Two shocks jolted the Unitarian Universalist Association soon after its formation. Both were related to the struggle for racial justice, but while one unified the denomination, sustaining its self-image of being on the right side of the struggle, the other shattered this easy assumption and inflicted wounds that still have not healed.
First, in 1965, came the murder of the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister, while he was in Selma, Alabama, demonstrating for black civil rights. Second, only four years later, many black delegates and their white supporters walked out of the General Assembly in Boston to protest what they considered a racist vote. What had seemed so obvious after Selma—that in the fight for racial justice it was “us” (the good guys) vs. “them” (the racists)—suddenly wasn’t so obvious after all. The line between “us” and “them” no longer seemed so clear.
Why? What had happened? Thirty years later, we’re still struggling with these and related questions. Perhaps this search for answers can help us build on the things we have done right and improve on the things we have done badly since the UUA was formed.
Tragedy and triumph
Universalists and Unitarians fought for racial justice long before 1965, of course. Back in mid-19th century, ministers of both denominations signed separate antislavery declarations, and in 1963, busloads of UUs descended on Washington, D.C., to join the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the biggest civil rights demonstration in the nation’s history. Two years later, after a young sawmill worker and church deacon, Jimmy Lee Jackson, was murdered during voting rights demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, demonstrators set out on a protest march to the state capital in Montgomery. They were violently turned back by state police, and King sent a telegram to leaders of all US denominations asking for support. More than 20 UU ministers and some lay persons responded.
On the evening of March 9, 1965, three of the UU ministers—the Revs. Orloff Miller, Clark Olsen, and James Reeb—were attacked by white racists as they left a restaurant, and Reeb was so badly beaten that he died two days later. By coincidence, the UUA board was meeting in Boston the next day, and the members decided that they, too, had to bear witness. They adjourned in Boston and reconvened in Selma, and a second wave of UU ministers and lay persons joined them, bringing the total UU presence to about 200, along with 350 non-UU white clergy and religious.
Then-UUA President the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley recalls in his 1971 memoir 25 Beacon Street and Other Recollections, what happened then. “The next day . . . a procession was formed—I suppose at least a thousand people. I was in the front line . . . and marched to the Selma Wall, the police barricade beyond which the police would not let us pass.There we had a real confrontation. We were met by state troopers, with all their weapons. . . .” At the memorial service for Reeb two days later “Martin Luther King gave the stirring memorial address. It was my assignment to give the main prayer.”
Greeley goes on to assert
that there has not been in recent Unitarian Universalist civil rights history another incident like the Reeb martyrdom, but I do believe that many ministers have been as dedicated as James Reeb was and that our laymen and our churches and fellowships through many years contributed proportionately at least as much as any denomination to progress in this area.
The national revulsion at the Selma murders—Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a UU from Detroit, was murdered in a separate incident in Selma—led Congress finally to pass long-delayed civil rights legislation. Thus the Reeb martyrdom became enshrined as proof of our racial sanctity, along with the famous story of how the Rev. Theodore Parker kept a pistol in his desk drawer to fight off anyone trying to recapture the fugitive slaves he was harboring. Parker, renowned as the most charismatic Unitarian preacher of the mid-19th century, said of the Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett, a supporter of the fugitive slave law—which required the capture of runaway slaves who had fled to free states—“He is calling on his church members to kidnap mine.” What we recall less often is that Gannett, too, was a Unitarian.
Clearly our vaunted unity on the issue of race is not the whole story. Even Reeb’s death did not evoke the same emotions from all UUs. In 1968 Heyward Henry, chair of the newly formed Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus said, “We Unitarian Universalists like to keep saying, ‘But we went to Selma with you. . . . why are you [blacks] rejecting us?’ In Selma, a black man named Jimmy Jackson was killed and at that time you could count the number of Unitarians in Selma on your fingers. A few weeks, later a white man was killed, and all Unitarians ran to Selma. Racism, that’s what it was.”
