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Bishop James Thomas: Sharing MLK’s Dream


Bishop James Samuel Thomas met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1955, when King was on his way to speak to at Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tenn. Later, both men addressed the 1965 Methodist Youth Conference in Lincoln, Neb.

A year earlier, Thomas had become the youngest bishop elected in the Methodist Church, becoming one of the denomination’s top clergy leaders at age 45. For the previous 11 years, he had worked as a staff member of the church’s Board of Education, with special attention to the church 13 historically black colleges. 

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Narrator: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood for equality for all. Many United Methodists valued his vision and his leadership. Bishop Joseph Thomas described King’s impact on him and others.

(Voice of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.

Bishop James Thomas: Martin Luther King’s leadership came at the right time in terms of what needed to be done for this nation. I first met him in August of 1955. Even though he was 10 years younger than I, I had never really met a person who had his ego so much under control and who was so balanced in his approach to life. If I had only 10 minutes, I would ask him, “What would we do now when the major targets of segregation are gone?” The white and colored water fountains are no more; the backseats of the bus is no more; racism is in the shadows now; and the targets are hard to find. And I would ask Martin, “What would be an approach to that kind of a society which, on the surface, seems to be non-biased, but, under the surface, there is a great deal of tension and misunderstanding?” Martin was about much more than race. He was about poor people. He was about Vietnam. He was about anywhere that people suffered injustices. So I’d ask him, “What now would be your approach to Iraq, to the differences between the rich and the poor?” I would want to know what he would bring to the present situation. We need these kind of people today more than we ever have before.

Narrator: Bishop JamesThomas reflected on the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during an exclusive interview with United Methodist Communications in 2003. Bishop Thomas died in 2010.

Thomas played a key role in dismantling the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction in the former Methodist Church. The jurisdiction for African Americans was finally eliminated as a condition for union in 1968 of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form The United Methodist Church. Thomas chaired the Central Jurisdiction’s Committee of Five, which formulated the plan for the merger of that jurisdiction’s annual (regional) conferences into the predominantly white geographic jurisdictions. 

This reflection is part of a series about those who walked with King. 

Media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, 615-742-5458.

This encore video was first posted in February, 2015.