Letter to Martin Luther King notes major shift in U.S. ethos

Bishop Woodie W. WhiteJan. 7, 2008

Editor's note: Each year, 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. 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. King's birthday is Jan. 15, and Americans honor his memory on the third Monday of the month.

Dear Martin:

April 4, 1968, is a date seared in our collective memory. For many, it is the demarcation of time itself - before and after King. In some ways, it seems so long ago, yet it is so vivid it seems like yesterday.

As we approach the 40th year since your tragic death, the nation is preparing to remember you. Our alma mater, Boston University School of Theology, The School of the Prophets, is planning special services to honor you, our most prominent prophet.

Martin, the racial landscape of America, has changed radically in the past 40 years! You would be utterly astounded at the change. Your heart would rejoice at the evidence of your leadership and that of others. Many of us are still so engaged in the struggle that we do not always see the results of these labors.

Sadly, I am sure that your heart would also break to see the state of many black communities across the nation. It is as though we never marched, protested, or challenged systemic and personal racism. Some communities, schools, and everyday routines are more segregated today than they were 40 years ago.

In this sense, it is still reminiscent of Charles Dickens' words in his classic work, The Tale Of Two Cities, that these are the best of times and the worst of times. So many people have not been touched by the progress made.

But Martin, I believe that one remarkable change in the past 40 years has not been fully appreciated: a change in the fundamental race ethos of America.

The Civil Rights Movement, our efforts to challenge the old race ethos of America, was born out of a time when black people were denied the basic rights of citizenship. We were denied the simple guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We were second class. In the minds of millions of Americans, we were believed to be subhuman, and were treated so.

As you so aptly observed then, we were defined by the color of our skin and not the content of our character. This was written into the laws and practiced by government itself.

But Martin, rights are not the products of one's character or extended because they are earned. Rights are guaranteed because of one's existence - the fruits of citizenship of the nation. Yet these rights were denied to us 40 years ago because we were black, even though we were also Americans.

Martin, I must tell you about a phenomenon taking place. As political parties prepare to nominate a candidate for the U.S. presidential election this year, two of the most prominent candidates are a woman and an African American!

This is not the first time this has occurred. But it is the first time such candidacies have had so little racist and sexist overtones. Indeed, some believe these candidates should receive support because of their gender or race!

This is a fundamental shift in the American ethos. That doesn't mean racism and sexism are absent from American life, but now they are antithetical to an American ethos, not a reflection of it. Both are illegal today, not written into the law! In this sense, they are considered un-American.

Because my life has been lived in the world of religion and the church, I know this fundamental shift has taken place in the church as well. No longer do clergy justify racist practice or belief based on religion or theology. No sermons are preached today in their name. For the most part, the position of the church is not couched in racism. That would be considered un-Christian.

No church argues today, for instance, that black people are subhuman or do not have a soul, or that God wills they should be enslaved because of their color. Racist belief and practice, even in the church, must be argued on some basis other than religion or theology.

Both state and church finally have it right! The inalienable rights for all is a core value of the state, and the intrinsic worth of human beings is a core value of the church.

In America today, Martin, a person of color can be the head of a Fortune 500 company, a major educational institution or a health-care system. A black person can oversee state and local government and sit in the highest courts of state and nation. And a black person can live anywhere his or her means will allow.

A black person can even run as a serious contender for the highest office in the land - and many would say the most powerful and influential position in the world!

Yet, these rights and advances do not eliminate the fact that some taxi-cab drivers in major American cities still don't stop to pick up a person of color. And blacks still feel the sting of maltreatment by racist law enforcement officers.

There are still racist employers, supervisors and coworkers who make life difficult and unpredictable for people of color on a daily basis. And Martin, this is true in both state and church.

But these are acts of the heart and mind, not policy and law. Herein is the fundamental change. Of course, the higher positioned such persons are, the more these personal attitudes and acts take on institutional and systemic consequences.

Thus, the battle is not over. Laws must still be enacted to guarantee the rights of all. And laws and policies that have racist consequences, however unintended, must be overturned.

The more challenging task is still before us: to change hearts and attitudes, as well as create a milieu that does not give root to such attitudes in the first place.

Perhaps, the greatest challenge before us in 21st century America, Martin, is to prevent the creation of a permanent underclass that, while not exclusively comprising black Americans, is one in which they are found in too great a number.

So Martin, we remember you on the anniversary of your birth. We thank you for your witness and moral courage. We are still inspired and sustained by your voice and spirit.

Happy birthday!

We shall overcome,
Woodie

(Published courtesy of the United Methodist News Service.)