Monday, February 2, 2009

UU History: What about Race? (February 1, 2009)

The history of race relations in this country is like a wound that has not fully healed. The historic landmarks of both the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United States of America electing their first African American presidents certainly go a long way toward healing the old wounds, but we know that white privilege has not disappeared from this country or from this denomination. Today I want to look at our Unitarian Universalist history through the filter of race, so we can see how far we have come, and work remains for us to do.

This history starts at the time of the most grievous wound- with the removal of African people from their homeland, and the sale of human beings into bondage. When Universalism was born, slavery was still practiced in the United States, and so it was a concern when the Universalists first came together as a convention in 1790. As they adopted articles of faith, church governance, and resolutions on Social justice, they declared as a body “We believe it to be inconsistent with the union of the human race… to hold any part of our fellow-creatures in bondage’ “We therefore recommend a total refraining from the African trade, and the adoption of prudent measures for the gradual abolition of slavery.”

In the 1820s and 30s, slavery was roundly condemned from pulpits and by members of Universalist Congregations. Still, for those first 50 years of Universalism, the denomination never took any collective action. It wasn’t until 1840 the first Anti-Slavery Convention was held in Massachusetts. They passed 12 resolutions including the right to “reform error in practice and law’ by peaceful means.” 3 years later, the General Convention voted on behalf of the whole denomination that they understood slavery to be “contrary to the plainest dictates of the natural justice and Christian love, … [and to ] that doctrine of Universal Grace and Love which we cherish as the most important of revealed truth.”

Many Universalists were thrilled by the public passage of this resolution, but predictably the Universalists of the Deep South felt disenfranchised. The South Carolina Convention protested “any interference with the subject of negro Slavery by the people of those States where it does not exist; and we solemnly protest against any action on that subject by the brethren of our order.” It looked for a while like the Universalists were going to split over the issue, but the spirit of inclusively held our denomination through that difficult period of division. Despite this dissent, the movement for abolition grew throughout our denomination. In 1843 the General Convention condemned slavery with only one dissent.

According to historian Charles Howe, the Universalists had an advantage over the Unitarians whose congregations were filled with leaders in the textile industry. Howe reports that ‘When the fugitive slave Thomas Sims was captured in Boston in 1851, William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator reported “The bells of the Orthodox, Methodist and Universalist churches in Waltham were tolled on Saturday when the news of the man stealing was received. The bell on the Unitarian Church being clogged with cotton would not sound.”

It is said that Unitarian minister Theodore Parker wrote his sermons with a gun and a sword nearby so that he could protect the runaway slaves he was hiding. There are plenty of stories like this of heroism of Unitarians and Universalists that we can be proud of, but when we look carefully at our history, we see that (in the words of former UUA president Bill Schulz) “UU was also the faith claimed by Millard Fillmore, the President who signed the Fugitive Slave Law; … and Ezra Stiles Gannett, who pleaded from his pulpit for its enforcement. “Yes, “said Parker of Gannett, “he is calling on his church members to kidnap mine…” for by this time our congregations had welcomed their first African American members, though they were few in number.

After the war, the Northern Universalists put their attention on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th amendment. Both Unitarians and Universalists assisted the AME church and were the only denominations to do so. In 1889 Joseph Jordan, the first ordained African American Universalist Minister started a mission in Norfolk VA. But over the next hundred years, fewer than 2 dozen African American ministers were fellowshipped by either denomination. The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed who served our congregation in Rochester for many years wrote a landmark book in 1980 documenting the story of two of those ministers. Morisson-Reed makes the point that the obstacles encountered by Brown and McGee were typical of what African-American persons experienced pursuing ministry in our tradition; some were discouraged from even trying, others persisted without any significant institutional support and all dealt with unconscious institutional racism. As America entered the 1950s only 3 African American ministers were settled in congregations.

