Honors 2020 Alabama Civil Rights Trip: A Letter to MLK from Christian Bethea ’23

Honors 2020 Alabama Civil Rights Trip: A Letter to MLK from Christian Bethea ’23

Honors 2020 Alabama Civil Rights Trip: A Letter to MLK from Christian Bethea ’23

The day before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, the John Jay Honors students attending the 2020 Alabama Civil Rights Trip celebrated the birth of one of their own, Christian Bethea, who was turning 19 years old. Bethea, a freshman from Brooklyn, New York majoring in Forensic Psychology, explained that he always felt a strong connection to King because of the closeness of their birthdays and the impact King had on his life as a young African-American man. “I know in my heart that I’m supposed to be here, on my birthday and on his birthday, to experience everything that we’re learning,” Bethea said while walking to the Civil Rights Memorial. Throughout the trip Bethea wrestled with the idea of continuing King’s legacy—broadening the movement to include the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, expanding our understanding of how racism impacts specific African-American communities, and even questioning if he wanted to have children of his own that would face the racism that he’s faced. To unpack his feelings—and to connect to his civil rights champion—Bethea wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday.

Bethea getting an unexpected birthday treat on the trip
Bethea getting an unexpected birthday treat on the trip

His Letter

Dear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Happy Birthday. Today you would have been 91 years old had your life not been stolen from you. I am spending a week in your old stomping grounds of Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. Here, I’ve been learning about the rich history you and other civil rights activists have left behind. Coincidentally, I was born one day before you, and I celebrated my 19th birthday in Montgomery. The close proximity of our birthdays has always led me to believe that we were connected in some way.

Currently, there is still a lot of hatred in the world, even after your marches and pleads for peace. There is violence towards minorities and hate groups are experiencing a resurgence. But, I do have hope for the future, and I have ideas that could potentially advance us enormously.

As a 19-year-old African-American male in America, I have observed issues within our community that have played a role in our subjugation. Your work was an effort to liberate African-Americans from the chains that held us for so long in this country. The civil rights movement sought to extend the same rights that white people enjoyed, to our community. While extremely beneficial for most African-Americans, it was not beneficial to all. For much too long we have tried to group the feelings and wants of all black people into one group. Your work was amazing and progressive, but it ignored the needs of many other communities within the black community. The LGBTQ+ sector within the black community was left behind.

My visit to Alabama has shown me that many of our rural brothers are still stuck in an economic slump and subjugation. As a community, we are by no means a unified front. What I have learned as a middle-class African-American living in New York is that the black experience is not linear. There are people who look exactly like me, and live a totally different version of oppression and subjugation.

Another problem, which you were working towards before your untimely death, was the economic ignorance and oppression of our people. Many of us do not understand the economy we live in, and are not able to take advantage of it. There is an unequal distribution of funds, which is the biggest issue, but the few that do come across wealth are not aware of how to multiply it. We have never been taught to make our wealth generational, and how to truly uplift our community from the top. These are just two issues that I think being addressed will immensely change our status in this country.

As a community, we need to create a single narrative that includes all aspects of black life in America. A unified front is much harder to stamp out than a group with inner conflicts. If we can all get on the same page, I truly believe we can make a sizable change. Of course, we need to continue to fight the wrongdoings against us, but to do that in the most effective manner we need to come together and level the playing field.

It was an honor to walk in your footsteps, and to have a glimpse of the struggle you endured to make my life what it is today. I am a freshman at John Jay College, currently studying Forensic Psychology. My plan is to join the FBI and one day work to protect the national community, but first I would like to go to law school and be able to serve my community. Your work has made it possible for me to do these things, and to be confident that I can accomplish my goal. I am forever grateful and eternally indebted to you for what you have done for us. My way of repaying that debt, is to attempt to carry the torch you lit further, and to leave the world a little bit better than when I came into it. Thank you, Dr. King.

Christian Bethea