A British settler who spoke out against "mean and nasty" treatment of the Maori 150 years ago has inspired his 97-year-old American grandson to "take a knee" for the Black Lives Matter movement.

A photo of World War II veteran John Middlemas kneeling in his garden in solidarity with Afro-American protests against police killings has become an internet sensation with more than 20 million views on Twitter.

His daughter Maile Auterson, who took the photo at their home in Springfield, Missouri, said her 97-year-old father still tells her "at least once a month" about his grandparents Thomas and Elizabeth Middlemas, who settled at Hawera in 1866.

John Middlemas, taking the kneel. Photo/Brennan Gilmore
John Middlemas, taking the kneel. Photo/Brennan Gilmore

"He always tells these stories of sitting on his grandmother's lap and her crying and missing the Maoris," Ms Auterson said.

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"My dad will still shed a tear when he thinks about his grandmother missing the Maoris."

Thomas Middlemas, who with his brother Andrew were later described as "the fathers of Hawera", was shunned by other settlers when he spoke out in 1872 against "mean and nasty" treatment of Maori by the local British military commander Major Maillard Noake.

The Wanganui Herald's correspondent wrote that Middlemas drew the settlers' "deserved contempt" for allowing seven Maori, including a follower of the chief Titokowaru, to sleep in his house.

Mr Middlemas wrote back to the paper: "I could not very well refuse them shelter, as the weather was cold and they had nowhere else to go.

Elizabeth Middlemas cried when she told her American grandson how she missed her Maori friends.
Elizabeth Middlemas cried when she told her American grandson how she missed her Maori friends.

"The Hawera publicans were quite willing to sell them drink, but not to give them beds, and as hospitality is one of the Maori virtues, I would rather run the risk of offending such men as your correspondent than be meaner than a Maori," he wrote.

Ms Auterson, a co-founder of the Springfield Community Gardens, said her great-grandparents' compassion had been passed down through the family.

"It's almost a genetic memory for us, a collective generational memory for us that we have a love for everyone," she said.

"It's just that inclusivity, it's in our genes, it's who we are, and it's because we have been told those stories, we know those stories."

Her nephew Brennan Gilmore, who posted the photo of his grandfather on Twitter from his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, marched with a friend, former Auckland rugby player Chris Mahony, against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last month in which a car ran down 20 people.

He said his grandfather, who farmed near Springfield just down the road from where Thomas and Elizabeth settled after leaving New Zealand in 1880, also marched in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

"He was always proud of the values of that struggle. That has always been core values of my family that he taught my mum and she taught us," Mr Gilmore said.

97-year-old veteran John Middlemas with a portrait of his Kiwi grandfather Thomas Middlemas
97-year-old veteran John Middlemas with a portrait of his Kiwi grandfather Thomas Middlemas

He said his grandfather was angry when President Donald Trump tweeted last weekend that football players who kneeled rather than standing for the flag at National Football League games should be fired.

"The president was using the flag and the past veterans to hide behind, while he was attacking the ideas and values that they represent," Mr Gilmore said.

Ms Auterson said her father was "beside himself" at the reaction to his photo on social media.

"We have spent most of the day reading letters and all the articles to him. He just can't believe the power of the internet," she said.

"It's an outpouring of love for my father and for him standing up for what is right for the younger generation.

"But my father also understands the gravity of it ... how important it is for him to take a stand."