United Methodist Bishop Woodie W. White Writes Letters to Martin Luther King Jr. About Nation’s Race Progress

Bishop Woodie W. White, a bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology for the last decade. Photo courtesy of Emory University

Bishop Woodie W. White, a bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology for the last decade. Photo courtesy of Emory University

The nation will mark the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday (Jan. 20) with speeches, prayers and volunteer service.

But for decades, retired United Methodist Bishop Woodie W. White has marked the holiday in a more personal way: He writes a “birthday letter” to the civil rights leader who was killed in 1968.

“It was a way to get kind of a year’s assessment on what the nation was accomplishing and not accomplishing in the area of race,” said White, a bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology for the last decade.

“I did it because, frankly, I needed to have perspective. I needed to not get discouraged, and I needed it to be affirming of progress in race which had taken place over the course of a year.”

White started the custom in 1976, when he chose to write a letter to King instead of giving a traditional speech to the Human Rights Commission in Howard County, Md. He continued writing on and off while he served as the first head of the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion and Race. Since 1985, he’s written the letters annually, and they’re now published by United Methodist News Service.

White’s letter updates King on the latest strides in race relations while also acknowledging “a hard residue of racism that just won’t seem to die.” He admitted in his most recent letter to being discouraged by mass incarceration and the “lack of outrage” about legislation that has disenfranchised black voters.

“While we are yet flawed by those among us who hold to racial bigotry and intolerance, they no longer define us as a nation or a people!” White wrote in his 2014 edition.

White, 78, and King were not close friends, but they met in the 1960s when White was a Detroit minister and King made annual visits to the city to preach a sermon during Lent.

In 1963, White was among the more than 100,000 who took part in the Detroit “Walk to Freedom” march, where King gave a trial run of his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Two months later, White was in a larger crowd at the March on Washington.

“He began to speak and I said, ‘This sounds familiar,’’’ the bishop recalled. “It was a different context. It was almost like hearing it anew, or for the first time.”

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
Adelle M. Banks