From Selma to the Biltmore
Perhaps it was selective memory about our denominational record that kept most of us from noticing that, for all our civil rights activism, our congregations remained overwhelmingly white and only a handful of African Americans had ever been ordained as Unitarian, Universalist, or UU ministers. Perhaps selective memory also made it hard for the denomination, especially its leaders, to understand why black UUs like Henry were angry.
The progression from the civil rights agenda to calls for black empowerment was swift. Even as Martin Luther King led the civil rights march in Washington, Malcolm X was preaching not integration but separatism.
Throughout the late 1960s, Black Panther and police violence made headlines. In 1967, racial rioting left 23 dead in Newark, 43 in Detroit. In the months before his assassination King was being pushed by younger supporters to abandon nonviolence and alliances with whites. Some black UUs echoed this militancy. As the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed points out in his book Black Pioneers in a White Denomination (Beacon Press, 1980): “We do not stand above the social attitudes of our times, as we are prone to believe, but instead flounder about in their midst with everyone else.”
Flounder we did. After the 1967 riots, the Rev. Homer Jack, director of the UUA Department of Social Responsibility, called an Emergency Conference on Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion. Some 135 participants, including 37 African Americans, gathered at New York’s Biltmore Hotel. Some were chosen by district executives; others were UUA and UU Service Committee staff, committee members, black theological students, and observers from other faiths. Whether or not they fairly represented the denomination was hotly debated and is still a matter of contention.
Cornelius McDougald, chair of the UUA Commission on Religion and Race and board chair of the Community Church of New York, Unitarian Universalist, called the meeting to order. Almost immediately, however, at the suggestion of some black members of the Los Angeles church, 30 of the 37 African American delegates withdrew to form a Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus. There, they developed a list of what they called “non-negotiable demands” to be submitted to the conference and, ultimately, the UUA Board of Trustees.
The core demand was that the board establish a Black Affairs Council (BAC), to be appointed by the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) and funded for four years at $250,000 a year. The funds would go for grants to fight political repression and economic exploitation in the black community and support black cultural expressions and community education. In addition to overseeing the grants, the proposed group would allow members to explore their identities as black UUs. The late filmmaker Henry Hampton, a black caucus supporter, who was then the UUA’s director of information, said, “Black people at the conference became full-fledged liberals, for the first time [able] to determine their course.”
When the full conference finally reconvened, it accepted the black caucus demands, though some participants left in protest of them.
The caucus did not speak for all black delegates, however. McDougald, an African American, refused to join, saying he was unwilling “to submit to intimidation by blacks or whites.” Thus began a split among black UUs that soon threatened to tear apart the denomination. Notice the different reactions of two black delegates from the Community Church, which had a 25 percent black membership and prided itself on its racial justice work. (A former minister, the Rev. John Haynes Holmes, cofounded the NAACP.) Church member Maude Jenkins, a retired physician, says she was so upset by the caucus demands that “it took me months to recuperate.” Member Winifred Latimer Norman, on the other hand, says that, never having seen more than a handful of blacks at General Assemblies, she was so thrilled by seeing so many of them at a UU function that it “definitely persuaded me to support” the quest for black empowerment. Norman, who later served on the UUA board, became a leader of the Black Affairs Council, while McDougald, the board chair of her church, cofounded and cochaired a group called Black and White Alternative, and later Black and White Action. For some 10 years the acronyms BAC and BAWA signified the deepest division in UU history.
After the conference
After the Biltmore conference the UUA Department of Social Responsibility received many angry letters and phone calls in response to which department director Jack circulated a letter to UU congregations. First, he listed the callers’ and letter writers’ criticisms of the black caucus: that it was not merely separatist but racist; that it used totalitarian methods; and that it spoke for only a fraction of black Unitarian Universalists. He offered these rejoinders: that separatism was a tactic, not a goal; that there was precedent “for cabals, secret caucuses—and worse” in our denomination; and that 30 out of the 37 black UUs at the conference had joined the caucus. Jack also pointed out that “revolutions are never reasonable or rational.” His appeals for forbearance came too late. A 1983 Commission on Appraisal report that looked back on these events concluded, “Sides had been chosen and alternatives were not to be explored. Confrontation [was] in the air.”
