Bishop remembers Parks' impact


Guest Columnist

Woodie White

United Methodist News Service

Editor’s Note: Each year, United Methodist Bishop Woodie W. White writes a “birthday” letter to the late 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 was Jan. 15, and Americans honor his memory on the third Monday of the month.


Dear Martin,

This year I begin this letter with considerable sadness. Mrs. Rosa Parks’ recent death has caused a deep sense of grief. It is surprising to observe how another’s death impacts us. You really can never tell how you will respond to death. You simply have to wait.

When I learned Mrs. Parks had died, I was momentarily numbed. Shocked but not surprised. She had been ill for some time, and after all, she was 92. A long and good life. But as the days went on, I found myself falling into a pit of grief that seemed to have no bottom. It was a “silent and alone” mourning. Despite my efforts at self-control, tears came unpredictably. Martin, it was painful.

I was flooded with memories. It is still difficult to believe that it was 50 years ago on Dec. 1, 1955, that Mrs. Parks — quiet, and much admired and respected but unknown beyond her Montgomery community — was catapulted into history. She refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man as custom and law required.

I was attending a small Methodist college in the South at the time and tasting firsthand the oppressive nature of racism and bigotry in the region. Actually, it was not new to me, despite the fact that I was born and reared in New York City. As a boy, I spent my summer months in a border state with my grandparents and family. It was as rigidly segregated as any state in the Deep South. And of course, I would learn the meaning of racism Northern style!

You had just begun your pastorate at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The black community, outraged at the treatment and arrest of Mrs. Parks, knew something dramatic had to be done. Then E.D. Nixon, activist and courageous NAACP leader, and Ralph Abernathy came to you and asked that you lead a new organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association.

The historic Montgomery boycott, which continued for a year, changed not just Montgomery but the nation. There has not been anything comparable to it to this day.

Rosa Parks, now affectionately called the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” for that simple yet dangerous act, accelerated the movement to end Jim Crow and legal segregation in this nation. She was and is so important to so many of us who remember what it meant to be a black American in 1955.

Martin, I think many younger people, and perhaps those not so young, did not understand our outrage and offense when Rosa Parks’ action was made the butt of jokes in a popular movie a couple of years ago. We knew the significance of that act of saying “no” to a white person in the Deep South in 1955! We remember the daily humiliation experienced in many communities because your skin was black and not white.

It was a different America! Clearly we are not where we should be in this nation that prides itself as a model of democracy, but we are no longer where we were in those days of raw, vile prejudice, hatred and segregation. You remember.

Many parents knew the heartbreak of telling a child he or she could not go to the park or romp in the playground, or swim in the community swimming pool. Black Americans experienced so many acts of racism, North and South. Martin, I remember! And it changed because of the courageous actions of those like Rosa Parks, and efforts of white and black people to create a new landscape of American life. Because of you!

In death, Rosa Parks was honored by this nation in a way she was not in life. Her body laid in state in the rotunda of the nation’s Capitol, the first woman to be so honored. National leaders, including the president, came to pay their respects to this woman of genuine courage and humility. A statue of her likeness will be commissioned and placed in the Hall of Statues in the Capitol.

While these honors bestowed upon Mrs. Rosa Parks are cause for rejoicing, I have this overwhelming sadness. Perhaps it is so, Martin, because in this death I remember others. Those who touched my life and indeed made a difference in American life. I remember them today; their faces and voices are vivid and clear: Ella Baker, who mentored me when I was an officer in the New York NAACP Youth Council; Gloster Current, Channing H. Tobias and Anna Hedgeman, who encouraged and supported me when I went off to college; Walter White; Lester Granger; James Farmer; A. Phillip Randolph; Fannie Lou Hammer; Whitney Young; Roy Wilkins. And you.

And so many others. Gone. It is a heavy grief today, Martin.

This year, Martin, on your birthday, I remember. I simply remember. In sadness. In gratitude. In hope. Yet because I remember, I have not the slightest doubt that we shall overcome.