Unitarian Universalist Ministers of the Deep South - Brief Introductory
by Gordon Gibson
* Clif Hoffman had been the American Unitarian Association regional
director of an area stretching from Dallas to Richmond and became
District Exec for the Southeast after merger in 1961. He nurtured and
supported a couple of generations of ministers across that area.
* Alfred Hobart served our congregations in New Orleans and Charleston,
and then became the founding minister of the Birmingham, Alabama,
Church. He worked quietly and courageously in that hottest of all hot
spots. For example, when the Alabama Education Association disinvited
John Ciardi, poetry editor of the Saturday Review, because he had
published an attack on Jim Crow, Al Hobart invited him to speak to a
non-segregated audience at the Unitarian Church, which Ciardi did.
* Albert D'Orlando hung in for 31 years as minister of the First
Unitarian Church of New Orleans, surviving the process of fully
desegregating an established southern congregation, and also surviving
the bombing of both the church and his home. He and the church
established a "Freedom Fund" which distributed over $25,000 to help
with legal expenses and living expenses of those who fought
* Jim Brewer went to Norfolk, Virginia, as his second settlement as a
Unitarian minister. He was there during the crisis period when there
was talk of closing the public schools rather than desegregating them
on even a token basis, and he led a local effort that swung public
opinion behind keeping the schools open.
* Dick Henry, Bob West, and Ken MacLean each gave notable leadership in
Knoxville in this era, with Bob West there during the time of sit-ins.
A Presbyterian observer/participant of the sit-ins wrote of him, "Bob
is a wiry young man whose keen mind quickly pierces to the heart of a
problem. I have a great deal of admiration for him -- almost enough now
to quit wishing he were a Presbyterian."
* Glen Canfield, Ed Cahill, and Gene Pickett served the Unitarian
Universalist Congregation of Atlanta through these years. There had
been a predecessor congregation with a clear policy of segregation, at
least for a little while, and so it was not a clean, fresh start. Even
with the announced intention in 1952 of breaking from that past, there
were the agonies of meeting in rented quarters that did not permit real
desegregation, much less integration, of the new congregation at the
outset. Despite the delay this caused, the congregation very quickly
developed a very strong operation as an integrated institution that
worked actively on issues of racial justice. Atlanta was one of three
cities in the South where the Unitarian Service Committee funded a
staff member whose job was to start a bi-racial Human Relations
Council. There were close personal and institutional ties between this
congregation and Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King family. For
example, I heard that Atlanta performances of the Metropolitan Opera
were desegregated by means of a white Atlanta Unitarian Universalist,
Jerry Reed, buying tickets for Coretta Scott King.
* Ed Cahill also served with vigor and distinction in Charlotte, North
Carolina, before going to Atlanta. In Charlotte, the congregation's
ringing affirmation of an open membership policy was reported in the
newspapers on the same day in 1954 that the Supreme Court handed down
its decision on school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education.
* Sid Freeman went from being a Professor at Sweet Briar College in
Virginia to being minister of the Charlotte, North Carolina,
congregation 1957 to 1989. He was active in sit-ins and the
congregation housed the area's first integrated pre-school, which
continues even today.
* Spencer Lavan, later President and Dean of Meadville/Lombard
Theological School, had Charleston, South Carolina, as his first
settlement, 1962-64. It was not an easy or comfortable time. One member
of the Vestry ("board") was a vocal member of the John Birch Society
who actively questioned both Spencer and his predecessor's support of
what were by Birch Society standards "Communist" causes. In June of
1963 Spencer wrote the manager of one local hotel deploring the arrest
of African-Americans seeking to use the hotel's facilities, and he
reported that the District Ministers Association had moved their next
year's meeting to a different hotel. Unfortunately, two of the owners
of the offending hotel happened to be members of the Charleston church.
That was the downside, but there was an upside too. During Spencer's
two years in Charleston there was at least one folk concert presented
in the church's parish house by Guy and Candie Carawan, friends of the
church, and important as people who taught singing to various groups in
the Civil Rights Movement. Guy Carawan in particular is identified as
one of the people, along with Pete Seeger, in the line of transmission
that transformed a song called, "I'll Be Alright," into the Movement
anthem, "We Shall Overcome."
