From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Bishop writes annual letter to Martin Luther King Jr.
Mon, 2 Dec 2002 14:32:52 -0600
Dec. 2, 2002 News media contact: Linda Green7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: A photo of Bishop Woodie White is available for use with this story at
By United Methodist News Service
Each year, United Methodist Bishop Woodie W. White writes a letter to his
friend and colleague, the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in advance of
King's Jan. 15 birthday. White, 67, was the first staff executive for the
denomination's Commission on Religion and Race, where he served from 1969 to
1984. He was elected a bishop in 1984 and led the church's Illinois Area for
eight years. He was appointed to the Indiana Area in 1992. This year's letter
from White to the civil rights leader follows:
My annual letter is written interestingly enough on the 140th anniversary of
the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was that historic document
that freed millions of black Americans from the bondage of slavery in 1863.
Such an acknowledgment, a mere 140 years ago, is both tragic and remarkable.
Tragic because it is a chilling indictment of a nation often characterized as
the greatest democracy in the world, that only so short a time ago held a
people in human bondage. Thus for many, the stigma of slavery and its
debilitating impact is not ancient history, but a mere yesterday.
It is remarkable because the descendants of those slaves have achieved a
place in American life unimagined only decades ago. This place has been
achieved despite four hundred years of slavery, and more than a hundred years
of legally sanctioned discrimination and segregation, and the continued
practice of racism both personal and institutional.
Sadly, the residue of slavery is never quite far away. In your beloved
Georgia, Martin, a sad reminder: In recent state elections, the governor was
defeated, reportedly because of his leadership in successfully having a new
state flag approved. Understandably, many Georgia citizens, black and white,
found the "old" state flag objectionable because the Confederate battle
emblem - an emblem that is a reminder of slavery - dominated its design! So,
there continues in Georgia a significant controversy over "the flag"!
However, Martin, to fail to acknowledge the gains of black Americans and our
nation, would be to diminish your sacrifices and leadership and that of
countless others. The changes in the last 50 years alone are mind-boggling.
Surprisingly, in the elections just held, two black Americans were elected
lieutenant governor in Maryland and Ohio. Both Republicans! And there are now
39 black members of Congress. No senator yet, but a candidate from Texas lost
his bid to become the first black person so elected from that state.
It has almost been a "revolution" unnoticed. Today, I continue to be amazed
to find black Americans appearing in unexpected leadership roles, be it
heading major Fortune 500 companies, educational and religious institutions,
or in the discourse of ordinary everyday life. When one opens a door in
business, government, religion, science and technology, medicine or other
areas of life, the person to greet you or "in charge" is as likely as not to
be a descendant of those who only 140 years ago were considered property.
Many were stunned, for example, only recently to learn that the president of
the Conference of American Bishops of the influential Roman Catholic Church
in America is a black bishop.
Martin, race goes almost unmentioned and unnoticed as black Americans - the
secretary of state and the national security adviser to the president - hold
two significant and important posts in government.
Golf and tennis, two sports in most of my years of growing up considered
"white only," are now more prominent and popular in American life due to the
athletic ability and amazing championship skills of three black Americans,
two of them women, who are setting records in both sports. World changing -
no! But utterly significant in American life - yes!
And Martin, even here in Indiana, where I continue to serve as bishop - a
state embarrassingly not long ago associated with sanctioned Ku Klux Klan
activity and membership - the state has the distinction of its most prominent
professional and collegiate athletic teams being coached or managed by black
Americans. Football, the Indianapolis Colts; basketball, the Indiana Pacers.
Even its semi-pro baseball team now has a black manager. It is still hard to
believe that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team and Indiana
University's famed basketball team are both coached by men of color!
In cities and communities across America, racial barriers are quietly being
torn down as people are given the opportunity, in your words, "...to be
judged by the content of their character (and skills) and not the color of
The growing middle and upper class among the black population is almost
unnoticed, as government and media appropriately focus on a black underclass
gripped in a cycle of poverty. But all of black America is not
dysfunctional, crime infested and given to a crippling attitude of
Today Martin, I believe every victory, every gain and accomplishment of black
Americans must be celebrated with due recognition. To do so is an expression
of gratitude for your leadership and sacrifice, today's leaders and those of
other generations as well.
It is also a reminder to our young - too many, I believe, who have sadly
accommodated themselves to the notion they cannot rise above their
circumstances of poverty or deprivation, or that they are forever locked out
of mainstream American life by the "system."
Racism and the impact of 400 years of slavery die hard to be sure. There are
those even today who would sustain one and revive the other if they could.
But as slavery failed, so will racism, as people of all racial and ethnic
backgrounds work toward its elimination in every facet of American life.
Hearts, attitudes, behavior and institutions will be changed for the better
despite the efforts of neo-hate groups and more sophisticated and subtle
efforts to turn back the clock of race.
Martin, on this the anniversary of your birth, I can think of no better time
to recommit oneself to work harder, pray longer, sacrifice greater, until
America is in fact, "...one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and
justice for all."
Happy birthday, Martin.
We shall overcome,
# # #
United Methodist News Service
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