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A Letter to Martin Luther King Jr. - 2014

A Letter to Martin

Editor’s note: Each year, retired 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. White, now bishop-in-residence at Emory University in Atlanta, was the first chief executive of the General Commission on Religion and Race.

January 2014

Bishop Woodie White
Bishop Woodie White

Dear Martin:

I write this year with mixed emotions. I am mostly saddened by the number of public acts of racial bigotry in the United States and a seeming numbing of racial sensitivity and commitment to continue a journey toward equal justice for all. I have been utterly disappointed by political efforts to disenfranchise African-American voters and others by many state legislatures and the lack of outrage by the citizenry in general and the media in particular. Further, Martin, there is the emergence of what author Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow. (I call it the last plantation in America.) Her book reveals the consequences of what she describes as "mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness." It is a growing national shame, largely ignored!

These and other events mar our landscape of racial progress and promise. They have pushed me from my usual hope and optimism to unusual discouragement.

Then came two deaths. The first was that of Mrs. Evelyn Gibson Lowery, the wife of our dear friend, the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery. Her sudden death caught us all off guard. One moment, she was laughing and making plans to celebrate Joe’s 92nd birthday. The next saw her helpless as the result of a massive stroke from which she would not recover. Her death has left me with a heavy and broken heart.

Mrs. Lowery’s efforts and role in the movement for racial and human rights were too little known as were those of so many women who were and are a part of the struggle for justice and equality. At 88, she was still giving active leadership to SCLC/W.O.M.E.N., the organization begun when she gathered a few women at her home in 1979. It continues to empower women, mentor young girls and sponsor an annual Civil Rights Heritage Pilgrimage to 13 sites in Alabama that were important in the struggle for racial justice in America.

Martin, I have learned that no single death is experienced in isolation of others. Mrs. Lowey’s death reminded me of so many women who gave leadership to our common struggle for justice: your own Coretta and, of course, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Daisy Bates and Gloria Richardson. I remember my mentors Ella Baker, Captolia Dent Newbern and Ruby Hurley. Even now, I fight tears.

Then, Martin, came the dreaded announcement of the death of President Nelson Mandela. While his death was not unexpected, in light of his declining health, its finality has stirred the world. Even as I write, the world seems to be mourning. People of different nations, races, ethnicities, even political ideologies mourn his passing and praise his greatness.

Some have called Mr. Mandela a civil rights leader, but such a designation is too limited to describe this elder statesman — this world leader for justice, equality, human rights and common decency. His call for peace and reconciliation after being imprisoned for 27 years by an oppressive, racist government, brought headlines around the world.

Evelyn and the Rev. Joseph Lowery are honored in 2011 for their years of dedication to civil rights. Evelyn Lowery passed away Sept. 26, 2013.
Evelyn and the Rev. Joseph Lowery are honored in 2011 for their years of dedication to civil rights. Evelyn Lowery passed away Sept. 26, 2013.

Following Mr. Mandela’s release from prison and his eventual election as president of South Africa, the world watched this man of grace and purpose embrace all people, even those responsible for his imprisonment. On the world stage, he became a symbol of diplomacy and stellar leadership.

Some tried to thrust the title of saint on him. He resisted such efforts. It said that once when he was referred to as "saint," he responded that he was not a saint but a sinner who just keeps trying!

His call for forgiveness of one’s enemies transcended politics and spoke to our common humanity. Of course, Martin, it echoed your own message to our divided nation. Indeed, it is at the heart of Christian faith.

It is my remembering of you, Martin, and of Mrs. Lowery and Nelson Mandela that moves me from a sense of despair and discouragement. I remember three lives worthy of emulation in a common drive for justice and equality. At the core of each is an affirmation of our common humanity, of our Christian belief that we are brothers and sisters, children of a common creator.

Today, as I remember your birthday, Martin, I reflect on our nation as one that has made great strides to bridge its racial divide and become truly one. 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! Instead, we are a people who will keep trying!

Thank you Evelyn, Mandela and Martin for reminding me.

Happy birthday, Martin.

We Shall Overcome.

Woodie W. White

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