* Bob Palmer, the first settled minister of our Nashville congregation,
is recalled by the Rev. Will Campbell, who served as the National
Council of Churches' chaplain to the civil rights movement, as, "a
tough and noble soul." Another evaluation of Palmer comes in a story
recounted by church member Ray Norris, who for a time served as Acting
Dean at the George Peabody College for Teachers. Peabody had
desegregated its graduate level programs, but on the undergraduate
level and in its laboratory school it was still segregated. The
President of the college wanted to change this and carefully calculated
the votes available, even having a dying Board member ready to come by
ambulance from Knoxville if his vote was needed. The Board voted to
desegregate the undergraduate programs immediately and the
Demonstration School the following year, but the newspapers simply
reported that the vote had been to desegregate both programs. The
President left for Europe immediately after the meeting and Ray Norris
was left with the designation of "Acting President." The first day of
summer school Ray got a call from the Principal of the Demonstration
School saying that a black man had come to register his son for the
School and the man wanted to talk to someone with more authority than
the Principal. Ray said to send the man up. The man in question turned
out to be the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church
and the pre-eminent black preacher in Nashville. Ray Norris began by
apologizing for his embarrassment in having to decline the
registration, and he explained that in order to get the change through
the Board they had had to postpone a year the Demonstration School
desegregation. The Rev. Kelly Miller Smith asked, "Where do you go to
church?" Ray said, "I'm a member of the First Unitarian Church." Smith
said, "You're one of Bob Palmer's boys. Okay, I believe you. Now, would
it help or hurt if I were to put some demonstrators in front of that
school down there?" Ray Norris assured him that it would hurt, and so
there were no demonstrations. All this on the strength of Norris being
"one of Bob Palmer's boys."
* Charles Blackburn had a short and intense settlement in Huntsville,
Alabama, which included his jailing in McComb, Mississippi,
participation in two marches in Selma, and various local civil rights
activities in Huntsville 1964-66.
* Greta Crosby had a part-time ministry in Lynchburg, Virginia, 1962-66.
Using her knowledge as a graduate of Harvard Law School as well as
Meadville/Lombard Theological School she wrote a letter to the editor
about issues of fairness in the rape trials of an African American man.
Although she had signed only her name, the editor of the newspaper
appended her church affiliation and life became controversial for a
time. She was also active as Secretary of the Virginia Council on Human
Relations, again, not without some controversy.
Southern Unitarian Universalists in the Civil Rights Era -
A Story of Small Acts of Great Courage
A Presentation by the Rev. Gordon D. Gibson
under auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society
at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association
June 23, 2000, Nashville, Tennessee
What was it like to be a Unitarian Universalist living in the Deep South in
the Civil Rights era? For many people on many days it was much the same as
being a Unitarian Universalist anywhere in the U.S. during the 1950s and
1960s. But sometimes it became more complicated and less comfortable than
When Paul and Thelma Worksman moved from the Washington area to Mississippi
they bought a house in Clinton, just west of Jackson. Paul was on the front
lawn, supervising the unloading of the moving van, when a car pulled up. A
man emerged from the car, walked up to Paul and introduced himself as the
minister of the Morrison Heights Baptist Church. He invited the Worksmans to
attend Morrison Heights Baptist. Paul thanked him for the invitation but
said that they would be attending the Unitarian Universalist Church in
Jackson. The man hesitated a moment and then said, "You know they shot the
minister of that church."
We all remember the Rev. James Reeb, fatally injured during the voting
rights campaign in Selma, but some southern Unitarian Universalists have
especially vivid and poignant memories. The Rev. Charles Blackburn, a native
southerner serving the Huntsville, Alabama, Fellowship, remembers telling
northern colleagues, including Reeb, that they were safe within the
neighborhood right around Brown's Chapel A.M.E. Church but not outside it; a
few hours later Reeb was attacked after eating in a African American
restaurant outside that immediate neighborhood. Jean Levine of Atlanta
remembers that Reeb had his suitcase in the trunk of her car that afternoon,
ready to go back to the Atlanta airport, but then pulled the suitcase out to
stay another day or two. H.A. "Bob" Ross, then of Miami, remembers sitting
at dinner with Reeb, but turning left as he departed the restaurant and
later hearing on the car radio that Reeb, who had turned right, had been
attacked and critically injured.
In Baton Rouge in 1955 a service on the lynching of Emmett Till was attended
by about ten "southern gentlemen," dressed in dark suits and dark hats. That
was almost half the attendance that day. A few months later the YWCA told
the congregation that the space they had been renting for services was
needed for YWCA programming, although there was no evidence of the Y doing
any new programming in that space for years to come.
