Bishop’s letter to Rev. King finds U.S. at ‘curious juncture’ on race
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his
famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on
Aug. 28, 1963.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
Jan. 5, 2007
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 month.
My greatest temptation in writing this year is to not mention the
burden of my heart: the war in which our nation is engaged. I am
certain if you were here, your voice would be heard, as the prophets of
Bishop Woodie W. White
This leads me to consider how profoundly your voice is missed.
There have been so many occasions when I have longed for your voice.
Yours was unique. You spoke with such passion, clarity and moral
authority. You had the ability to change hearts as well as actions.
We seem to be at a curious juncture in America in the area of race.
On the one hand, systemic and institutional racism are giving way to a
more racially inclusive society. On the other, individual daily acts of
prejudice and racism can still be encountered routinely.
White America, I believe, does not fully appreciate that black
Americans live with the uncertainty of where and when these acts will
occur. They could show up in the actions or comments of a waitress,
taxi driver, supervisor, co-worker, clerk or even a "friend." And they
most often do!
Martin, I was elated at the election of an African American as
governor of Massachusetts. I remember quite vividly the riots and
violence that occurred during school busing in Boston. Yet this
significant milestone received little attention in the national media
or even the larger black community.
Have such groundbreaking racial "firsts" become so common as to
warrant less attention? I suppose in some ways that's a positive step,
yet to not be celebrated is to minimize its greater significance.
Almost at the same time, a popular white comedian, enraged by some
heckling from two black people in the audience, unleashed an avalanche
of racial epithets from the stage. This drew national media attention
and response from national leaders. The black community has begun a
renewed conversation over the use of the "N" word, as people now refer
to that racial slur.
Interestingly, the latter event is cited as evidence of how far
America has to go, while the former is not cited as how far America has
Martin, I have arrived at the sobering conclusion that individual acts
of prejudice and racism will have to be confronted for a long time.
They seem endemic to the human psyche. Racism and prejudice can run
deep. They do not automatically disappear with succeeding generations.
Indeed, I have sadly noted that some grandchildren are more prejudiced
than their grandparents! The issues of racism and prejudice must be
addressed in every generation.
Bishop Woodie White writes his annual "birthday" letter to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. A UMNS photo by Dan Gangler.
But changing policies and procedures to create a new order is not
the same as changing the persons who must implement them. I have long
held that saying nothing about race does not assure a positive climate.
On the contrary, the church, schools and other character-forming
institutions must be pro-actively positive in fostering favorable
racial attitudes, images and experiences.
America has long been a racially and ethnically diverse society, and
is becoming so in ever-increasing numbers. Racism, prejudice and
ethnocentrism are never too far from the surface. It takes very little
to reveal unexpressed racist attitudes, hostilities and fears.
Martin, even as we witnessed the election of an African American as
governor, other African-American candidates faced racist attitudes from
voters and racist campaign tactics from political opponents. At the
same time, ironically, an African American is being seriously discussed
as a potential nominee for his party as president of the United States!
I am glad, Martin, that I have lived to see such significant
progress in race in American life. Yet, I am utterly disappointed in
how race continues to divide the American people.
So, as we celebrate your birth date in 2007, if I were to be asked
if race relations in America are better or still a problem, I would
have to respond, "Yes!"
Happy birthday, Martin, and I am confident,
We Shall Overcome!
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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