Guest Commentary

A letter and poem of hope: ‘Dear Dr. King’

The Rev. Vernon P. Howard Jr.
The Rev. Vernon P. Howard Jr.

More from the series

MLK Day 2019

This year marks the 33rd national observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Monday would be his 90th birthday.

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Dear Dr. King,

The Kansas City Star, a daily news publication here, has asked me to write an essay on your legacy that will appear in a special news section printed in commemoration of your birthday.

Though it seems childish, I’m compelled to write you a letter instead. If they choose not to print this submission, I will be at peace, for its value is its depth. Besides, who’s really listening to me anyway?

Feels odd telling you how old you would be. You’d be 90. But you lived less than half of that. You told the world amid your activism and prophetic work that you were receiving threats from persons you called “some of our sick white brothers.” Their direction to you was to leave town and be quiet. If you had just backed down, stayed quiet, and lived your private life like a good little minister you probably would have done very well for yourself given your credentials and talents and intellect and all. But you persisted. You were killed by that evil union of racism and hate which is part of America’s DNA. Yet the nation that killed you has made your birthday a national holiday.

You said the night before you died that you wanted to live a long life. You said longevity has its place. But you said you just wanted to do God’s will. You said God allowed you to go up to the mountaintop and look over. You said you had seen the promised land. You predicted you probably wouldn’t get there with us, but you shouted with conviction from the depths of your soul and the heights of your spirit that we as a people would get to the promised land.

Maybe that’s your legacy: the spiritual perseverance to hope… and dream and work and pray and protest and dramatize and mobilize and prophesy and organize and litigate and advocate and try and fail and keep on trying and become unpopular and yet undaunted amid causes unsung, sacrifices unrewarded and pain unknown until a better today and a brighter tomorrow appears for ALL … and to stay true to hope for justice and love and peace, while loving, even when there seems to be no hope.

Well, we haven’t made it yet, and we’re far from it. White privilege and racist pathology are rampant still among even the religious, and the new bombs of police brutality and mass incarceration are exploding constantly. Racial slurs are common and go unpunished. Voting rights that are supposed to be protected by the courts are being eroded by the courts.

Here in KC in recent years we’ve spent more on luxury high rises and their parking lots than we have on shelter for the homeless. All this while our State blocks our SCLC Living Wage Ordinance. You would be sad to know that our African-American people still suffer from a self-hate produced by the centuries of slavery and oppression which have traumatized and scarred our collective psyche.

I have to close, but you know, having written all this to you it occurs to me…there is even more to your legacy. It is the call to practice faith and goodwill grounded in love that puts one’s self at risk, even to the point of death, so that ALL might inherit the goodness of life that only the some are privileged to now know.



The Rev. Vernon P. Howard Jr. is senior pastor at St. Mark Union Church and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.