In Knoxville in 1952 the Ohio State Symphonic Choir, scheduled to sing at
the University of Tennessee, could not be fed on campus because it was an
integrated group. The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church fed the visiting
Those are a few vignettes. What was the larger picture?
If you looked at the Deep South -- the states that had formed the
Confederacy -- a century or a century and a half ago, you would have seen a
scattering of Universalist congregations in each state, but many states with
no Unitarian presence. This meant that the South in the 1950s and 1960s, the
civil rights era, was to a great extent just beginning to encounter
Universalist and Unitarian ideas and persons with much frequency. This was a
fateful time for liberal ideas and principles to be coming to the fore in
this part of the world. The dominant social ideas of the South in the 1950s
and 1960s were of control, continuity, conformity, hierarchy. The ethos and
core of Unitarianism and Universalism elevated values of freedom, personal
responsibility, unfettered truth-seeking, and affirmation of human dignity.
The dominant values of this religious movement were, to put it mildly, in
conflict with the dominant values of the region. That conflict is what I
will be talking about.
The Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s was a place of undeniable charm and a
place of significant repression. The South had been hit desperately hard by
the Depression. Roosevelt's recovery programs, the economic stimulus of the
war years, and related factors were bringing change to the South. But change
was not welcome in all its manifestations. Economic change unsettled some
people. Racial change, which was increasingly talked about and sometimes
enacted, was deeply troubling to many white southerners. John Egerton, a
native southerner and a wise and discerning observer of the region, has
" . . . it was precisely these problems of racial and regional
inequality -- the one sustaining the other -- that festered
beneath the surface of midcentury life in the region. In no remote
sense could these be thought of as new problems. For nearly
seventy-five years -- since the end of Reconstruction -- the
political and economic rulers in the states of the Old Confederacy
had gradually tightened their oligarchic grip until their control
was more secure than it had ever been, even in the days of
slavery. With the indulgence and complicity of their Yankee
conquerors, they had locked the black minority in a straitjacket
of segregation and built a self-perpetuating hierarchy based on
political, economic, religious, and racial monopoly."
Another observer, also a lover of the South, was Professor James W. Silver
of the University of Mississippi. In November of 1963 he gave an address as
the retiring President of the Southern Historical Association. That address
expanded into his 1964 book, Mississippi: The Closed Society. In that book
There are parallels between the 1850's and the 1950's which remind
us that Mississippi has been on the defensive against inexorable
change for more than a century, and that by the time of the Civil
War it had developed a closed society with an orthodoxy accepted
by nearly everybody in the state. The all-pervading doctrine, then
and now, has been white supremacy, whether achieved through
slavery or segregation, rationalized by a professed belief in
state rights and bolstered by religious fundamentalism. In such a
society a never-ceasing propagation of the "true faith" must go on
relentlessly, with a constantly reiterated demand for loyalty to
the united front, requiring that non-conformists and dissenters
from the code be silenced, or, in a crisis, driven from the
community. Violence and the threat of violence have confirmed and
enforced the image of unanimity.
This, then, is the essence of the closed society. For whatever
reason, the community sets up the orthodox view. . . . When there
is no effective challenge to the code, a mild toleration of
dissent is evident, providing the non-conformist is tactful and
does not go too far. But with a substantial challenge from the
outside -- to slavery in the 1850's and to segregation in the
1950's -- the society tightly closes its ranks, becomes inflexible
and stubborn, and lets no scruple, legal or ethical, stand in the
way of the enforcement of the orthodoxy. The voice of reason is
stilled and the moderate either goes along or is eliminated.
In short, the South, ruled by a white power structure and pervaded by an
ideology widely shared by its white residents, was facing a crisis in ideas
and in social patterns at just the time that Unitarians, Universalists, and
soon Unitarian Universalists began to be a visible and contrarian presence
after World War II. The white South felt besieged and was in a mood to
strike back at those perceived as agents of change, as "outside agitators,"
or as "traitors." Persons operating on the principles that were inherent to
Universalism, Unitarianism, and then Unitarian Universalism were almost
inevitably a challenge to southern mores and social patterns.
What was the result of this conflict? The result could have been Unitarian
Universalists fading away, retreating yet again from the South even as the
Unitarians in particular had previously avoided the South.
