The following is a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. written by James W. Head, President & Chief Executive Officer at the East Bay Community Foundation. On the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, James presented the letter at the 2018 ABFE Conference in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was recipient of the distinguished, 2018 James A. Joseph Lecturer Award.
A Letter to Dr. King
Dear Dr. King,
It’s been 50 years since we said goodbye. Fifty (50) years since the hands of white supremacy ripped you away from us. Black Americans lined the streets and cried your name, memorializing all that you have done. Your death left two lasting impressions on me as a 10th grader. Because I was among the first Black Students to integrate the all-white high school in our City in Georgia, I still hear many of the White students rejoicing that you had been killed. Second, when your funeral was to be held the school administrators told Black Parents that any students that chose to not attend school to see the funeral and pay tribute to you would be given an unexcused absence. I still see my Mother telling the Principal that not only would we not attend school that day, but we would stay out an additional day to show the resolve of Black people to continue your struggle. We made promises to your legacy that we would keep fighting for liberation.
And although we have made strides in ensuring that your vision and influence continue to drive our quest for racial, social, and economic justice, your presence, and the spirit of the movement continue to be deeply missed. I hope you might be pleased to know that the country did finally establish a day in your honor. Although for some states, it took a bit longer – such as Arizona, where the threat of an economic boycott was necessary to get the State and Governor to move forward. Nonetheless, memorializing your work has led the way for other states to honor Civil Rights and Social Justice heroes and heroines. While, like you, I’m a native Georgian, the state of California where I have lived for more than 30 years now celebrates a day in honor of Cesar Chavez. You should also know that now more than a thousand streets across the world bear your name.
I stand here this evening, as the 2018 James A. Joseph Lecturer – selected by the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) for my work in Philanthropy, Social Justice, Civil Rights, and Public Interest Law. I am humbled as I feel this is the highest honor an African-American can achieve in Philanthropy, from ABFE, an organization committed to insuring that Philanthropy serve and support the Black Community. While Ambassador Joseph is most known for his appointment as the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa in 1996 – a sign of the progress we continue to make towards racial equity and diversity – I know him best as one of the champions of giving voice and power to people of color in foundations throughout the U.S., and his book Saved for a Purpose, continues to guide me in my work and life.
I firmly believe that were it not for the work of Ambassador Joseph and those who worked with him and after him to use “direct action” to force the Council on Foundations to hear their concerns regarding diversity within its membership and leadership, my opportunity to serve in philanthropy and stand here as a CEO to share this letter with you would have been significantly more improbable. I’m also beginning to see the future impact of Ambassador Joseph’s work just in the number of new African American CEOs and Executive Directors here at the conference. And in my own Oakland Bay Area region, young African American and leaders of Color in Philanthropy now include Cedric Brown, Lateefah Simon, Fred Blackwell, Jamie Allison, Rick Williams, Cathy Cha, Bob Uyeki, and many others.
Being in Memphis in this, the 50th year of your assassination in this very city, I decided to write you this letter to share my thoughts on how we, as a People and Country, have fared in the years since your untimely passing. It is also not lost on me that today is April 16, the day you authored your “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” some 55 years ago in 1963. I thought I would share with you a perspective on some of the issues you raised in that letter, and how many of those issues continue to drive our work, discussions, challenges, and successes today.
In the 50 years since your passing, the majority of Americans now believe you were absolutely correct in your stance that the Vietnam War was an unjust and immoral U.S. intervention. You were severely criticized for your position, including by many in the movement. However, history has proven you right. Part of our work today is continuing to support and help those soldiers and their families that either voluntarily or were conscripted into war. I can report to you that we have much work to do, and this is an ongoing effort.
You were not here to witness Barack Obama, the first African-American, elected to two (2) terms as President. He accomplished much over his eight (8) years and built bridges to unify the country, as well as inspired young people to be servants of the people. His accomplishments are deep, varied, and include expanding access to health care; reviving an economy on the verge of collapse; supporting the gay community’s fight for marriage equality; and ending a senseless war in Iraq.
I should tell you that President Obama’s accomplishments will add his picture as the fourth portrait found in many African-American homes – right beside you, President Kennedy, and Jesus.
I should also tell you that his election reignited latent, visible expressions of prejudice and hatred. You would have been appalled at the treatment of President Obama by many of those in Congress – being called a “liar” during his speech on healthcare by a sitting member of Congress, as well as being denied the rightful opportunity to fill a Supreme Court vacancy by an obstructionist Senate intent on blocking him at every opportunity. However, the greatest insult in my estimation, was having his citizenship questioned by a private citizen destined to assume the Presidency after him, and who now seems intent on undoing everything President Obama accomplished.
