|Letter to King notes major shift in U.S. ethos
In remembrance of the
late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Woodie White
pens an annual letter in advance of the civil rights
leader's Jan. 15 birthday. This year marks the 40th
since King's assassination. A UMNS photo courtesy of the
Library of Congress.
Jan. 7, 2008
Editor’s note: Each year, United Methodist Bishop Woodie W.
White writes a “birthday” letter to the Rev. Martin Luther
King Jr. about the progress of racial equality in the United
States. Now retired and serving as bishop-in-residence at
United Methodist-related Candler School of Theology in
Atlanta, White was the first top staff executive of the
denomination’s racial equality monitoring agency, the
Commission on Religion and Race. King’s birthday is Jan. 15,
and Americans honor his memory on the third Monday of the
April 4, 1968, is a date
seared in our collective memory. For many, it is the
demarcation of time itself — before and after King. In some
ways, it seems so long ago, yet it is so vivid it seems like
As we approach the 40th year since your
tragic death, the nation is preparing to remember you. Our
alma mater, Boston University School of Theology, The School
of the Prophets, is planning special services to honor you,
our most prominent prophet.
Martin, the racial
landscape of America, has changed radically in the past 40
years! You would be utterly astounded at the change. Your
heart would rejoice at the evidence of your leadership and
that of others. Many of us are still so engaged in the
struggle that we do not always see the results of these
“No longer do clergy justify
racist practice or belief based on religion or
theology.”Sadly, I am sure that your heart would
also break to see the state of many black communities across
the nation. It is as though we never marched, protested, or
challenged systemic and personal racism. Some communities,
schools, and everyday routines are more segregated today than
they were 40 years ago.
In this sense, it is still
reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ words in his classic work,
The Tale Of Two Cities, that these are the best of
times and the worst of times. So many people have not been
touched by the progress made.
But Martin, I believe
that one remarkable change in the past 40 years has not been
fully appreciated: a change in the fundamental race ethos of
The Civil Rights Movement, our efforts to
challenge the old race ethos of America, was born out of a
time when black people were denied the basic rights of
citizenship. We were denied the simple guarantees of life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We were second class. In
the minds of millions of Americans, we were believed to be
subhuman, and were treated so.
As you so aptly
observed then, we were defined by the color of our skin and
not the content of our character. This was written into the
laws and practiced by government itself.
But Martin, rights
are not the products of one’s character or extended because
they are earned. Rights are guaranteed because of one’s
existence — the fruits of citizenship of the nation. Yet these
rights were denied to us 40 years ago because we were black,
even though we were also Americans.
Bishop Woodie W.
Martin, I must tell
you about a phenomenon taking place. As political parties
prepare to nominate a candidate for the U.S. presidential
election this year, two of the most prominent candidates are a
woman and an African American!
This is not the first
time this has occurred. But it is the first time such
candidacies have had so little racist and sexist overtones.
Indeed, some believe these candidates should receive support
because of their gender or race!
This is a fundamental
shift in the American ethos. That doesn’t mean racism and
sexism are absent from American life, but now they are
antithetical to an American ethos, not a reflection of it.
Both are illegal today, not written into the law! In this
sense, they are considered un-American.
Because my life
has been lived in the world of religion and the church, I know
this fundamental shift has taken place in the church as well.
No longer do clergy justify racist practice or belief based on
religion or theology. No sermons are preached today in their
name. For the most part, the position of the church is not
couched in racism. That would be considered
No church argues today, for instance,
that black people are subhuman or do not have a soul, or that
God wills they should be enslaved because of their color.
Racist belief and practice, even in the church, must be argued
on some basis other than religion or theology.
state and church finally have it right! The inalienable rights
for all is a core value of the state, and the intrinsic worth
of human beings is a core value of the church.
America today, Martin, a person of color can be the head of a
Fortune 500 company, a major educational institution or a
health-care system. A black person can oversee state and local
government and sit in the highest courts of state and nation.
And a black person can live anywhere his or her means will
“(The) battle is not over. Laws
must still be enacted to guarantee the rights of
all.”A black person can even run as a serious
contender for the highest office in the land — and many would
say the most powerful and influential position in the
Yet, these rights and advances do not eliminate
the fact that some taxi-cab drivers in major American cities
still don’t stop to pick up a person of color. And blacks
still feel the sting of maltreatment by racist law enforcement
There are still racist employers, supervisors
and coworkers who make life difficult and unpredictable for
people of color on a daily basis. And Martin, this is true in
both state and church.
But these are acts of the heart
and mind, not policy and law. Herein is the fundamental
change. Of course, the higher positioned such persons are, the
more these personal attitudes and acts take on institutional
and systemic consequences.
Thus, the battle is not
over. Laws must still be enacted to guarantee the rights of
all. And laws and policies that have racist consequences,
however unintended, must be overturned.
challenging task is still before us: to change hearts and
attitudes, as well as create a milieu that does not give root
to such attitudes in the first place.
greatest challenge before us in 21st century America, Martin,
is to prevent the creation of a permanent underclass that,
while not exclusively comprising black Americans, is one in
which they are found in too great a number.
we remember you on the anniversary of your birth. We thank you
for your witness and moral courage. We are still inspired and
sustained by your voice and spirit.
We shall overcome,
media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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