On January 14, 2018, in celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, friends from the Unitarian Universalist Society of Mill Creek congregation read letters they had written to Dr. King. The letters expressed hopes and dreams, as well as the sorrows and frustrations as we feel as we continue the struggle for human equality, mutual respect, and admiration. It was powerful hearing about our friends’ diverse experiences and we share their letters with you here.
Dear. Dr. King:
James Carville, a political commentator, once described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. I was raised in the Alabama part of the state. Fortunately my parents would not tolerate any criticism of anyone because of their race, culture or religion. My mom would sit us down for a talk if we did.
As a result, I left home with an open mind. I joined the Army when I was 18 and was sent to Fort Knox for basic training and was paired up with a black guy my age from Philadelphia, John Evans. He was the first black person I ever talked to and I might have been the first white person he ever talked to.
We completed training and were transferred to Fort Polk, Louisiana by bus. Somewhere in Arkansas the bus stopped at a diner. John and I sat down at the counter and the waitress came over, shook her finger at John and said “you’re not allowed here boy.” That was our first taste of segregation. Later at the bus terminal in Shreveport, Louisiana, I heard the same words, “you’re not allowed here boy.” However the authority figure was talking to me. We were in the coloured section and I was told that I had to stand on the other side of the railing.
Several years later, while you were marching for voting rights, I had my first job, after college, working in Southern paper mills. Dr. King, I have to admit that although I supported you emotionally, I did not help physically. I entered restaurants with “white only” signs and drank from water fountains that said “no coloured.” I also stopped at a bar/restaurant with a sign that said. “everybody welcome”. I found out that “everybody welcome” was a southern code that marked a black business. By the way, I was welcomed.
My epiphany moment came to me one day when I was working in a Georgia paper mill. I was talking to an older black man and he explained how the Jim Crow laws work. Every laborer, black or white, starting working at the mill at the bottom, sweeping floors. Promotion was based on seniority — if you were white. If you were black, you started at the bottom and stayed at the bottom. Here was this black man, maybe 60 years old, working at the mill for 40 years, still sweeping floors. He said that if he was white, he would be the machine tender, which was the top position on the paper making machine.
Dr. King, I wish I could say that your job is complete. In the last 50 years laws have been passed to prevent discrimination, however, no law has been passed to cleanse our heart. Racism is so embedded in our culture that it seems that it will never be erased. You would be extremely pleased to know that our country has elected a president who’s father was an African. However, in some ways that brought racism to the surface. I hear derogatory words being used today that I heard 50 years ago.
To end on an optimistic note, change is happening today. Our country is getting browner. There will come a time in the future when today’s establishment will be a minority. I hope that they will treat us better than we have treated you.
Raised on a chicken farm in Pennsylvania, Tom graduated from Milwaukee School of Engineering. He spent his career working with instrument sales and service primarily in wastewater treatment control. He now spends his time with music and golf.
Dear Dr. King,
You worked hard to provide America with social justice. You had undeserved hate thrown at you and your family and you lived with this hate that had nothing to do with who you were. Although this would lead many people to become fearful and to give up, you didn’t.
You led marches to stand up to people who tried to hold power over you and who didn’t understand that change was necessary. You led different boycotts against segregation and unfairness. You provided leadership for others who wanted change. You created a model for others and inspired many people to hope. You became an example and a symbol for achieving change through peaceful actions. Ultimately, though, you sacrificed your life while trying to achieve equality, because while some got your message, others did not. There was improvement, though, in racial equality. Some even thought racism was done. It was never gone, of course, but it was reduced and it came out in disguised ways because it was no longer considered acceptable.
Lately this has changed and there have been more people who treat others with disrespect and hatred. I hate for you to know that it seems to be increasing again. We see violence and other things that we saw much less for a while. My grandmother, who grew up in the south when it was segregated, is now remembering those times and gets really upset.
While we don’t know exactly where this is heading, we do still see your work in the actions of people who are trying once again, or still, to change it. My first thought was that you would be discouraged to know how things have been going lately. But then, I read something you said in one of your speeches: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This quote makes it a little easier to understand what it is happening now and as I think you knew then, gives hope that the outcomes will be good — eventually.
Dominick is a 6th grader and is involved in Roots and Shoots program at UU Society of Mill Creek. He’s also involved in acting and loves to read.