Our current President and the Administration he has assembled is intent on destroying the rule of law and many of the rights you and others fought so hard to achieve. You would find it somewhat ironic that in your day we as Black people had a heathy suspicion of the motives of the FBI and looked to the Justice Department to keep their behavior in check. Today we find ourselves defending the FBI given what this President has done, and the Justice Department is now who we must be most concerned about regarding the rights of Black citizens, and other people of color.
It’s times like these when I ask myself, “just how far have we come in these last 50 years?”.
The current political, social, and economic climate has sparked a surge in civic actions. Whether the Movement for Black Lives – birthed in response to sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities, or the #METOO movement – shedding light on the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment of women, or the recent demonstrations by students to combat gun violence in the aftermath of a school shooting in Parkland Florida, these demonstrations are provoking many of the questions you answered in your letter. Questions of why demonstrators are moving to “direct actions” and not waiting or negotiating. The emotions stirred by these demonstrations are sparking heated debates. As an aside, you will be proud that your Grand-Daughter participated in one of the Students for gun legislation reform rallies, giving her own “I Have A Dream” speech.
In your letter, you wrote:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.'”
Time does not permit me to fully explain the dialogue in which we are engaged about today’s demonstrations, and the number of people, primarily Whites, that are challenging the appropriateness of Black Lives Matter; the #MeToo movement; and even students protesting gun violence. However, your focus here is relevant to philanthropy, and our willingness to be risk takers in calling out the inequities and supporting the tensions caused by these direct-action efforts. In my opinion Philanthropy many times resemble the “Moderates” you describe, as we tend to either be silent, slow to respond, or even a “stumbling block” when we are not willing to endorse and support the “direct action” because of how the general public or others may perceive us.
Where I live – in Oakland, California, I have the honor of leading one of our region’s centers of philanthropic activity, the East Bay Community Foundation. From wages, to housing, to education, to healthcare – every day, we wrestle with the ways in which inequality manifests itself in the fabric of American life. In the spirit of your life’s work, we are endeavoring to shine the light of justice on the systemic barriers of inequality. We resist policies that threaten to widen and exacerbate social and economic disparities. We have told those in power that they have a responsibility to ensure that everyone can thrive. And we have committed, with our community partners across the public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors, to a vision of an inclusive, fair and just East Bay – because this is our home.
In your letter you said:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Injustice continues to be a reality and a threat to many, and therefore to us all. As a member of our philanthropic community, I believe that our responsibility is to do more than espouse the virtues of charity. We need justice and compassion. In your words:
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
It is in this spirit that we are guided in our pursuit of an agenda for community transformation that builds the social, economic and political power of underserved communities and communities of color throughout the East Bay.
Your timeless courage and strength of spirit continues to give me hope.
I contemplate on your espousing that:
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.”
I believe this set of statements is the key to our future success as a people. In addition to our brown and yellow brothers, I would add our Black Sisters and all women of color, our Native American brothers and sisters, our LBGQT brothers and sisters, our disability brothers and sisters, and all other oppressed people in the U.S. and the World. I also believe there are many White brothers and sisters who are ready to join our struggle for racial justice. I firmly believe, with these coalitions and partnerships, we can eliminate discrimination for communities of color, but need to also provide reconciliation and support for white communities. It will take us all to eliminate the culture that maintains structural inequality at the expense of our collective humanity.
As I’ve walked around Memphis over the last few days, there are many banners that express your words “Where do we go from here?” The ABFE conference theme is “The Fierce urgency of Now.” In some ways I believe these may not be the most accurate questions and statements for what we are poised to do. In some ways we are ready to set a clear message of what we need to achieve – “An inclusive, fair, and just United States of America that can be the leading example for the World.” I believe we also need a clear timeline of when we want to be there, which I would challenge us to do – “Within the next 10 years.” And a clear set of strategies and partners to accomplish both, which I believe you’ve given to us in your letter. And we want those that maintain inequitable policies to know that you may be able to hurt the body, but you can never rattle the soul.
Dr. King, you said about philanthropy that “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” We all in Philanthropy should repeat this to ourselves every day. As I end this letter to you, I want to thank you for your deep intellect – for your compassion – and for changing the lives of so many Americans by eloquently and forcefully speaking truth to power.
I also want to thank you, Ambassador Joseph, for your storied career in public service and your immeasurable contributions to the fields of philanthropy and government.
And thank you ABFE for tirelessly, advocating for responsive and transformative investments in Black communities. This is a tremendous honor, and I’m extremely proud to be a James A. Joseph Lecturer Awardee for life.
Let us all continue standing in our truth and marching towards justice for all.
James W. Head
President and Chief Executive Officer
East Bay Community Foundation