Annual Letter Celebrates 'Unforgettable' Milestone

January 14, 2009

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 be racist."

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 together."

"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 writes.

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 globe.

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." To view video, click here.

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 these efforts.

"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!"