The wounds inflicted during this confrontation haven’t yet healed, and it is likely impossible to describe the events that followed the Biltmore conference without infuriating supporters of one side or the other—if not both. To tell the story as dispassionately as possible, let’s start with a bare recital of the recorded facts, leaning heavily on the report of the Commission of Appraisal and four 1983 Minns lectures by the Rev. Victor Carpenter, now senior minister of the First Church in Belmont, MA.
1. The UUA board responded to the Biltmore conference report by voting to reorganize the Commission on Religion and Race, adding “substantial participation of non-whites,” but not to form a Black Affairs Council. It also refused the request for a million dollars over four years. But the vote was not unanimous. While vice-moderator Wade McCree—the only black member and a U.S. Circuit Court judge who later became solicitor general of the United States—threatened to resign if the caucus demands were met, trustee Carleton Fisher said that if they were not met, it would “rather conclusively indicate that we have lost touch completely with the very ground of our faith as Unitarian Universalists.” The Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus, which had demanded that the board vote its proposals up or down without amendment, responded to the vote by urging its supporters to boycott the UUA Annual Fund.
2. A group of white supporters of BUUC calling for full support of the BAC platform organized FULLBAC. This, too, proved controversial. Betty Seiden, a BAWA leader, said she resented FULLBAC intervention, telling the new group, “You say that we blacks are supposed to be off getting ourselves equal to you. I feel equal right now. . . . Can you see how insulted I am that [you are] going to give me self-empowerment?”
3. At the 1968 General Assembly in Cleveland, the board and President Greeley urged delegates to substitute voluntarily raised funds for the million dollars demanded by the caucus and to accept both BAC and BAWA as affiliate members. However, the delegates voted 836 to 326 to form the Black Affairs Council and fund it from the association budget at $250,000 a year for four years. BAWA got neither funding nor affiliate status.
BAC’s accounting for the money it received from the denomination later caused more controversy. BAC’s critics demanded better accounting; its defenders replied that no other UUA affiliate organization was being asked for audits. The Commission on Appraisal published a recap of BAC income and expenses for 1968-1972, but since it includes such catch-all items as “nineteen grants—$137,147.99,” it doesn’t resolve the controversy.
4. At the 1969 General Assembly, which convened in Boston, the agenda included a proposal to allocate the second quarter million to BAC and $50,000 to BAWA. BAC insisted that funding both groups would be contradictory—that the UUA either supported black empowerment or it didn’t—and therefore it would refuse funding if BAWA got even a penny. As soon as the business session began, BAC supporters moved to take up this agenda item immediately. When this motion failed, a substantial number of delegates walked out, although they later returned. At another point in the business session, BAC chair Heyward Henry announced that “the microphones will be possessed,” and members of BUUC and the UU youth group stood at each of the floor mikes to prevent anyone else from speaking. When the cochair of BAWA attempted to address the meeting, BUUC/FULLBAC delegates again walked out. Eventually, the delegates voted to fund BAC but not BAWA.
At the same GA, however, the delegates elected the Rev. Robert West as UUA president, defeating the Rev. Aron Gilmartin, the BUUC/FULLBAC candidate. West’s platform called for securing the remaining $750,000 in BAC funding not through the UUA Annual Fund but through voluntary campaigns.
5. In November 1969, faced with a substantial deficit, the UUA board—as part of cuts representing one-third of the budget—voted to reduce the BAC allocation by $50,000 and to meet the million dollar obligation in five years rather than four. Henry called this vote a “shocking revelation of the institutional racism still rampant in the UUA.” BAC decided to disaffiliate in order to raise money, since affiliate groups were not then allowed to raise money on their own but rather were funded exclusively by the UUA.
6. The Seattle General Assembly in 1970 defeated a motion to restore full funding to the Black Affairs Council.
7. In Washington, D.C., in 1971, GA delegates adopted a resolution to set up a Fund for Racial Justice “to finance all Unitarian Universalist efforts. . . . to achieve racial justice.”
