In yearly letter to King, bishop remembers Rosa Parks’ impact
Jan. 6, 2006
|Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Rosa Parks, who died in October, made history 50 years ago when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man.
By United Methodist News Service
Each year, United Methodist Bishop Woodie W. White writes a
“birthday” letter to the late 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 month.
This year I begin this letter with considerable sadness.
Mrs. Rosa Parks’ recent death has caused a deep sense of grief. It is
surprising to observe how another’s death impacts us. You really can
never tell how you will respond to death. You simply have to wait.
When I learned Mrs. Parks had died, I was momentarily
numbed. Shocked but not surprised. She had been ill for some time, and
after all, she was 92. A long and good life. But as the days went on, I
found myself falling into a pit of grief that seemed to have no bottom.
It was a “silent and alone” mourning. Despite my efforts at
self-control, tears came unpredictably. Martin, it was painful.
I was flooded with memories. It is still difficult to
believe that it was 50 years ago on Dec. 1, 1955, that Mrs. Parks —
quiet, and much admired and respected but unknown beyond her Montgomery,
Ala., community — was catapulted into history. She refused to give up
her seat on a bus to a white man as custom and law required.
I was attending a small Methodist college in the South at
the time and tasting firsthand the oppressive nature of racism and
bigotry in the region. Actually, it was not new to me, despite the fact
that I was born and reared in New York City. As a boy, I spent my summer
months in a border state with my grandparents and family. It was as
rigidly segregated as any state in the Deep South. And of course, I
would learn the meaning of racism Northern style!
You had just begun your pastorate at Montgomery’s Dexter
Avenue Baptist Church. The black community, outraged at the treatment
and arrest of Mrs. Parks, knew something dramatic had to be done. Then
E.D. Nixon, activist and courageous NAACP leader, and Ralph Abernathy
came to you and asked that you lead a new organization, the Montgomery
The historic Montgomery boycott, which continued for a year,
changed not just Montgomery but the nation. There has not been anything
comparable to it to this day.
Rosa Parks, now affectionately called the “Mother of the
Civil Rights Movement” for that simple yet dangerous act, accelerated
the movement to end Jim Crow and legal segregation in this nation. She
was and is so important to so many of us who remember what it meant to
be a black American in 1955.
Martin, I think many younger people, and perhaps those not so young, did
not understand our outrage and offense when Rosa Parks’ action was made
the butt of jokes in a popular movie a couple of years ago. We knew the
significance of that act of saying “no” to a white person in the Deep
South in 1955! We remember the daily humiliation experienced in many
communities because your skin was black and not white.
|A UMNS photo by Dan Gangler
Bishop Woodie White writes to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. each year.
It was a different America! Clearly we are not where we
should be in this nation that prides itself as a model of democracy, but
we are no longer where we were in those days of raw, vile prejudice,
hatred and segregation. You remember. Not being able to use a public
restroom or drink from a water fountain in many communities. Not being
able to buy a house or rent an apartment where you had the means to do
so. In some instances, not being able to try on clothes in a department
store before you purchased them. And in some places, not being able to
Many parents knew the heartbreak of telling a child he or
she could not go to the park or romp in the playground, or swim in the
community swimming pool. Black Americans experienced so many acts of
racism, North and South. Martin, I remember! And it changed because of
the courageous actions of those like Rosa Parks, and efforts of white
and black people to create a new landscape of American life. Because of
In death, Rosa Parks was honored by this nation in a way she
was not in life. Her body laid in state in the rotunda of the nation’s
Capitol, the first woman to be so honored. National leaders, including
the president, came to pay their respects to this woman of genuine
courage and humility. A statue of her likeness will be commissioned and
placed in the Hall of Statues in the Capitol.
While these honors bestowed upon Mrs. Rosa Parks are cause
for rejoicing, I have this overwhelming sadness. Perhaps it is so,
Martin, because in this death I remember others. Those who touched my
life and indeed made a difference in American life. I remember them
today; their faces and voices are vivid and clear: Ella Baker, who
mentored me when I was an officer in the New York NAACP Youth Council;
Gloster Current, Channing H. Tobias and Anna Hedgeman, who encouraged
and supported me when I went off to college; Walter White; Lester
Granger; James Farmer; A. Phillip Randolph; Fannie Lou Hammer; Whitney
Young; Roy Wilkins. And you.
And so many others. Gone. It is a heavy grief today, Martin.
This year, Martin, on your birthday, I remember. I simply
remember. In sadness. In gratitude. In hope. Yet because I remember, I
have not the slightest doubt that
WE SHALL OVERCOME.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert or Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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