It was Sunday, April 3, 1983, the day before the 15th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.
I was 11 and at the Raleigh church my family attended.
Naively, perhaps, I hoped that the white pastor of this barely integrated congregation would note the occasion in his sermon, but he did not.
That afternoon, I channeled my disappointment into a letter. How could he pass up a perfect moment to tie King’s commitment to nonviolence to the Beatitudes – you know, blessed are the peacemakers? Why did he stay silent about King’s dream of racial and economic justice?
How did he think I felt, as one of few black parishioners, when he didn’t mention King at all?
On Monday I mailed the letter. On Wednesday evening, my mom took my siblings and me to church.
After the children’s services ended, I went to the main sanctuary to look for my mother. I found her standing with the pastor, who looked pained.
He asked if we could sit down and talk. In the back of the nearly empty sanctuary, he told my mother and me that he’d gotten the letter. My mom hiked an eyebrow at me – what letter?
The pastor quickly summarized the letter and I avoided eye contact.
Then tears pooled in the pastor’s eyes. He said he’d never meant to offend me and he was hurt I had thought otherwise.
My mother said something conciliatory. I said nothing. My letter had the effect I intended, which was to force this middle-aged white man to see the world through my eyes.
King’s example of speaking truth to power emboldened me, not just as a child at church but later as a college student calling for my university to divest from South Africa.
King showed me that it was not just my right to speak up, but my responsibility. I’ve taken that duty seriously in every newsroom I’ve worked in and especially in the one I founded, which not coincidentally bears King’s name.
Wendi C. Thomas is the founding editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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