8. The Fund for Racial Justice received $250,000 from the UU Society at Shelter Rock, N.Y. (then called the North Shore Unitarian Church), of which the UUA board voted to give $180,000 to BAC, $45,000 to BAWA, and use the remaining $25,000 for other UUA racial justice activities. In May, BAC sent out a press release announcing its acceptance of the funds, saying, “Our religious movement has experienced serious schism around this issue, and the North Shore Unitarian Church action will do much by way of healing some of the wounds.”
9. Later that year, the founding of a black UU fellowship in Chicago as well as disagreements about the use of the Racial Justice Fund money caused a split in the BAC leadership. This led to the setting up of a rival organization and lawsuits over control of funds. Soon not only BAC but FULLBAC and BAWA ceased to function.
The facts through different lenses
Those, highly condensed, are some key facts—and facts don’t lie, supposedly. But they don’t tell the whole truth, either. To grasp the pain, the fury, and the consternation of those days, we need to examine some personal recollections. Here is how President Greeley describes the walkout at the Boston General Assembly in his autobiography:
There were two most shocking moments for me in the Assembly. One occurred when a young black delegate took one of the floor microphones forcibly, put it under his coat, and wouldn’t release it. I had not expected ever to see that kind of act at one of our meetings. . . . The second shock came during a speech [by the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, Greeley’s successor as minister of the Arlington Street Church in Boston, vice-chair of the Black Affairs Council, and cochair of Greeley’s presidential campaign. Mendelsohn] indicated that he was discouraged and was going to leave the Assembly, boycott it, and anybody who wanted to leave with him was welcome to. . . . Here was my minister, walking out on my administration and my Board and my Assembly (and his), and going over to my church (and his) for a rump session or to form a dissident or splinter group.
Greeley later led a delegation that went to Arlington Street Church and persuaded the dissidents to return the next day.
Mendelsohn remembers the events differently. Insisting that he knew of no prior plans for a walkout, he recalls in an interview that:
Almost all of the 200–300 black delegates who were there got up and walked out. There was such confusion and turmoil over that that a recess was called, and I went to find out where the hell they were. I found them in a room at the Statler. They were saying goodbye to one another; they were in tears; they were broken; they were going home because they felt nobody had left with them. I asked them to give me an opportunity to go back [to the GA] and ask for the right to speak. I went to [Moderator] Joe Fisher and asked for a point of personal privilege to tell the delegates what was happening to our black members. . . . I said, ‘I’m going over to Arlington Street Church, and I’d be glad to have any of you who want to join me so we can consider what we can do about this.’ And as I walked off the podium, one of my honored colleagues got up and spit in my face.
Not only friendships but even families were put to the test. Marcia McBroom, director of religious education at New York’s Community Church, was standing in a line at the Boston GA wearing her BAWA button when the man in front of her turned around. It was her father, wearing an equally prominent BUUC badge. They ended up in a heated argument. The Rev. Donald S. Harrington, minister emeritus of the Community Church of New York, recalls a congregational meeting that took up the request of a local black affairs caucus for a separate caucus room. An African American congregational leader said, “I came to this church in 1915 because it was an unsegregated church. If we divide along racial lines for one minute, I’ll run out that door and you’ll never see me again.”
Nor did things calm down after GA. Lawrence Ladd, now the UUA’s Financial Advisor and then a UU youth leader, recalls arriving at a board meeting in January 1970 where budget cuts were being discussed, a scene he describes as “unparalleled at any past meetings.” President West had moved the meetings, which Greeley had held in the president’s office, to a larger room to accommodate observers. According to Ladd, “The seats for observers were all filled, so that most of the . . . people lined the walls of the meeting room, surrounding the trustees and literally peering over their shoulders. . . . The tension of this drama mounted from the opening session until the [adjournment] vote just before 5 p.m.” And West recalls the day a television crew came to interview him about BAC, and a BAC leader, having got wind of it, invaded his office and preempted the cameras, never giving West a chance to speak.
