Delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, listening to rock ‘n’ roll and writing a letter to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - that’s how 16-year-old Dave Brandyberry occupied his days in the summer of 1963.
Brandyberry typed a letter to King on June 20, 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement. Seven weeks later, King’s response arrived in the mail – shocking the teen living in a small Ohio community.
“I may be just a boy of 16 but I would like to voice my opinion about the racial struggles in the south,” Brandyberry, who now lives in Grovetown, wrote to King.
In King’s eight-sentence response, he commended Brandyberry for his desire to help the cause.
“I received your very kind letter,” King wrote. “It is of inestimable value for those of us in the vanguard of the struggle to have an awareness of the concern of our friends all over America.”
Racial injustices and violence against blacks in the South were harsh realities that Brandyberry said he couldn’t ignore. He wanted to join in King’s fight but feared how his parents and others would react.
“Sometimes I wish I could have been born a Negro so I could try to help you more about this situation than I could at being a white,” the teen’s letter read. “But in hopes that this would stop, I pray that the Lord will help you win this fight for freedom and put into the minds of the white people the right way to treat human beings the same way they would like to be treated.”
King’s response was lost when Brandyberry left for college. He said he rarely thought about it.
A half-century later, he discovered that his letter and King’s response were kept in the historical archives at the King Center in Atlanta.
“I figured that was history and I’ve never ever seen that letter again,” Brandyberry said last week.
Finding them was almost as surprising as receiving King’s response, which the civil rights leader dictated to his secretary Aug. 9, 1963. The bottom of the letter notes that King “in his absence” was unable to pen his signature.
“It was just before his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. He was that busy that he took the time out to sit down with his secretary and dictate a letter to me,” Brandyberry said.
Brandyberry’s father was an evangelical Christian pastor, helping to shape his beliefs on equality and justice, he said. He wrote the letter from Old Fort, Ohio, a community of about 250 people.
Television and newspaper reports opened his eyes to a nation in tumultuous times. As he grew up enjoying what he thought then was “the most wonderful time,” police were attacking civil rights demonstrators with high-powered fire hoses and snarling dogs.
“Evidently, I was very, very concerned about what was going on with the blacks in the South,” he said. “It’s hard to believe, when you think about it, that all those terrible things were happening to other people. I think I felt it was a wonderful times for me, but for black people it was not.”
Brandyberry, the music director at Barnwell United Methodist Church, moved to the area 16 years ago.
Until now, he has only told his four children and his church choir about the letters. A woman he was dating learned about them when she searched his name online and the letters turned up on the King Center’s Web site. The two tried to call to get a copy but received no response.
Brandyberry and his then-girlfriend visited the King Center during the 2013 King holiday weekend. Because there were celebrations happening at the center, they met an archivist in the lobby. Days later, scanned copies of the letters arrived in Brandyberry’s inbox. The letters are framed, hanging on a wall in his house.
In his response, King wrote that he was hopeful the work done in Birmingham, Ala., would bring about better race relations.
“It is gratifying to know that American youth stands ready to assist in the shaping of a better America,” King wrote. “We are living in a wonderful and challenging age. It is wonderful because we are able to envision our freedom at last, and it is challenging because there is such a multiplicity of things that must be done before we can be free at last.”
Brandyberry can’t remember how he got King’s mailing address, but thinks it might have been printed in a newspaper. He sneaked into his father’s office to write the letter on his typewriter.
“He (King) sure seemed to have a way with words,” Brandyberry said.