Racism and war recalled as Martin Luther King Day approaches

By staff writers
January 7, 2007

“We seem to be at a curious juncture in America in the area of race”, says a United Methodist Church bishop who makes it a practice to write a letter in honour of Martin Luther King Jr each year, drawing attention to ways in which his vision has been fulfilled or frustrated during the previous 12 months.

“On the one hand”, writes Bishop Woodie W. White, “systemic and institutional racism are giving way to a more racially inclusive society. On the other, individual daily acts of prejudice and racism can still be encountered routinely.”

His latest epistle also draws attention to the tragic and worsening circumstances surrounding the war and occupation in Iraq, in which the USA has played a pivotal role.

Bishop White pens his ‘birthday letter’ to Dr King 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.

Martin Luther King Jr's birthday is 15 January, and Americans remember him with a public holiday on the third Monday of the month. Dr King was a Baptist minister and civil rights activist assassinated for his fearless work against injustice in the name of the Gospel.

The 2007 letter from Bishop White reads as follows:

Dear Martin:

My greatest temptation in writing this year is to not mention the burden of my heart: the war in which our nation is engaged. I am certain if you were here, your voice would be heard, as the prophets of old.

This leads me to consider how profoundly your voice is missed. There have been so many occasions when I have longed for your voice. Yours was unique. You spoke with such passion, clarity and moral authority. You had the ability to change hearts as well as actions.

We seem to be at a curious juncture in America in the area of race. On the one hand, systemic and institutional racism are giving way to a more racially inclusive society. On the other, individual daily acts of prejudice and racism can still be encountered routinely.

White America, I believe, does not fully appreciate that black Americans live with the uncertainty of where and when these acts will occur. They could show up in the actions or comments of a waitress, taxi driver, supervisor, co-worker, clerk or even a "friend." And they most often do!

Martin, I was elated at the election of an African American as governor of Massachusetts. I remember quite vividly the riots and violence that occurred during school busing in Boston. Yet this significant milestone received little attention in the national media or even the larger black community.

Have such groundbreaking racial "firsts" become so common as to warrant less attention? I suppose in some ways that's a positive step, yet to not be celebrated is to minimize its greater significance.

Almost at the same time, a popular white comedian, enraged by some heckling from two black people in the audience, unleashed an avalanche of racial epithets from the stage. This drew national media attention and response from national leaders. The black community has begun a renewed conversation over the use of the "N" word, as people now refer to that racial slur.

Interestingly, the latter event is cited as evidence of how far America has to go, while the former is not cited as how far America has come!

Martin, I have arrived at the sobering conclusion that individual acts of prejudice and racism will have to be confronted for a long time. They seem endemic to the human psyche. Racism and prejudice can run deep. They do not automatically disappear with succeeding generations. Indeed, I have sadly noted that some grandchildren are more prejudiced than their grandparents! The issues of racism and prejudice must be addressed in every generation.

But changing policies and procedures to create a new order is not the same as changing the persons who must implement them. I have long held that saying nothing about race does not assure a positive climate. On the contrary, the church, schools and other character-forming institutions must be pro-actively positive in fostering favourable racial attitudes, images and experiences.

America has long been a racially and ethnically diverse society, and is becoming so in ever-increasing numbers. Racism, prejudice and ethnocentrism are never too far from the surface. It takes very little to reveal unexpressed racist attitudes, hostilities and fears.

Martin, even as we witnessed the election of an African American as governor, other African-American candidates faced racist attitudes from voters and racist campaign tactics from political opponents. At the same time, ironically, an African American is being seriously discussed as a potential nominee for his party as president of the United States!

I am glad, Martin, that I have lived to see such significant progress in race in American life. Yet, I am utterly disappointed in how race continues to divide the American people.

So, as we celebrate your birth date in 2007, if I were to be asked if race relations in America are better or still a problem, I would have to respond, "Yes!"

Happy birthday, Martin, and I am confident, We Shall Overcome!

Atlanta, Georgia, USA, January 2007.

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