The result could have been Unitarian Universalists finding that
accommodation to society was really more important than their own professed
values; this was certainly something that had happened in many other
Either of these results would have been understandable, and in some
instances one or both happened. There were places where Unitarian
Universalists folded their tents and silently stole away in the night. There
were Unitarian Universalists who accommodated deeply to the dominant
society, maintaining only a mild and intensely private religious deviation
from the social norm.
The most typical response, however, was for Unitarian Universalists to learn
how to live in some degree of tension between their core beliefs on the one
hand and, on the other hand, the beliefs and practices deemed acceptable by
southern society. If the society was closed, we were a place of openness.
This stance was not easy to maintain. It led some congregations and many
individuals to what I would characterize as "small acts of great courage." I
spent two months of my sabbatical this year collecting stories of these
"small acts of great courage." Why did I spend my time this way? Because I
am a Unitarian Universalist, with three prior and one succeeding generation
of my family in this faith. Because I am a native southerner, born and
raised in the border South (Kentucky) and for 15 years (1969-1984) being the
Unitarian Universalist minister in Mississippi. Because my couple of weeks
in Selma, including a week in jail, make me, in a small way, a veteran of
the Movement. Because this is history which, for the most part, was not
written down as it was created, and is thus at great risk of being lost to
us if we do not soon capture some of these "small acts of great courage"
while some of the actors are still alive.
In a few minutes I want to share more of those stories with you, but as a
setting for those stories, I would like to outline a typical or generic
congregational history in the South. I think that that may begin to help you
understand some of the unique aspects of the tension between liberal
religious institutions and the broader southern society thirty to fifty
The first step in the typical history of a southern congregation in 1950 or
1955 was not that different from one in Minnesota, Arizona, or California.
Someone from the American Unitarian Association, very likely Fellowship
Director Munroe Husbands, would have come to town. That person would have
collected names through an ad placed in local newspapers, from Church of the
Larger Fellowship membership, through the Layman's League "Are You a
Unitarian Without Knowing It?" ads, and from other sources. A meeting would
be held, probably in a hotel function room. If there were ten or more people
eager to have a congregation, they would be encouraged to charter themselves
and apply for recognition as a fellowship, a small, lay-led congregation.
There would be a modest but steady flow of supportive material from
headquarters in Boston, and ready response to correspondence.
The fellowship would begin to meet, perhaps at first in the living rooms of
members, but soon outgrowing that and finding public space that it could
rent or borrow. And, more frequently in the South than elsewhere, the
fellowship would be asked to move. It might be religious prejudice: "You are
not Christian." It often was because the fellowship did not exclude people
from attendance because of race. With the first African American visitors
the YMCA, or hotel, or school, or whatever would announce a moving date.
Some congregations went through half a dozen or a dozen meeting places.
Eventually, if this was a growing congregation, they would purchase or build
their own building and/or would call a minister. These two steps
intertwined, then as now. Both gave stability and maturity to a
congregation. With a meeting place that they owned, the congregation no
longer had anyone else policing their attendance or membership policies.
With a minister, they generally found they had a consistent voice of
conscience, which was heard in the wider community.
Finally, the congregation, now with full church status, would undertake a
fuller level of programming. There might be a regular community forum. They
might broadcast on the radio. Many members would work to form a local Human
Relations Council, and often the Unitarian Universalist Church would be the
only place, at least on the white side of town, where the integrated Human
Relations Council could meet. In a number of instances, RE classrooms would
be put to use during the week for a pre-school that would offer the only
racially integrated learning situation in town. Depending on the
congregation and on the issues in the local community, there might be an
explicit support of African American demands for justice and equity.
Now that is an idealized schema. No one congregation followed exactly that
trajectory. Nashville's variations on this institutional theme are
instructive and cautionary.
Our General Assembly host congregation here in Nashville stayed close to the
typical story that I outlined. Let me, however, mention a messy interlude.
In 1951 Munroe Husbands of the American Unitarian Association Fellowship
Office heard that the Nashville Fellowship had adopted a verbal agreement
"that if a Negro should wish to become a member, or worship with" the
Fellowship "he would be informed that his presence was not wanted." Husbands
fired off a letter of inquiry, noting that he had found their by-laws
proclaiming as one purpose "brotherhood undivided by nation, race or creed,"
and so he hoped that what he had heard was incorrect. The President of the
When we formed this Fellowship at one of our meetings this
question came up and someone had said there were several
Unitarians connected with Fisk University and they might offer to
attend our Fellowship services. We discussed the matter pro and
con and finally decided that if we allowed negroes (sic) to become
a (sic) member of our Fellowship that we might as well stop where
we were. You might break the laws of a country and get away with
it but you can't violate its customs without paying the penalty.
