Bringing Martin Luther King’s Vision to Life
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My name is Phoebe Kilby, and I am white. Martin Luther King had a dream that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…
The email had come out of nowhere. A letter from a complete stranger, addressed to 61-year-old grandmother, Betty Kilby.
"My first impression when I read that was, ‘Oh no, listen to this white girl telling me about Dr. Martin Luther King's dream. I've been living Dr. Martin Luther King's dream all my life.’”
For Betty, living that dream of equality started in 1958. She was thirteen when she and twenty-one other African-American teenagers were granted entry into an all-white high school in Front Royal, Virginia. Greeted with insults, racial slurs and threats, they pressed on, refusing to give in to hatred, fighting for their rights.
“When you go through that evil day after day and year after year, people calling you names, it becomes so difficult to be able to keep moving forward, to keep your faith.”
One part of Dr. King’s message proved harder for Betty– to love and pray for your enemies. Something her father, James Wilson Kilby, a Christian, tried to impress on his hurting, angry daughter.
“I didn't have forgiveness in my heart at that point in time. I had pictures in my head of holding them by the neck and just holding them until their feet would just be dangling.” Then, in 1963, Betty’s senior year, she was raped by a group of white male students. Terrified of what it would do to her family, Betty only went to God with her pain.
“I wanted to know where God was. Was he there? Did he see what was happening to me? I was crying my heart out and I was calling on God. He appeared to me in the closet. He asked me where I was when He set the moon and the stars. And then when I realized His journey and how people beat Him, at that point I was empowered. Because I knew that all I had to do was call on Him.”
Betty went on to graduate, finish college, start a family and work her way up to an executive position at American Airlines. Betty says it wasn’t until she had children that she began to understand Dr. King’s–and the Bible’s--message of love and forgiveness. “When I had my children, that was a turning point for me. They cleansed my heart. They took out the hate and just had it filled with love. Love and hate can't reside in the same heart. It was the word of God that kept me from hating people.”
Betty went on to achieve more success, including a Master’s degree and an honorary doctorate. Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Maryland, Phoebe Kilby was busy researching her own family tree, inspired by a group called, “Coming to the Table.”
“This gathering of people brought together descendants of enslavers and descendants of persons enslaved, to talk about racial reconciliation,” Phoebe explains. “And this fascinated me. It made me think, ‘Had my family enslaved people?’”
It turned out her ancestors were, in fact, slave owners. Phoebe also found a link to a woman with the same last name, Betty Kilby. So, on January 15, 2007, Martin Luther King day, she reached out, hoping for a connection.
“My name is Phoebe Kilby, and I am white. I suspect that our families had some kind of relationship in the past. Martin Luther King had a dream that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. Perhaps, we as daughters can contribute to fulfilling that dream.” Betty responded...
"Hello cousin, we are the key to healing. We can not only contribute to Dr. King’s dream; we can bring about racial reconciliation and healing to a nation of hurting people. I thank God for bringing you into my life."
Betty invited Phoebe to the premiere of her documentary Wit, Will & Walls, based on the book she wrote in 2002. There, the two met, along with Betty’s children. They felt an instant bond.
“Betty was immediately so welcoming, you know, coming over and hugging me,” says Phoebe. Excited about their new friendship, Phoebe continued her research. She found an 1836 will that connected the two through Simon Kilby, the son of a slave owned by Phoebe’s family--a sobering moment for Phoebe.
“You could see right there in the records that these were people who were treated like property, the same as a cow or a pig. And that is hard to read. It hurts to read that, and it hurts to know that your family did enslave people.” As their friendship continued to grow, they attended “Coming to the Table" workshops and lectures, facing the harsh reality of their shared history together.
“Sometimes she would just break down and cry,” Phoebe recalls. “We don't know sometimes the intense feelings of grief over seeing your family controlled. Betty has opened my mind and my heart to be able to understand how this could be such a hurtful and upsetting history to have to face.”
Then in 2021, they co-authored a book they called, Cousins: Connected through Slavery. All proceeds from the book go to a college scholarship fund that Phoebe set up for descendants her family enslaved, including Betty's grandchildren.
“We love each other and care for each other but addressed the significant injustices that have happened,” Phoebe explains. “She talks a lot about Dr. King and his deep faith and his goal for our society that we can create together the beloved community. A community where we treat each other equally.”
To accomplish that, they both believe it will take the ideas found in– through truth, mercy and justice will come peace. “If you want to bring together people who have been divided, somebody has to tell the truth about the harms that have been done. But to move forward, the person who has been harmed has to show some mercy, some level of forgiveness before you can get to that point of creating peace between divided people,” says Phoebe. “You can't have peace without addressing justice as well.”
“We want to study our past and we want to know about our past,” Betty adds. “But don't try to judge the past. We weren't there when our ancestors were slaves. We can't judge a race of people based on that. So, let's move forward. There is so much work to do in the present. We need to stop fighting one another. We're all on the same team.”
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