Dear Dr. King,
It must seem very weird to continually watch in Heaven as students everywhere learn about your life, and more importantly, the legacy you left. I am sure 50 years ago in the hours of that fateful morning that you would have done nothing differently in your life. For that reason alone, you were, and still are, one the greatest peacemaker this world has every known. This letter of gratitude will have several spots where I try to put into words my appreciation for what you have done for me and my life. I am not anywhere close the orator you were and I make no attempt to say my writing is perfect, but I do pray that you can somehow see the importance that I am placing in this letter.
I want to first thank you for giving yourself and your message to myself as well as to the rest of the world. Along with Elie Wiesel, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and Harvey Milk, you are one of the five people throughout my love of learning, studying, and now teaching history who has had the biggest influence on my life, my world view, and my view on what it means to both a man and an American. Without reading your writings, listening to your sermons and speeches, and learning just how much you sacrificed for us in your quest for equality I would not be the person I am today. And as I very much like the person I have become and take pride in both me and my beliefs, you should know you played a part in that.
I was not always aware to the influence you would have on me and my life. Being born a white male affords a person the privilege of not needing to have experienced the injustices that you rallied against to truly understand your message and the meaning behind it. As a result of this, it was not until my 10th grade year of high school that I truly “got” you. Of course, I learned about you throughout my academic career, but I never truly felt a connection with you until my AP Language course in high school. It was around this time in my life when I went through a process of self-discovery and learned about myself in the most authentic way possible. And it was thanks to being under the tutelage Dr. Sara Lochridge, for the first time in my life that I truly felt a personal connection to both you and everything you represent – both in your earthbound form and in the legacy you left us with to this day.
It was in that AP Language course where I was encouraged as a writer for the first time. It was also in this course where I first read Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I instantly knew there was something special about it. Never in my life (up until that point, at least) had a piece of writing – especially a letter that was not even addressed to me – moved me the way your letter did. The dichotomy of power in the letter is something not many people will ever be able to emulate. It was soft and sweet at the same time. It was angry while also being calm and collected. My favorite of all, however, is how it was both accusatory and forgiving as well.
I have often wondered in my life where I would have been had I been alive in 1963 during the March on Washington, or in 1965 in Selma following Bloody Sunday. It is easy for me to sit here and say I would have risked my privilege and status in society and say I would have been a marcher. But after reading Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I can confidently say that I would have worked most of my life to have followed in your footsteps. To have been a drum major for peace, justice, and absolute righteousness. Often in my life, I have also been called a “bleeding heart liberal.” I used to roll my eyes and sigh when the phrase was spoken. As I have become older and more confident in who I am and who I am supposed to be, I wear that like a badge of honor. The same way you wore the badge of “extremist” as an honor. My bleeding heart is partially the way it is because of you.
You once said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever reflects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This is how I know your heart was a bleeding heart. This is why I take heart in being a bleeding heart. Part of the reason I became a social studies teacher (other than my love of history, of course) is the important most history teachers place on the concept of social justice. We have studied history long enough to know that we all succeed only when everyone has the same privileges and economic opportunities as their fellow-man. So for being one of the original social justice warriors, I once again, wish to express my humble gratitude for setting me on a course of social justice in my life which I know will one day reach that mountaintop you so beautifully sought. Upon reaching the mountaintop, my eyes will overflow with tears as will all the eyes of the others who have striven for social justice in this world. It will be those tears that allow justice to roll down like waters. It will be those tears that allow mighty streams of righteousness to move us all forward.
The last reason I want to thank you is for being an inspiration to another one of my top inspirations. Just like you Harvey Milk’s life was taken by the cruel bullet of an assassin. Both of you had much more work to do on this Earth. Sadly, the world we live in had other plans for you both. Thankfully, however, Harvey Milk said or wrote numerous times on record, the influence that you had on him, Dr. King. So once again, because Harvey Milk had an influence on me, thank you for your influence on him.
It has often be debated and wondered where you would have fallen on the issue of LGBTQ equality and LGBTQ rights in our fight for acceptance. Your wife (an amazing woman worthy of a thank you letter in her own right) came out in support of LGBTQ rights and said you would have been a supporter as well. Some of your children have also, but the entire King family does not even agree with what your position would have been. I would argue that I know where you would have stood. Harvey Milk knew where you would have stood as well. That is why you were such an influence on him. In your letter from that Birmingham jail cell, you once said “We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” This quote is one of many that I know supports my belief you would have supported equality for all Americans – regardless of sexuality. It is always right for us to stand up for our fellow American. You knew that. Harvey Milk knew that. I know that. And some day soon, thanks to your leadership, the world as a whole will know that.
Your end to Letter from a Birmingham Jail was without a doubt my favorite part of any of your writings. You end the letter by going through a list of people and saying that one day, the south will recognize its real heroes. You cover a host of people who will end up being heroes. People like James Meredith. People like the old men and old women who continually risked imprisonment and beatings at the hands of law enforcement to demanded the permission to vote in the nation that was supposed to give that to them as a birthright. You said “One day the South will know when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, there were in reality standing up for what is best in the American Dream.” I wish you had not said the south. I wish you had instead said the Nation. Because I think that is what you truly meant when you spoke those words. One day soon the world will know that those of us who follow your legacy, are being the drum majors for justice, peace, and righteousness. Are we there yet? No of course not. But you know all too well “that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.” How long until we reach that point? How Long? The answer is simple. How Long? Not Long. And for that, the world, our nation, and most importantly myself, can only simply say once again: Thank you.
With Humble and Loving Respect, Your Brother in Christ,