Munroe Husbands' reply asked, "Are you in truth living up to your Bylaws? To
avowed Unitarian principles?" He also related his observation of the
experience of other, similar fellowships, noting that Austin, Texas, Little
Rock, Dallas, New Orleans, and Knoxville had open memberships and thrived.
Then he concluded:
I mention the above, for I realize that it is more difficult, due
to generations of "problems," for the Negro and the white to meet
for worship and discussion in the South than in the North. And yet
the Southerners seem to be doing more about it.
Within a couple of years this debate became academic when there were, in
fact, African American members. That couple told me that they think one or
two people quit when they joined. Obviously, for most Nashville Unitarians
it was not a problem. Indeed, many provided outstanding civil rights
The ministers who served these congregations in this era are heroes of mine.
They stood tall when it would have been easier to keep their heads down.
They lived and mostly thrived in places that most of their colleagues avidly
avoided. They grew vibrant congregations. Who were they? In order to keep
this presentation with some time boundaries, I have prepared a handout to
honor in a small way the roster of colleagues who are at least the beginning
of my list. Many of them -- Albert D'Orlando, Alfred Hobart, Clif Hoffman
come to mind -- probably deserve full biographies or at least treatment in
someone's doctoral dissertation, rather than a measly few sentences here.
Read the handout for an understanding of what I mean. But let me give notice
to one undersung hero to whom I feel particularly close.
Donald Thompson served the First Unitarian Church of Jackson, Mississippi,
1963-65. In August of 1965 he was shot by the Ku Klux Klan and critically
injured. A few weeks later the settlement director in the UUA Department of
Ministry wrote inquiring whether "you think the time is now for you to move
to a more comfortable situation or a different climate." Don replied from
his hospital room:
Thanks for your offer of assistance in placement. If any of the
Miss. congregations feel that my presence is a danger to them,
I'll take advantage of your offer.
Otherwise, I feel that I ought to try to stay here for the next
seven or eight years. ("I should live so long.")
I realize that the same night riders may be out to finish the job,
but why have a successor who would also be a target.
The Klan probably is quite upset because, for once, their
execution didn't take. Maybe they'll do something about it. Yet
one cannot live on the basis of fear.
. . . It takes courage in Jackson to join a liberal church. Yet I
believe that my continuing after the shooting incident might
attract some worthwhile members.
As it worked out, a couple of months later Don accepted the advice of local
friends, corroborated by the FBI, and left the state of Mississippi on a few
hour's notice before the Klan again attempted to kill him.
As I said, Don Thompson and the 16 others profiled on the handout are heroes
of mine. But they are not my only heroes or heroines. There were people in
other professions who performed heroically.
Unitarian Universalist physicians were often ahead of the pack. Page Acree
willingly signed public petitions, even knowing that if the names were
listed alphabetically he would probably be at the top of the list. But, he
observes looking back, he was the only heart surgeon in Baton Rouge and so
someone would have to go out of town for treatment in order to boycott him.
Carlton Watkins began his medical practice in Charlotte, North Carolina, in
1946 with a non-segregated waiting room. For many years he was the only
pediatrician serving the only hospital in Charlotte that took African
American patients. This probably helped him get African American votes in
1966 when he was elected to the School Board after he and his wife had each
run unsuccessfully once before. During his service on the School Board he
was a voice for a good desegregation plan for the Charlotte-Mecklenberg
Attorneys who were members or friends of Unitarian Universalist
congregations included a disproportionate number of the white attorneys who
would deal with civil rights cases. For example, in 1953, the first time
that an attempt was made in Montgomery, Alabama, to form a Unitarian
Fellowship, the person elected President was Clifford Durr. Durr and his
wife Virginia rose to prominence (or, in the eyes of some, notoriety) after
1955 as supporters and advisors to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Mr. Durr
later returned to the Presbyterian Church of his upbringing, but both
Clifford and Virginia Durr remained friends of the Fellowship in its later
incarnations. The Fellowship that formed in 1966 and that still exists built
its current building during the congregational presidency of Morris Dees,
our Ware Lecturer this year, although no longer active in that congregation.
