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MLK letter from the past still relevant today for former Hillsboro teacher
When former Hillsboro School District teacher Jack Kirkwood wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, he didn't expect a response.
After all, the Nobel Peace Prize winner was one of the most prominent men in America, working for years for racial equality through nonviolence. Two years earlier, King had organized marches in Alabama and Washington and had begun tackling segregated housing in Chicago. More recently, he'd begin speaking out against the Vietnam War.
But that's exactly what he got when King, in the summer of 1967, wrote the Aloha man back to say that they shared similar thoughts about the war in Vietnam, which was destined to drag on for another eight years.
Kirkwood, who lived in Aloha for years before recently moving to the Newberg area, was a social studies and English teacher at the then-named Poynter Junior High School in Hillsboro.
A strong opponent of the Vietnam War, Kirkwood was a frequent critic of the ongoing fighting in local newspapers.
"I was writing quite a few letters at that time," Kirkwood recalled. "(The war) bothered me a great deal and I thought I needed to write a letter for that reason I thought American foreign policy was wrong."
In January 1967, Kirkwood wrote "A Citizen's View of the Vietnam War," a six-page pamphlet detailing his reasons for opposing the war. Kirkwood, who described himself as a pacifist, sent a copy of the pamphlet to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group King founded in Atlanta, Ga.
"I thought he was a great American patriot," Kirkwood said. "That's why I wrote the letter to him. He had come out against the Vietnam War. "
As the weeks passed, Kirkwood forgot about the letter until that August, when King wrote back expressing his desire to see the war come to an early end.
The short one-page letter outlines King's feelings about the war, which had formally begun two years before but had been bubbling for closed to a decade by 1967.
"The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit," King wrote to Kirkwood. "The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. Our country which did so much to initiate the revolutionary spirit in the modern world, now appears to be on the wrong side of the world revolution."
The Vietnam War would later prove to be unpopular with the American people, but in 1967, Kirkwood said he found little support among residents who saw the war as necessary. Kirkwood said he later quit his teaching job in Hillsboro because he wasn't able to handle the pro-war views in the community.
"Hillsboro was a very conservative community," Kirkwood said. "The superintendent said that I had a right to protest, but that the next time I wanted to write a letter to the editor he wanted to know about it before he started getting angry letters from parents wanting to know what I was teaching their child."
Kirkwood said the message of King's letter has stuck with him for the past 50 years because of its message of peace through non-violence, which he still sees as important today.
"Just as we have urged non-violence at home as a means of solving social problems, so must we urge its adoption internationally as a means of settling disagreements among nations," King wrote in his letter to Kirkwood. "We want America to exert moral, not military leadership in the world. We still have a choice today: Non-violent coexistence or violent co-annihilation."
Monday, Jan. 16, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. A day recognizing King's commitment to equality. The day has become a national Day of Service, with thousands of people expected to help on community service projects in the Portland area.
Click here for a list of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events in the Hillsboro area.
King's letter to Kirkwood reads, in full:
Thank you for your letter expressing support for me and my work. I am sorry for the delay in answering your letter, but due to staff shortages and the press of time, I am only now able to answer my mail.
It is important for those of us who seek peace through non-violence to take every opportunity to make our consciences and our numbers known to the public and to the men in Government. We who love America must criticize her because we love her. We have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices and we must be prepared to match words with action by seeking out every creative means of protest possible. The strength of our nation depends on such loyal but vigorous dissent.
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. Our country which did so much to initiate the revolutionary spirit in the modern world, now appears to be on the wrong side of the world revolution.
Just as we have urged non0violence at home as a means of solving social problems, so must we urge its adoption internationally as a means of settling disagreements among nations. We want America to exert moral, not military leadership in the world. We still have a choice today: Non-violent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Aug. 23, 1967