In the 1950s and 1960s Unitarians and Universalists were once again engaged in the battle for civil rights. One of the Leading congregations was the All Souls Church in DC who worked against the segregation of the Police Boys Club and started an integrated program in 1953. Their minister A. Powell Davies posted a list of integrated restaurants and requested that members eat only at those restaurants. In 1963 the GA in Chicago defeated a resolution requiring that congregations adopt a non-discrimination clause. A resolution “encouraging” a non-discrimination clause passed and the Commission on Religion and Race was formed.

Unitarian Universalists, both black and white, participate in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Viola Liuzzo, a white member of the UU church in Detroit had traveled to Selma to be part of the struggle. She was helping drive local marchers home when she was shot and killed by members of the KKK. James Reeb, a white UU minister who had traveled to Selma to participate in the march, and encouraged his congregation to do the same was beaten to death by a white mob in Selma. Martin Luther King preached at Reeb’s memorial service.

Encouraged by the Black Empowerment movement, Black Unitarian Universalists said “enough” to the slow progress within our movement. In 1967 a Black UU Caucus was formed and presented a list of demands in an emergency Conference in NYC, and then to the UUA board of trustees. The demands were that a Black Affairs Council (BAC) be elected by the Caucus and be funded for 4 years at $250,000 per year for 4 years (%12 of the UUA annual budget). The UUA board was divided between the philosophies of black empowerment and integration. Eventually old committees and funds were replaced with the UU Fund for Racial Justice, now with a budget of $300,000 per year.

A new group formed called Black and White Action, (or BAWA) which opposed the tactics of Black Affairs Council which they considered separatist and undemocratic. At General Assembly that May a vote was passed to commit one million dollars over 4 years to the Black Affairs COuncil. The next month it is discovered that all the UUA’s unrestricted endowment funds had been spent; There was not enough money even to fund current UUA operations. Despite this crunch the UUA Board voted to fully fund BAC and to also give $50,000 to BaWa.

At GA that next summer, the Black UU Caucus expressed their feeling that funding an integrationist group like BAWA undermined Empowerment. During plenary discussion about around funding and about the agenda procedures, the Caucus walked out. Jack Mendelssohn, Black Affairs Council vice chair and minister of the Arlington Street Church writes “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 … they were. I found them in a room at the Statler [hotel]. 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.’” President Greeley later led a delegation that went to Arlington Street Church and persuaded the dissidents to return the next day.

When funding for the whole UUA was under-budget, the board recommend that BAC funding be spread out over 5 years instead of 4. The Caucus felt betrayed, and that this board decision did not honor the vote at the General Assembly, and so in April they voted to disaffiliate so they can raise their own fund. In 1970 at the Seattle GA a motion to restore full funding to BAC was defeated. Says the Commission on Appraisals “The Majority of White UU did not accept the responsibility to understand, nurture, and own the program they had dared to embrace in Cleveland in 1968”

The controversy discouraged any real conversation about race for some time I think. Then in 1980 the UUA decided to undertake a Racism Audit, and in an unrelated decision the Commission on Appraisals, a UU watchdog group that is elected by the General Assembly, chose to focus on the Black Empowerment controversy which was still tender and painful to many, in hope that some growth and understanding could be achieved by their work. In 1983 they published “Empowerment: One Denomination’s Quest for Racial Justice” in which they observe that though many Unitarian Universalists had worked doggedly, often putting their lives on the line working for racial justice, “the institution… has been unable to act effectively and frequently has been unable even to condemn injustice through an official stand.” [p. 11]
In 1981 the UUA Board of Trustees resolved "to eliminate racism in all its institutional structures, policies, practices, and patterns of behavior, so that it will become a racially equitable institution and can make an effective contribution toward achieving a similarly equitable society." For the first time, it instituted an affirmative action policy. In 1985 the General Assembly voted to establish The Black Concerns Working Group to help congregations learn about racism and to fight it, but the initial budget was only $5000. African American UU Ministries, with a focus on recruiting more ministers of color were founded, and a staff position was created called “Advocate for Racial Inclusiveness and Director for International Congregations” with a primary focus on combating racism. I believe this was the first position of its kind at the UUA.

