Messages to Martin

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  In 1986, 15 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, President Reagan signed a law making the third Monday of January the newest American holiday. This celebration of King’s birth and life comes just before the national celebration of Black History Month in February. But one United Methodist bishop in Indiana has chosen to thank Dr. King for his leadership in his own, more personal, way.  
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Bishop Woodie White / United Methodist Church (reading letter): “Dear Martin …”      

United Methodist bishop Woodie White gives his friend Martin Luther King Jr. a gift every year—a letter. 

Bishop Woodie White: “I've allowed him and his spirit to come in and touch my spirit.”

This is a relationship that has grown through words and ideas. White didn’t really know Dr. King personally, but he has spent 20 years sharing private and public news with the civil rights leader.

Bishop Woodie White (reading letter): “While legal segregation as policy has disappeared, separation of the races has not.”

Bishop Woodie White: “I talk to him as though I just saw him last week or last year. There are letters of the past where I've told him about the children and I’ve told him about Mrs. King.”

And he’s created a living history, listing achievements made by black, and white, Americans.

Bishop Woodie White (reading letter): “Paul Robeson has been honored with a commemorative stamp.”

Bishop Woodie White: “I was attempting to give myself a sense of encouragement, but also I was hoping that those who read the letter might be encouraged.”

As a young pastor in Detroit, White crossed paths with Dr. King and followed him to the 1963 march on Washington.

Bishop Woodie White: “When Dr. King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech, I knew that something would change in American life.”

Bishop Woodie White (reading letter): “I close my letter by thanking him for the impact he still has – not ‘did have’ – but he still has.”

Bishop Woodie White (reading letter): “We are overcoming, Martin. We are overcoming.”


Bishop White says he usually writes the letters between 3 and 5 in the morning, because he likes the silence. It’s a challenge to fit all he wants to say into a reasonable length, too. Sometimes he's had to write his letters from unusual the one he finished in South Africa. He says the process always helps his perspective about the past year.