Martin Luther King, Jr. famously wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963), ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.
But isn’t the opposite also true? Isn’t justice anywhere also a threat to injustice everywhere – possibly, potentially? Can witnessing acts of justice, or at least the struggle for equality, positively influence long-held prejudices and racist attitudes?
While King often observed the human heart harden, enfeebled by fear, engulfed in hatred and enflamed by violence, he never lost his belief in the so-called divine possibilities of humankind. Sometimes proof came from the most unlikely of sources, such as this undated letter by Jefferson Poland, now contained in the archives of The King Center:
San Francisco, California
Dear Rev. King:
This is something I think you will want to know.
A few weeks ago a man in Panama City, Florida, one Ross Mullin, sent you a poem which criticized prejudice.
This man was my grandfather. He had been against Jews and Negroes almost all his life. When I had gotten thrown in jail for sit-ins, he had been shocked and angered. Finally, after some 60-odd years of hate, he grew to the point where he wrote you that poem. I had not had time to write him of my pride and joy before I got a telegram telling me he is dead.
As you Christians would put it, he died in a state of grace, newly found. I’m not religious myself, but I think there must be something divine in Man, that he continues to grow until the last hour of death.
King responded on November 16, 1962:
Dear Mr. Poland,
This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter of recent date. Your story was indeed moving. It is encouraging to know that it is possible to grow and change after a long heritage of prejudice. Certainly your participation contributed to this growth and understanding on the part of your grandfather. This incident is a testimony to the Divine possibilities in mankind in our society.
Thank you for sharing this information with us.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The greatness of leaders is determined not merely by what they say or do, but rather by the changes and responses they elicit in others. As we remember King’s vision of universal justice and interracial equality, the response of one Ross Mullin is not a small part of King’s enduring legacy.
‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly . . . Justice too long delayed is justice denied’ (Letter from a Birmingham Jail).