Perhaps it was such confrontations that the Rev. Dwight Brown, a former parish minister and district executive, has in mind when he recalls that he voted for BAC funding in Cleveland but not the next year, having come to feel that BAC’s intransigence was hurting its cause. On the other hand, Norman, while conceding that “to divide the denomination is never a good thing, if [the controversy] was the only way to shake us up to understand what the issues were, I’d say it was a good thing.” And Jack, who in a sense had paved the way for the controversy by agreeing to set aside a meeting room for black delegates at the Biltmore, wound up stating in a 1969 letter to a FULLBAC supporter that he still believed in black power “but not in the antics of its supporters, white and black, in our denomination.” Indeed, at one point he called their tactics “fascist.”
The ‘what ifs’
Reviewing these events, it’s the “what ifs” that make you want to cry. What if the UUA powers-that-were had not been quite so fixed in their paternalistic civil rights attitudes? What if BUUC leaders had been content with recognition and funding and had not also insisted on “not one penny for BAWA”? What if BAWA supporters, for their part, had not reacted to the caucus as if their lives were being questioned? And what if FULLBAC leaders had used the trust they won from the BUUC supporters to build bridges? Even at this late date, just raising these apparently reasonable questions can anger partisans of the controversy. The one thing they all seem to agree on is that no compromise was possible.
Is there a summing up? The trouble is that there’s not one, but many—almost as many as there are surviving participants. Here are two, both from UUs deeply involved from the beginning of the controversy, but on opposite sides of the issues.
Jeanette Hopkins chaired one of the committees at the Biltmore conference. “I knew from the moment I arrived that there was going to be trouble,” she says. “The radical blacks from Los Angeles were accorded double representation when they registered, as if they were equivalent to two people.” Also, Robert’s Rules of Order were applied selectively. “It was the height of white condescension and paternalism. It was also a cynical effort to control the outcome.”
But what upset her most was the pressure brought to bear on the blacks who had been long-term members of UU churches to make them join the black caucus. “They were ostracized and criticized in the most horrifying way.” When the meeting divided along racial lines, Hopkins resigned, issuing a statement that read in part: “The conference. . . . seems to be alien to the Unitarian and Universalist movements. . . . If this is the best we can offer, [we] face the possibility of being judged irrelevant in this time.”
And this is what, still today, she considers the great tragedy of the controversy.
“Obviously there was total racial injustice in our country, and still is. But we, who ought to have been the most sophisticated on matters related to racial justice, instead took a position that was both naïve and cynical. We were patronizing and paternalistic, betraying the blacks who had all along been members of our churches. They were treated like dirt, and that’s part of the reason we have never done what we should have to integrate our churches.
“The sore is still there and has never been lanced. As a denomination, we did not live up to our great tradition. We, who should have been a model in the fight against racial injustice, instead spent our energies fighting among ourselves.”
In contrast, UUA trustee Norma Poinsett, a 42-year member of First Unitarian Church of Chicago who voted for BAC at the Cleveland General Assembly and served on the Commission on Appraisal during part of the time it was studying the empowerment controversy, says in a recent interview, “There are so many interpretations as to why the denomination got cold feet at the Seattle GA [in 1970]. Some say it was financial problems; some say it was the issue about audit reports. I still believe that they really didn’t like the idea of black people deciding what to do with the money. The denomination felt that it was a ‘nice’ thing to do, maybe even the right thing to do [to support BAC], but they didn’t want to be inconvenienced by it.” But, she points out, “I didn’t leave. I stayed on. I knew enough about the UUA to understand some of the frustrations, that everything moves so slowly, that you don’t change minds that fast. Anyway, I wasn’t a Unitarian Universalist because I thought they were nonracist. I was a member because of what the religion means to me.” Noting the UUA’s more recent antiracism efforts, she says she feels vindicated in staying on. “Yes, we still have far to go,” she says, “but everything is much fairer.”
- Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism. Ed. by Mark Morrison-Reed. Skinner House, 2011. (UUA Bookstore)
- The Long Challenge: The Empowerment Controversy (1967-1977). By Victor Carpenter. Meadville Lombard Press, 2004. (UUA Bookstore)