In the beginning, thinking that what had happened in the Unitarian Universalist Association between 1967 and 1970 had little to do with me, I ignored it. In October 1967, I was a freshman at Beloit College when my mother flew to New York City to participate in the Emergency Conference on the UU Response to the Black Rebellion, held at the Biltmore Hotel. The meeting was inspiring and tumultuous. Returning to Chicago energized, my mother threw herself into preparing for the first National Conference of Black Unitarian Universalists, which took place four months later.
At age eighteen, anything one’s mother is involved in is suspect, particularly if, in her enthusiasm, she cajoles you into coming along. First, she dragged me up to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then into the plenary session. Listening to speeches was not on my agenda; I fled.
The foray with my mother ended my institutional interest in the UUA until I decided to enter the ministry. In spring 1977, my meeting with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee was looming. To prepare, I participated in a mock interview. The only question I still remember is, “Would you have joined BAC [the Black Affairs Council] in walking out of the 1969 Boston General Assembly?” I was eloquently mealy-mouthed and secretly glad I had not been there. Trapped is what I felt, would have felt, and continued to feel.
During the fall of 1977, while I was serving as a ministerial intern in Bethesda, Maryland, I had a conversation with UUA President Paul Carnes. When he asked about the empowerment controversy, I said it was another generation’s fight, and we needed to get over it. A few weeks later, Dalmas Taylor, an African-American UUA board member, called to report that Carnes, in making the point that we needed to move on, had quoted me. Dalmas advised, “You’d better be careful.” Six months after that, I was reunited with the Rev. Mwalimu Imara, an African-American UU minister who had been my youth group advisor in Chicago. Witnessing his outrage at what he saw as the UUA’s retreat from black empowerment, I said to myself, “I’m not going near this,” and decided to focus my doctoral thesis on the Jamaican Unitarian minister Ethelred Brown, who founded a church in Harlem in 1920.
If only it had been so easy. In 1993, I led a history workshop on Diversity Day at the UUA General Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina. When I got to empowerment, a verbal fight erupted. While preparing a version of this essay that appears in my new book, Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism, I solicited the opinion of a respected colleague. He replied in support of the BAC: “I defined who I would be in relation to issues of race, in relation to institutional loyalties, in my understanding of to whom and to what I am responsible. That is what places the controversy beyond reconciliation, and keeps it vibrant and vital in my life. . . . [W]hat is at stake . . . is nothing less than an unwillingness to compromise, apologize for, or explain away a deep and abiding commitment that set me on the path I have followed ever since.” That moment in his life enabled him to define himself. Yes. Was it life transforming? Yes. But why should that make reconciliation impossible?
What is going on? Why has it been so difficult for the UUA to come to terms with what happened between 1967 and 1970? What is powering the ongoing acrimony? And why is reconciliation so difficult?
I speak only for myself and about what I have come to understand. I speak also out of disappointment and weariness, anger and amazement that we have allowed this to drag on for forty years. I have come to believe that the only way to move forward is to look upon what transpired as a tragedy. What do I mean? These were all honorable people responding to cultural circumstances not of their making while in the grip of emotional forces beyond their control. These circumstances compelled them to choose between dearly held values, and they brought to their decision making their humanness: lofty hopes and moral certitude, grim earnestness and inflamed passions, some self-delusion, lots of defensiveness, and as tragedy requires, hubris. Conceived of as tragedy, this drama does make sense.
Regarding race, our religious tradition’s attitude during the first half of the twentieth century shifted with the nation’s—as its attitude liberalized, so did ours. We were engaged in, but not at the forefront of, a movement calling for racial justice. In 1963, the GA rejected a resolution that would have required congregations to drop racially discriminatory restrictions from their bylaws. In doing so, the annual meeting chose to reaffirm a bedrock UU principle, congregational polity, over freedom of access. The same assembly overwhelmingly supported a resolution encouraging congregations to practice nondiscrimination, requiring it of new congregations, and creating the Commission on Religion and Race. The ten-member commission included five African Americans and one Latino: Howard Harris, Wade H. McCree, Cornelius McDougald, the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, Whitney M. Young Jr., and Gonzalo Molina.