In New Orleans, Ben Smith had a general practice of law with some
specialization in labor law. With the advent of the civil rights movement he
began to fill a vacuum that existed, especially in Mississippi, for legal
representation of demonstrators. There were only three or four African
American attorneys in the state of Mississippi in the early 1960s. Once Bill
Higgs, a member of the Jackson congregation, was run out of the state there
were no white attorneys in Mississippi who would take civil rights cases.
Ben Smith, others from his law office, and colleagues from the National
Lawyers Guild helped fill the void. Smith also is notable for hiring the
first African American secretary in the central business district of New
Orleans, something that cost the law firm the renewal of its lease.
So far I have been speaking of Unitarian Universalists of European American
background. There were also Unitarian Universalists of African American
background, some of them publicly well-known and some with a lower profile.
John Frazier became an activist while he was still in high school in
Greenville, Mississippi. He was expelled from that school for insisting that
the principal celebrate the Supreme Court school desegregation decision. He
had arrests in Greenville and Winona, Mississippi. John worked with Medgar
Evers and was the youngest member of the national NAACP Board. While he was
seeking to be the first African American to enroll at the University of
Southern Mississippi he met Buford Posey, a white Unitarian Universalist who
was an alumnus of USM willing to sign John's application for admission
there. Eventually Buford invited John to attend the First Unitarian Church
in Jackson. Subsequently John Frazier attended Crane Theological School of
Tufts University, and was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister in
Two Alabama African American political figures have Unitarian Universalist
ties. Dr. John Cashin, a Huntsville dentist, ran for Mayor of Huntsville and
Governor of Alabama, and led the movement to found the National Democratic
Party of Alabama. Cashin and his late wife Joan were for a time very active
members of the Huntsville Fellowship. In Mobile John LeFlore had a dual
membership, belonging to both an A.M.E. Church and the Unitarian
Universalist Fellowship. He ran for one of Alabama's U.S. Senate seats, and
was serving in the Alabama House of Representatives at the time of his death
A word also needs to be said about children and youth. Over and over again I
heard people who had just described their own actions add the thought, "My
kids paid a lot for what I did." Often the "kids" themselves stood apart
from their schoolmates in their announced attitudes and in overt actions
teen-aged daughter of Peggy and John Fuller of Birmingham. Listen to some
sections of her e-mailed response to my questions to her about her
. . . there is no doubt in my mind that the reason I wanted to
raise my son in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a direct result [of]
my reaction to growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. I'm extremely
proud that my parents took such a role in the Civil Rights
Movement. I'm extremely grateful that Morris Dees continues to
live in Alabama and fight a very important battle. But I just
couldn't. I ran as hard and as fast as I could to a complete safe
haven. But just how safe is Cambridge? I can try to hide but none
of us will ever be safe until all of us are.
When asked what she herself had done, she replied:
This was my sophomore year in high school. I talked to the black
student who desegregated the school. I whole-heartedly supported
my mother when she asked me if we could enter a law suit against
the State of Alabama for closing the schools. As far as I know I
was completely isolated. But I suspect I wasn't as isolated as I
thought. I had friends, timid though they be. There was someone
who came to warn me when a fellow student was waiting outside the
school doors, planning on doing violence against me. The student
who planned the violence was the son of a former Unitarian who
left the church when it became integrated. In fact, there were
three of us Unitarians at the school and one of them wanted to
kill me and the other would avoid me for all she was worth. But
the Unitarian Church was my SANCTUARY. It provided the only really
happy peaceful memories I have. Recreating that experience for my
son has been a real driving force in my life.
Outside of the threat on my life from the fellow student and the
feeling of complete isolation, [a] traumatic event associated with
that particular school year was when I came home late from school
one day because I had Junior Achievement. My Mom had forgotten.
She had received an anonymous phone call, saying that I would be
arriving home in 10 pieces. She was frantic and I was scared.
There were many more traumatic moments that year forever seared
into my brain: the church bombing (I knew one of the children who
was blown up), JFK's assassination (None of my friends cared about
him. They only wanted to know the answer to the algebra test
questions. A teacher led one of my classes in applause.).
And now I'd like to share a few more stories -- stories from the average
(but exceptional) people in the pews (or the folding chairs as the case
often was in the early days).
Horace Montgomery is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of
Georgia. On his apartment wall is a framed memento of something he is proud
of having taken a leading role in. It is an odd memento: an envelope that
arrived with three cents postage due, mailed from Seattle, addressed to "Dr.
