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Bishop rejoices at progress in letter to Martin Luther King Jr.


Dec. 14, 2004        

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. Americans honor King’s memory on the third Monday of January.

Dear Martin,

As I begin this letter I must tell you of an incident involving one of your closest associates and one of my dearest friends. A few months ago, he and I were on a panel addressing the issue of race in the United Methodist Church. We were especially assessing the gains made or not made, since the discontinuance of the Central Jurisdiction. This was the racially segregated organizational structure created by the denomination in 1939. In 1968, it was not continued when a new denomination, the United Methodist Church, was organized.

Following the panel presentation, a woman addressed a question to me, inquiring if I intended to continue my annual letter to you, indicating how much it was appreciated. I indicated it was my intent to continue this practice begun in 1976. Whereupon, our colleague quipped, “Yes, Woodie, continue, I just talked to Martin and he said he enjoyed hearing from you!” The audience howled. Vintage Joe Lowery!

Speaking of Joe, you would be pleased but not surprised to know that he continues to give critical and dynamic leadership, especially in the Atlanta area and across the state of Georgia. His voice, perspective and counsel are sought as he speaks out against injustice and advocates on behalf of those marginalized in society.

Martin, I am now living in Georgia. The New Yorker and his New England wife decided to settle in the South! We have become a part of a wave of black Americans who are returning to the South. I continue to marvel at the evidence of the New South, but observe traces of the old. Yet, I rejoice to see that in less than 50 years, those relegated to segregated schools and places of public accommodation now give leadership in every facet of public life.

Sadly, I must report the deterioration of your beloved Southern Christian Leadership Conference. You would be disappointed to witness the internal conflict, distracting it from its important work of continuing the fight for equality for all.

I am praying and hoping the organization can get back on track and include new and younger leadership, so that it can once more be in the vanguard of organizations seeking racial and economic justice. It is needed!

No group is as revered and influential as is the black church and its clergy leadership. When focused and corporately energized, it can impact the black community in ways that outside social agencies and government cannot. We still need the corporate voice of black churches and its clergy leadership.

Martin, we have just come through a rather divisive presidential campaign and national elections. I am particularly pleased to report the election of a new black senator. Historically significant is the fact that both candidates for the open U.S. Senate seat were African Americans! The new senator from Illinois is a bright, articulate, charismatic Harvard graduate. It is said he has a bright future. Barack Obama is his name!

And oh, yes, the Congressional Black Caucus, composed of House and Senate members, is at an all-time high with 44 members. Among those elected, I’m pleased to report, is a United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Emmanuel Cleaver, from Kansas City, Mo., a former Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader.

Two additional significant elections deserve noting. Justice James Graves, who had been appointed to serve an unexpired term on the Supreme Court of Mississippi, was elected to the court after receiving 57 percent of the vote. Gwen Moore became the first African-American elected to Congress from Wisconsin. She will represent Milwaukee’s 4th Congressional District.

Not so appropriately recognized and applauded is the historic appointment of a black woman as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, a preacher’s kid from Birmingham, Ala. Significant as well is that her predecessor, Colin Powell, is African American. Condoleezza Rice, who is fluent in Russian, has served in the important post of national security adviser to the president.

I fear both would have greater recognition if their party affiliation were different. That is unfortunate.

The recognition of achievement and accomplishment of black Americans should not be based on party membership or even religious affiliation. Our struggle for freedom and equality was with hope and expectation that all Americans could express their conscience, utilize their gifts and be recognized as you well put it, not on the basis of their color but the content of their character. I celebrate whenever a person of color walks through a door previously perceived or labeled as White Only!

The mention of character brings me to an interesting discussion, a dialogue—some would say debate—taking place across “Black America.” Noted comedian, entertainer and philanthropist Bill Cosby has caused quite a stir by challenging parents, black leaders and ordinary citizens to a higher standard of ethical and civil behavior and responsibility. It is a critically important matter too long limited to discussions in beauty parlors, barbershops and living rooms in the black community. Now perhaps community conversations can take place, bringing together the diverse perspectives and leadership that will result in a healthier, more constructive and productive community. It can only be achieved, home by home, neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community. The time has long since passed for philosophical posturing. 

Well, Martin, I must bring my letter to a close. There is so much for which to be thankful as we observe the anniversary of your birth. The achievements of the last 50 years, the result of sacrifice, commitment and even life given by Americans of various racial backgrounds and religious beliefs, should be used as beacons for us to complete the work yet unfinished.

What has become increasingly clear to me is that a climate can be created that will thwart present progress and even reverse gains made. In light of this prospect, all Americans must recommit themselves to this unfinished agenda of justice for all.

As we remember and celebrate your life and work, may this be uppermost in our observance. May we not cease our efforts until every American, hearing those noble words, “ ... one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” will know the concept not as ideal but as reality.

Thanks, Martin, for moving us closer to that reality. Happy birthday!

We shall overcome!

Atlanta, Georgia
January 2005


News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or


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