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the hubris that was my youth you were never my hero or my truth. I was a child of the 70’s — the real revolutionary — and Malcolm X was my king. “By any means necessary” was our call. We carried his picture with a rifle in his hand. To us you were just a funeral dressing Preacher man. Your ideas were dated! Real Social Justice was about the instant gratification — of riots and fighting the police — the man, the pig — for being the occupying force in this divided land. We found the United States guilty in our street justice courts. Guilty of terrorism for maintaining the two Americas while policing the world and criticizing Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa. I used words like Whitey, Cracker, Pigs, honkey and the Man like they were going out of style. I thought to be Black meant yelling “Black Power” and shunning the White man’s “miseducation” … which in part meant no matter how many times my English teacher told me to write the word White with a capital W I still wrote with a small w — take that. There was no room for your so-called non-violent revolution, protest marches or sit-ins. In fact, that was crazy thinking.
But alas, you understood us better than we knew. With patience and love you taught that Hate was a liar and a trickster at best. You knew that without a dream of love dignity and respect that in the end we would all die for sure, but die a moral death first. So you used speeches for battles and phrases like arrows straight to the heart of hatred’s nest and led this nation to the confession of its transgression and then let me know that infused within me is the right to respect.! You taught us by just merely receiving breath — from the genius of creation we were human and entitled to humanity, not just 3/5th and by right entitled to dignity, justice love and respect. You sacrificed your self to win back our soul from hatred’s grip. You gave permission for us to feast at the table of humanity and, not just what trickles down off the plate. You raised your voice for the voiceless to give a choice for the choiceless.
I know for some its hard today for some of us to feel like your dream has done anything but let us sleep when we have guided missiles in the hands of misguided men. A president that rules with the philosophy that created Nazi Germany, Rwanda, discrimination, rape, deprivation and slavery. It seems Dr. King that America has lost the dream. Her moral bank spent, half of us are drunk for drinking brimful cups of bitterness and hatred seduced by thirst of a hatefulness they will never satisfy. All because one mans lips are dripping with the seduction of blame and spite, pettiness and racism. We need your dream because too many of our brothers and sisters have loss sight of what is right. They lie crippled and mangled by the chains of twitter feeds, hash tags and false fed leads. We are told that there are souls that come from shit holes and are unnecessary for life, unfit, too black to brown and only bring our nation down.
God knows I wish you were around. But unfortunately your body was not like the dream it was a physical thing like the bullet in 1968, Tic tock 6 o’clock the dreamer down and gone but the dream lives on and your reign will not be in vein for you taught this -would be revolutionary- that the real moral imperative is to engage the hater in a way that shows him how his actions dehumanize and detract from all people. In others words making him rise-up to his humanity.
Thank you Dr. King and Rest In Peace,
Gladys Smith was born in raised in Harlem, NY. She moved to Delaware in the last year. She works as a speech and language pathologist and is a member of UU Society of Mill Creek.
Dear Dr. King,
My name is Larry Stomberg; I’m a musician and teacher living in Wilmington, Delaware. I wish I had been able to hear you speak in person; alas, I was born a little over a year after your awful murder in April of 1968. We Americans have all become familiar with your inspiring life and words, and despite too many politicians fighting against it at the time of its inception, we have a holiday celebrating your legacy. It seems the very smallest of gestures, and frankly, too many people simply enjoy their day off of work or school (I’m ashamed to say I’ve been guilty of this); but a lot of good people use your day as a day of service in their communities, which I think you would be proud of.
I think about you a lot. In school, we’re all taught about your speech from the March on Washington in 1963, the “I have a dream” speech, and as my young children were growing up in white suburbia, my wife and I thought of your that dream that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” — you were talking about Alabama, but we wanted that for our children in Delaware, too. So, we moved to Wilmington, a more diverse community where our kids would be amongst kids that didn’t only look like them. And they have made friends of all kinds of colors and shades and backgrounds, all wonderful kids who we love having with us and who have enriched our children’s lives in so many ways.