Horace Montgomery, Professor of History, Director N.A.A.C.P., University of
Georgia, Athens, Georgia." With the envelope, the typed note that it
contained: "Horace, Judas received 30 pieces of silver for Betraying only
one Man. HOW MUCH DID THE N.A.A.C.P. PAY YOU FOR BETRAYING YOUR RACE? PLEASE
BE THE MAN THAT JUDAS WAS." You see, Horace had led the faculty effort to
keep the University open and the two African-American students enrolled when
there began to be unrest after the University of Georgia desegregated.
Georgia had less difficulty than Alabama or Mississippi where there was no
such clear stance by a majority of the faculty.
On March 6, 1965, the Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, a Lutheran minister and the
Chairman of Concerned White Citizens of Alabama, led a group of 72 white
Alabama registered voters in a march to the Dallas County Courthouse in
Selma, Alabama. On the steps of the Courthouse they read a one page
statement in support of black voting rights. Of the 72 Alabamans in that
group, 36 were Unitarian Universalists.
Some of those 36 were from the Unitarian Church in Birmingham. The events
around Selma were traumatic for that church. A day after the Concerned White
Citizens march there was the first attempt to march to Montgomery, which
ended with the beatings and teargassing known as "Bloody Sunday." The
following Tuesday well over 100 Unitarian Universalists were among the
people who answered Martin Luther King's call to come to Selma for a second
attempt, which proved merely symbolic, marching to the point at which
Sunday's beatings had occurred, praying, and turning around. But that night
three of the Unitarian Universalist participants were attacked and one, Jim
Reeb, fatally injured. Birmingham is where Jim was taken for treatment and
where he died. The UUA Board adjourned its meeting from Boston to Selma.
Hundreds of other Unitarian Universalists came to Selma for the memorial
service and later for the march. The Birmingham Church installed extra phone
lines, met people at the airport, fed people, put people up overnight,
arranged buses. In the midst of this was a Sunday when they were welcoming
25 new members and having a kickoff dinner for their first "by the book"
pledge drive. The tea after church to welcome new members was cut short when
the police appeared to search the building for bombs. Child care during the
canvass dinner was moved out of the church for security reasons. This
pressure stretched over more than two weeks. The church survived. The church
served the larger movement generously and bravely. And the church increased
its pledging by 50%.
I could go on, but I won't. I hope that you understand the tenor of the
stories. And they continue through the Carolinas and Virginia, over into
Louisiana, down into parts of Florida. In most of the places where there
were Unitarian Universalists there were at least some of these stories.
These stories do not mean, "Unitarian Universalists led the civil rights
movement." The Movement was a movement of, by, and for African Americans,
only some of whom were Unitarian Universalist. An accurate history of the
Movement could be written without using the words "Unitarian Universalist."
I think it would be missing some of the details, because there were small
but crucial contributions by individuals and congregations which were
Unitarian Universalist, but it could be done.
Although the overwhelming thrust of the Movement was the liberation of
African Americans, there was a secondary effect, and that was the liberation
of European Americans. Unitarian Universalists were among the first
liberated, and among the key liberators.
What these stories -- stories of congregations, stories of individuals,
stories of acts, small and large, of great courage -- what these stories do
mean is that Unitarian Universalists often provided an early crack in the
"closed society" of the white South. In response to an ideology allied with
religious fundamentalism, we were religiously open and tolerant. In response
to an ideology that depicted some people as of great worth and others as of
little worth, we proclaimed the worth and dignity of all persons.
We were a crack in the "closed society," but not without cost. What was done
was often at a high price for some. Those of us who are white were often too
radical to have much of any support from other whites. But we were also too
white to merit much support or attention from African Americans. There were
psychological scars. There were family ties sundered. There were jobs lost.
There were sometimes physical attacks. Those are very real costs.
But there were benefits as well. The benefits were less tangible, but they
were real. At base, I think the benefit obtained by Unitarian Universalists,
young and old, lay and clergy, was the sense that they were in fact living
out their faith. Their integrity was intact. They were making real some
small part of the ideal world that they imagined.
