, Oakland’s Derek Carr and Cleveland’s Britton Colquitt, the brother of Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt).
Brown’s tight end Seth DeValve, whose wife is African-American, became the first white player in the NFL to take a knee during the anthem when he joined several black teammates.
White players showing solidarity with their brothers in a civil rights movement at a time when the nation is roiling and reeling anew with racial strife lends energy and compassion to what began last year with Colin Kaepernick, the controversy around whom makes many believe that’s a factor in no NFL team wanting him this season.
So the means and the message anger many, including in Britt’s hometown and in the region, where people have taken to social media to call him anything from a sellout to an embarrassment to his hometown and question his manhood.
Through the same vehicle, though, plenty have offered their approval — including 37 percent of 515 voters as of Thursday morning in an online poll by The Lebanon Daily Record.
“There are some people who fulfill (the stereotypes), but a lot of people here are just trying to figure the world out,” said Britt’s older brother, Chris, a middle school teacher and head football coach of the 7th grade team in Lebanon. “You can’t put everyone in a box. That would probably make it easy for everybody, to put them in a box of some sort. The hard part is opening that up.”
Certainly, it came as no surprise to Lebanon High football coach Will Christian that Britt opened himself up to this — especially after having many black teammates and friends at Mizzou.
Christian knows Britt first for his heart and is certain Britt feels deeply for Bennett and the issue itself in order for him to stand and be counted.
Literally, as Christian saw it, with dual meaning:
Britt straddled two worlds by remaining standing and showing sympathy, a subtlety perhaps lost on those who think he went too far and others who think not far enough.
“I thought he was kind of bridging that gap,” said Chris Britt, who has seen the social-media criticism but only received supportive feedback in person at school.
The ire of fans was a price Britt knew he’d pay and was willing to absorb after Bennett had called for white players to step in in the wake of Charlottesville, which Bennett called his own tipping point toward action.
So the priority became to lend comfort and strength and encouragement to a friend and to an ideal.
Because even in the search for answers, one thing Britt knows is that actual rights matter more than the mere symbols of those rights.
In a social media post that as of Thursday had been liked 119,000 times and retweeted 54,000, Britt attached a picture of his stance next to Bennett to a quote widely attributed to Ben Franklin (but of unknown origin):
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
There’s no way to know now how the actions of Britt and the increasing others will be remembered over time.
But what they have done evokes the legend of Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie Robinson as racists snarled at him in Cincinnati in the summer of 1947, an episode popularized by the movie “42” but that is dismissed as myth by many.
If the story were true, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick said, the parallel would hold.
Instead, Kendrick says the first thing that came to his mind was a tale about Larry Doby, who that very summer became the first African-American in the American League.
Before his first game with the Cleveland Indians, many of his teammates shunned Doby.
To the point where no one would play catch with him beforehand.
Then the Indians’ Joe Gordon, who would later become the first manager of the Royals, began an enduring friendship with Doby when he said, “Hey, kid, come on. Throw with me.”
White players lending their voice to the effort, Kendrick said, is reminiscent of whites walking arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders and citizens during the height of the last civil rights movement.
“That made a tremendous difference,” Kendrick said in a phone interview, adding, “When a multitude of people stand up to injustice and stand up to hate, it means more, no doubt about it.”
The nuanced intensity of Britt’s deed also resonated with John Carlos, whose iconic Black Power salute with Tommie Smith on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics resulted in them being banished from the Olympic Village and receiving death threats.
Carlos has long expressed admiration and appreciation for the so-called White Man In That Photo of the podium, Australian Peter Norman.
In sympathy with them and in a statement about racial tensions in his own country, Norman wore an “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge along with them.
He returned home “a pariah,” as a 2012 CNN profile put it.
“If we were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone,” Carlos once said, according to an article in GRIOT that noted Norman could have earned a pardon if he were willing to condemn Carlos and Smith.
Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at his funeral in 2006.
Carlos could not be reached for comment this week, but the wallpaper on his Facebook page now is an image of Britt and Bennett.
“Through individuals like Peter Norman, Chris Long, Justin Britt and the many other white athletes who have stood by their black teammates in support of what they are protesting, this is the ‘UNITY’ we need to see happen more in our society today,” Carlos wrote. “Not just within our sports but throughout the world.
“Images like Chris Long touching Malcolm Jenkins, and Justin Britt embracing yourself, need to circulate throughout the internet instead of images of police brutality, riots and hate.”
The very mention of Carlos, and now Kaepernick, provokes fury in those who see their actions as unpatriotic instead of, in fact, speaking to the failed promises of what the country is supposed to stand for.
Never mind that Kaepernick has never in any way indicated he’s anti-military, a notion that either has been appropriated or misconstrued by some even as others with military backgrounds support him.
That misperception, though, is a reality of the situation that has made a morally imperative movement seem inflammatory.
So, Chris Britt couldn’t be more proud of his brother, whom he calls “very patriotic” and knows loves his country.
But he understands the complexity of all this and believes that sitting or kneeling during the anthem can distract from the point because it “gives people an excuse to discuss it in a negative way.”
“I think a lot of those people are just looking at just that,” Chris Britt said. “And that’s the problem with the anthem protest for me, because it gets people focused on disrespecting the flag instead of thinking and talking about why.”
Christian, who coached Britt in high school and long has seen him as a champion of the underdog, is measured as he talks about this.
He texted Britt after the game last week to tell him that “I support him and I understood” but acknowledges that the topic is loaded.
“It’s delicate, and I don’t want to offend those who are offended by it,” said Christian, who as the high school’s athletic director is proud of programs the school has implemented to educate about diversity.
But here is what Christian does know and can say emphatically.
It’s all about character in Britt, the father of two.
Britt went from what he called a thin “Labrador puppy” to a “Grizzly bear” and became a state champion wrestler and the only FBS player (and NFL) player in Christian’s 13 years at Lebanon in part because of his humility and desire to excel.
He regularly conducts free camps back home and donates to the community.
“But his value to our young kids is not dollars,” Christian said. “It’s the dream that he’s now living that all of them can now dream.”
One that’s now inseparable from an act of courage that already has had an impact.
“All of this, even looking back to the Kaepernick issues, creates a tremendous amount of reflection and discussion,” Christian said. “Which is what the design of them is.
“And I think that it’s definitely put light to the fact of patriotism, with constant discussion about that, and also oppression and the discussion of stereotyping.”
Including whatever you might guess from afar about how someone sees the world in any given place.
“I think it shows that no matter where you’re from, to be able to have somebody from a different part of the country, different race and to be able to share moments where we agree that the things that happened in Charlottesville, the things that’re going on right now, are not acceptable,” Bennett told reporters after the game. “To be able to have him do that, I think … it’s going to give a lot of other players courage to be able to move forward and keep trying to share that message of love and that message of unity and to be able to build that bridge.
“I think it’s about building that bridge to the other side and to be able to share our journey together.”