But the dream still isn’t close enough to being realized, Dr. King. Despite living among more diverse neighbors, the walls between us still seem too thick for us to truly be brothers and sisters, and the hurdles of economic opportunity and social justice are still far too high for too many to clear. That school in Delaware where you spoke back in 1960, Howard High School (now a vo-tech school, and a pretty good one) is doing okay, but it’s still 70% black and 14% white, while the top math and science charter school in the state, much more celebrated, is only 6% black, and 60% white. And the elementary school right at the edge of my (largely white) neighborhood is 76% black and 2.5% white — the white families “choice” their younger kids into other, whiter, richer schools. Our neighborhoods, a little more integrated than they used to be, are still largely sealed off from one another with barriers of fear and suspicion.
Nevertheless, it did seem that things were getting better. We have more and more people in power and public life who are African American, and even had our first black President for two terms before the last year. You would have liked him — a brilliant mind and an oratory that was nearly as good as yours (no offense — he was just that good). But he also brought out a lot of the hate and suspicion among people who just couldn’t accept a black man in a position of authority, and we are now living in times that seem as dark as the days you fought through; we have a White House and Justice Department that are moving us away from the dream, building those walls thicker and hurdles higher.
But I still believe in you, and I hear your words, and in whatever little ways I can, I want to keep knocking down walls and clearing hurdles. Many years ago, you paraphrased the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, saying “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Thank you for that reminder — we’re still trying to bend it, just coming up against some resistance from those pushing the other way.
Most warmly yours,
Larry Stomberg, a member of UU Society of Mill Creek since 2004, is a performing cellist, member of the Serafin String Quartet, and Professor of Cello at the University of Delaware. He and his family live in Wilmington, where they are working in various ways to help bridge ethnic, economic, and racial division in the city.
I write to you with tremendous joy in my heart, but also relentless fear. This cacophony of feelings is related to the news that I have been chosen to adopt an infant. The quarter sheet of paper provided held only basic information; included information, however, stated that my impending child is an African American baby girl.
I wasn’t surprised to be matched with someone who is African American. You see, Reverend King, upon announcing my pending adoption, I have been asked, with annoying regularity, “what sort of child” I wanted to mother. I quickly learned that’s code for “what color will they be?”
The agency forms had neatly laid out boxes. Race, it asked, with random bubbles carefully crafted next to my choices. I didn’t much care for the question, so I snuffed out the answers and simply wrote — Race: Human.
The state of Pennsylvania asked questions too, though more thoughtfully crafted, about transracial adoptions. I interpreted these sets of questions as checkpoints to ensure I wasn’t planning to “white wash” my child. I wondered: could I truly provide the environment a child of another race truly deserved, one of openness, real diversity, and love? I could, I thought, and soon an official letter approved me to adopt “a child of any gender or race.” It felt like victory!
Why then, do I mention this? Because despite my propensity to dismiss such trivial questions during the approval process, I was wholly unprepared for this new surge of fear about raising: 1. A child who is black 2. A confident, strong daughter, and 3. A black daughter — all three things separate but interrelated. I’m reminded time and again that world has moved forward in many ways since your life was taken, but not nearly forward enough. I wonder now:
- How do I help my daughter trust police without ignoring Tamir Rice? Tatyana Hargrove? Sandra Bland?
- How do I teach her to be safe when young girls are harassed because they simply have female bodies, without requiring her to take ownership of someone else’s actions?
- How will I be sensitive to what lies ahead of her, on account of her body, female and brown, without teaching her to fear or feel ashamed of who she is?
- How on earth could the magnitude of that responsibility be something I haven’t thought about every second of every day that I have known my daughter will be born brown-skinned, in Trump’s America?
These are big questions with unclear answers. I could sit in fear (and I have), but I have also chosen to remember your legacy, Reverend King; I am committed to studying with fervor and respect. I will read your letters, sermons, and speeches. I will follow your guidance, and match your passion, to fight injustice, because as you said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If I am to mother a child of color, it becomes my responsibility to remember your life and your work. It is only through action like yours that we will transform our country.
Thank you for being an example of who I want, no, who I need to be.
With love and peace,
Manisha Antani is 35 years old and has lived in the Wilmington, Delaware area for the majority of her life. Although she is single and has no children, she is currently (and anxiously) waiting to bring her daughter home in March 2018. She has been a member of UU Society of Mill Creek since the summer of 2017. In her free time, she is an active ceramic artist and also enjoys hiking, camping, and kayaking.