I see a parallel in what Czech President Vaclav Havel has written about
living under Communism. It is not an exact parallel, but it is close enough
to be suggestive to me. Havel writes:
. . . ethical behavior pays in the long run. To be sure, such
behavior can often lead to suffering, and can't always be expected
to deliver immediate and obviously positive results. . . .Ethical
behavior pays not only for the individual, who may suffer but is
inwardly free and therefore fortunate, but mainly for society, in
which tens and hundreds of lives lived thus can create what might
be called a positive moral environment, a standard, or a
continually revitalized moral tradition or heritage, which
eventually becomes a force for the general good.
In short, I daresay that the basic political lesson taught to us
by life under communism is the recognition that the only kind of
politics that makes sense is a politics that grows out of the
imperative, and the need, to live as everyone ought to live and
therefore -- to put it somewhat dramatically -- to bear
responsibility for the entire world.
"To live as everyone ought to live and therefore . . . to bear
responsibility for the entire world": I think that comes close to what the
actions of southern Unitarian Universalists in the 1950s and 1960s meant,
even when they were undertaken spontaneously and without premeditation.
To help you remember that, let me introduce three homely symbols: a coffee
cup, a telephone, a shoe. There are stories for each, to add to the stories
you have already heard.
The coffee cup is for Virginia Price of Nashville, one of the first people I
interviewed in my sabbatical travels and one of many who were modest about
their contributions. Virginia said, "The main thing that I did was drink
enough coffee to float a battleship." She would go to one of the dime stores
when notified that there would be a sit-in, and take a seat by an African
American person at the counter. The point was to demonstrate that she would
be served while her African American compatriot would be ignored. They might
remain there for several hours. She comments that after a day spent in that
way, she would toss and turn at night, at least partly because of a heavy
caffeine intake. Virginia Price, a nice PTA mom, was one among many
Unitarian Universalists for whom a coffee cup at a lunch counter would be a
The telephone is for the Fuller family, Eve Gerard and Harry Wiersema, Jr.
The Fullers in Birmingham at one point had harassing phone calls coming in
every 13 minutes. Eve Gerard was for many years the secretary of the
Unitarian Church in Birmingham. As secretary she sometimes had to deal with
things not usually in the secretarial job description like the advisability
of inspecting the outside of the church before she went in if it was a time
when there were a lot of church bombings; things like fielding threatening
phone calls. One day she took a call threatening to bomb the church and came
up with the rejoinder: "You'll have to take your turn. There are several
people ahead of you." Harry Wiersema, Jr., grew up in the Tennessee Valley
Unitarian Church in Knoxville with activist parents, and he himself went on
to a career of activism. He told me that when people phoned with threats he
would try to keep them on the line. He would ask them what their motivation
was. Was it religious, as his was? The telephone is for the Fullers, Eve
Gerard, Harry Wiersema, Jr., and hundreds of other Unitarian Universalists
who picked up telephones not knowing what they would hear.
And the shoe is for the many ways that Unitarian Universalists gave feet to
their beliefs. Sometimes it was just the matter of walking into a church
that you knew was religiously and socially not approved by much of the rest
of the community, maybe disapproved of enough to be a potential bombing
target. Sometimes it was walking into work, knowing that you would take some
flak from co-workers or maybe a supervisor for what you or your minister had
said or done. Sometimes it was more dramatic than that. Charles Blackburn
tells me that on Tuesday, March 9, 1965, when the people assembled in Selma
heard that if they marched across the Pettus Bridge it would be in defiance
of a federal court order, each of the 15 people from the Huntsville
Fellowship who were there with him went off to ponder the implications. Each
of these people had a job in the aero-space program, a job that required a
security clearance, the sort of clearance that might be lost by defying a
federal court order. Each one of those people came back to say, "I'm
marching," and so they faced possible injury, death, arrest, or loss of
career. Their faith had more than the vaporous form of a sermon, the empty
elegance of a resolution, the enthusiasm of a weekend workshop. Their faith
had shoes. It walked, perhaps more than it talked.
Think about the coffee cup, the telephone, and the shoe. Think about the
other stories. They capture some of the best of Unitarian Universalism in
the 1950s and the 1960s. They capture some of the best of the South. They
suggest some of the remarkable history of southern Unitarian Universalism.
We have, despite our human flaws and failings, an empowering history. I hope
to find a way to share this history in greater depth and breadth, but I hope
you can begin to sense the power of it. Take this empowering history and use
it to inspire yourself to create solutions to today's problems where you
live as our southern forebears created solutions to the problems when and
where they lived. Take this history. It is, for the most part, a noble and
courageous history. Use it to make some history yourself.