The following is a letter that was written to an elementary school class. It was part of a letter writing project where the students would write letters to historical figures and a parent would be tagged as the person to reply, pretending to be the historical figure. Naturally given what day it is, this reply was written pretending to be Martin Luther King. When reading it, one must remember that the parent was replying to letters written by the kids and also addressing the class theme of attitude, attention and commitment.
January 22, 2012
Sincere thanks for your many kind words and curious questions. The qualities of attitude, attention and commitment which brought my life into your classroom, must be considered carefully by every human being as they decide how they want to approach their lives. Many of you mentioned your gratitude for my actions and your hope that more like me will emerge from the great ocean of humanity to work for justice. But, may I remind you children, that you are the heroes you wish for… your power, your potential is as great as any others. I too sat in a schoolroom as a little boy, Rosa Parks sat in a schoolroom as a little girl, granted much different schoolrooms in very different times and places, but we too looked out the window and pondered the great world outside.
The injustices which I fought with every fiber of my being, were in some ways specific to my time and the history of America, but were fundamentally products of the same age old opposing forces of love and hate rather than issues of black and white. The idea that skin color has any bearing on the nature of the spirit, the real person that moves the body, can only gain purchase because of an overriding superficiality of thought which still informs our world. The choice to love or hate is one that each individual makes for themselves and shows itself in ways both small and large. The people that threw the bomb in my house were completely entranced by the power of hate but their way was paved by the many less extreme, but still significant, hateful thoughts and actions of others.
The reason that civil disobedience is effective is because, though it requires tremendous courage and commitment, it appeals to the most basic seed which lives within all human beings. Everyone desires to love and be loved, to be happy and fulfilled. The practitioner of civil disobedience is able to recognize with single minded, focused attention that the individuals who do harm and enforce unjust and hateful laws do so because at root, the hate they are projecting outward also lives within them. They hate themselves and distract themselves by pointing all that hate outward, but the protester, refusing to engage in the cycle of violence, insists on seeing that kernel of humanity within them that suffers as well, in spite of the dogs, the water cannons, the police batons, shoes and whatever else they throw at them. It is a supremely courageous act and I salute my fellow marchers in my and all times who have struggled on behalf of our better nature.
The reason our protests were ultimately successful also depended on the reactions of others who witnessed events from far away in the news and were perhaps neutral toward our cause at first, being consumed more with what new toothpaste to buy, but were awakened deep within themselves by the unjust violence being perpetrated on peaceful demonstrators. They could not turn away from attack dogs being unleashed on peaceful people and because of their heartfelt understanding gained from a time before they knew of laws and skin color, they just knew that this was plain wrong and could no longer support it. And sometimes it takes many years before the seeds of love and forgiveness can finally blossom. The governor of Alabama during much of the Civil Rights movement was a one-time racist gentleman by the name of George Wallace. Many years later, on a number of occasions, he apologized for his actions against us and even told my associate Joe Lowery just months before he died, “I love you. I was wrong in 1965.” As I have said before, “darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
So I return to your own struggles with how best to approach the qualities of attitude, attention and commitment. Each of us has a unique calling in this life and each one has value. The cultivation of these qualities helps to get the homework done at first and later helps light the path through life. To truly develop these attributes, one must absolutely decide for themselves. It is only through the recognition that you truly have the power to shape your attitude, to focus your attention on what you feel is important, to sharpen your commitment, that these qualities will be meaningful because you will have decided where to direct them. Of course you cannot control all of the circumstances that life will present you, but you can determine how you will apply yourself and react to them. You have my life as one example, and obviously I would encourage you to focus on issues like making yourself and your world a better place, but that is for you to decide. I will mention though, that it is the lazy and convenient road to sit back and be cynical, making fun of everything but contributing little. It takes courage to stand boldly for love and I hope you do so. Thank you again for your time and kind words.
Your companion on the journey to the promised land,
Martin Luther King Jr.