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Bishop reflects on milestones in letter to King

12/2/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

Photos, video and audio of Bishop Woodie White reading his annual letter are available.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Bishop Woodie White reads over a letter he has written to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. White writes to King each year about current events. A UMNS photo by Dan Gangler, Photo number 03-501, Accompanies UMNS #578, 12/2/03

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Bishop Woodie White pens a letter to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. White uses the annual letter to reflect on current events affecting civil rights. A UMNS photo by Dan Gangler, Photo number 03-500, Accompanies UMNS #578, 12/2/03

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Bishop Woodie White reads over a letter he has written to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. White writes to King each year about current events. A UMNS photo by Dan Gangler, Photo number 03-502, Accompanies UMNS #578, 12/2/03
Each year, United Methodist Bishop Woodie W. White writes a letter to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in advance of King's Jan. 15 birthday. White, 68, 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 before being appointed to the Indiana Area in 1992. He wrote his first "Dear Martin" letter in 1976.

Dear Martin:

I write this year on the anniversary of your birth with special memories, profound thanksgiving and a somewhat unsettled spirit.

It is difficult to believe this is 2004, a special year for me personally. It was 50 years ago - 1954 - that I said "yes" to God's call to ministry, and in nine months I shall retire from active ministry in the United Methodist Church. It hardly seems 50 years ago that I left my beloved Harlem and ventured to your beloved Georgia to attend college. Where have the years gone?

This too, Martin, will be the 50th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court's 1954 decision, a momentous one, rendering the concept of "separate but equal" unconstitutional and bringing an end to legalized segregation in public schools. I remember the day well. I fear it was a gift to the nation largely squandered. That day brought out the worst, not the best, in us.

While legal segregation as policy has disappeared, separation of the races has not. Ironically, Martin, 50 years after the Supreme Court decision, public education in the nation may be more segregated. Indeed, quality public education for black children and increasingly for Hispanic and immigrant students remains one of the great challenges.

Martin, this challenge not withstanding, individual achievement by black Americans continues in every field of public life. It is what I call the "quiet revolution." Black Americans are appointed, selected, promoted or employed in positions of prestige, power and importance.

Yet, Martin, there is another "quiet revolution" taking place in our nation: the repackaging of racism! It is no longer wrapped in negative language, nor even vile racist deeds, but often in "color blind" rhetoric and "color blind" decisions that result in racist consequences. I believe it will require a new kind of leadership response to combat and challenge racism consequences that may not be called racist nor are intended to be racist!

In many ways, Martin, the races are closer than they have ever been - but still worlds apart. It often does not take much to reveal the still deep divide between "black" and "white" America. There is still much work to be done!

Martin, we lost some great leaders and champions this past year - persons who made a difference in my life and who made significant contributions in breaking down the barriers that separate the races.

We lost Maynard Jackson, who became the first black mayor of Atlanta; Althea Gibson, the great tennis star who learned the game on the courts of Harlem and became the first black person to win the prestigious Wimbledon title; and Larry Doby, who broke the color barrier in the American League, becoming the second black player in Major League Baseball shortly after Jackie Robinson. I saw him play often at Yankee Stadium. I must confess I was a Yankee fan!

There were others, politicians and entertainers, who were defining character formers and inspirational leaders. Perhaps it is to be expected in these my settling years.

Martin, I am elated and surprised to note that one of my early heroes, Paul Robeson, has been honored with a commemorative stamp to be issued in January 2004. He was an extraordinarily talented and courageous champion of civil rights. I am pleased he is now remembered and honored.

Martin, no emotion is more evident as I write than one of thankfulness. I have learned in these years to value two qualities - truth and perspective. Truth looks reality in the eye and names it. Perspective looks at all reality, not just a part, and acknowledges it. Truth and perspective create my spirit of thanksgiving.

I am thankful, Martin, that in my lifetime I have seen black Americans achieve places in American life not even its leaders imagined, and indeed perhaps unparalleled in many other multiracial societies. It was accomplished as Americans of every race and faith gave themselves - their best - to make the nation even greater than the founders may have perceived.

You, Martin, made the critical difference at an important juncture in the nation's history, and that cannot be emphasized enough. For I believe what you did so magnificently was to place the issue of race in America as a moral issue. Martin, I believe that is where it must be if progress is to be sustained and new gains achieved. America must be true to itself. But, Martin, you said it even more eloquently:
"The passing of systems that were born in injustice, nurtured in inequality, and reared in exploitation … represents the inevitable decay of any system based on principles that are not in harmony with the moral laws of the universe."

Martin, as always, I close with hope and thanksgiving. Thanks for your continuing impact on the human spirit, public discourse, and the achievement of racial and social justice.

We are overcoming, Martin, we are overcoming!


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