|Bishop’s 33rd letter to King celebrates ‘unforgettable’ milestone
Woodie White’s 33rd annual letter to the late Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr., celebrates the election of the first black American as president
of the United States. A UMNS video image.
A UMNS Feature
By Linda Green*
Jan. 13, 2009
Bishop Woodie White has written an annual letter to the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr. for the last 33 years, but no letter has been filled
with as much joy as the 2009 letter.
White, now retired, began writing a “birthday letter” to the late
civil rights leader in 1976, outlining the progress of racial equality
in the United States. The 2009 letter celebrates the first black
American elected to what is considered the most influential political
office in the world — the presidency of the United States of America.
Although White never personally knew King, he was among the 250,000
who heard the civil rights leader deliver his historic “I Have a Dream”
speech in 1963 in Washington.
The bishop writes of the grief that convulsed the country following
King’s assassination in 1968, and tells how there was “utter joy” 40
years later when Barack Obama, an African American, was elected 44th
president of the nation. “We wept unashamedly, men and women, people of
all ethnicities and creeds.
“Martin, it was an unforgettable moment! Even as I write, it is
difficult to contain the joy or hold back the tears. You would
understand,” he writes.
White was the first top executive of the United Methodist Commission
on Religion and Race, formed following the 1968 merger of the
Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church into The
United Methodist Church. He said that when he envisioned what America
could be, “I never envisioned a black person as president.”
Election unites people
The election of Barack Obama is much more significant than the
transfer of power from one party to another, White writes. “Its
significance goes beyond the current economic crisis, where Americans
are looking to government for direction and leadership.”
This election, he said, “will impact an area that has been at the
heart of America’s failure as a nation. I believe it will bring to an
end the dying ideology of ‘they.’ ”
American racism is grounded in an often unspoken declaration of innate
inferiority and superiority, he writes. It is based on the claim that
one’s race is the determining factor in ability and achievement.
“Racism will no longer characterize our nation structurally,
legally,” White says in a video interview.. “Our ethos will no longer
Because he had so much to say, White says the 2009 letter was the
most difficult one to write. He describes Obama as a man of “unusual
gifts, grace and character,” a man that King would be gratified by
since the election of Obama was an election “that brought people
“President-elect Obama’s election is the result of the votes and
support of persons of broad racial and ethnic diversity. He shattered
fundraising records for a political campaign. He set records for
numbers who attended his campaign rallies. He won votes in geographic
areas where his political party has traditionally been defeated,” White
Moments connected in history
In Obama’s acceptance speech on election night, the president-elect
evoked King in his words and manner, often mesmerizing the people in
Grant Park in Chicago, and the millions watching television across the
Obama spoke of a 106-year-old Atlanta woman who at one time could
not vote because of her race and gender and who had witnessed much that
has befallen the country during her century of living in America. “She
was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a
bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that ‘We
Shall Overcome.’ Yes, we can,” Obama said.
In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King spoke eloquently about how the American promise extended to all people, not just some.
“In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check,”
King said. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent
words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they
were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall
heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as
white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness.”
In a video interview, White recalls the tears, cheers and “a sense
that something was going to change. It was a different time, a
different era, the tensions were great.”
Four decades later, America changed.
On Nov. 4, 2008, Obama told the country that “This is our time, to
put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids;
to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the
American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many,
we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with
cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will
respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people.”
White tells King that expressions of injustice, bigotry and racism
in individuals and institutions still need to be challenged and that
Obama’s election should encourage people to continue rather than end
“In so many ways, Martin, we are a better nation, a better people
than you left. Not perfect, but better. And in some ways, the nation is
moving beyond The Dream!”
When America elected Barack Obama, “I saw America … at its best,” he
said, in a UMTV video accompanying his letter. “Happy birthday, Martin.
We are overcoming!”
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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