In 1993 More than 50 UU leaders met in St. Louis and reached a consensus that integration and efforts to diversify have not ended racism and that the UUA should focus on antiracism. This was a turning point throughout the UUA and the seminaries. We could no longer think of racism as an issue that people of color had to deal with. Once we accepted the relity of white privilege, white UUs realize they have their own work to do before our denomination can really be an inclusive home for all.
A report developed over five years by the UUA Racial and Cultural Diversity Task Force entitled “Journey Towards Wholeness—The Next Step: From Racial and Cultural Diversity to Anti-Oppression and Anti-Racist Multiculturalism” brought a resolution which acknowledged that “our history as Unitarian Universalists includes evidence of both great commitment and individual achievement in the struggle for racial justice as well as the failure of our Unitarian Universalist institutions to respond fully to the call for justice” They called for all UUs and UU institutions work to dismantle Racism and required the UUA board to "establish a committee to monitor and assess our transformation as an antiracist, multicultural institution"; And so The Journey Toward Wholeness (JTW) team was formed.
It was around this time that we started to notice that Race is not just a Black and White issue. In 1995 Luuna founded to support Latino and Latina UUs, to encourage Latino/Latina participation, and to increase the knowledge their culture and heritage within the UUA.

Founder Younk Kim writes about the formation of another UU identity group. “The idea for a group of Asian and Pacific Islanders Unitarian Universalists began to bounce around in my head in 1993. At that point I received exposure to the UUA’s antiracism efforts, which approached the issue from a Black/White perspective. While useful, I found this Black/White-only concentration to be frustrating, as my own experiences seemed to have a unique twist… I also found that many UUs seemed to believe that Asian Americans didn’t experience racism.”
In 1997 DRUUMM, (which stands for stands for Diverse & Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries) was formed. People of Color working with the Journey Toward Wholeness felt the need to affirm and strengthen the racially diverse community within Unitarian Universalism. A diverse group of UU religious professionals realized that all UU People of Color needed to meet and form religious community with one another and so DRUUMM is a vital ministry in our UU movement today.
Then at the 2001 General Assembly Kim invited every Asian American person he saw, even asking complete strangers “Excuse me … are you a UU?” to convene at that General Assembly. He writes “Three of us sat on some rusty folding chairs by the message boards, and talked about our experiences.” This was the seed that formed the Asian/ Pacific Islander Caucus of DRUUMM.
In 1999 The Presidential Commission on Race recognized Journey Towards Wholeness as one of the nation's 100 best racial justice efforts. By this time Persons of color among UU ministers now number 45, including not only African Americans but also Latinos and Latinas, Asians, and Native Americans.

At the opening Ceremonies of GA it has become customary for a representative of the first nations people from the host land to speak. In 2006there were no greetings from the Osage people who were native to the area, but were driven to Oklahoma in the 19th century. When approached by someone with ties to their tribe, they responded, "Why should we drive four hours to come to St. Louis to speak to your Assembly for two minutes so you all can feel better about yourselves? We have our own issues in our own communities that we need to deal with. We are not going to carry your water for you. This is your work, and you need to do it."
This is our work and we need to do it. No matter what our color, we are all needed as we journey towards wholeness.
The story about our how we as a movement have responded to racial injustice over our 200 years bends slowly towards justice. I am glad this denomination has made the choice to stop being reactive, and to carry our own water towards anti-racism. Bill Sinkford, our UUA President, said as he addressed the General Assembly in 2005: "it is still the case that the most frequently asked question I receive as I travel the country is how we can become more racially and culturally diverse. My response, always, is that the objective of finding a few more dark faces to make our white members feel better about themselves is not spiritually grounded. Nor will it be successful. Racial and cultural diversity will, I pray, come to Unitarian Universalism. But it will come as we become known as a faith community that strives to live our open hearted theology, and a faith community that is willing to be an ally in the struggle for justice."

I am joyful and hopeful in the knowledge that both our denomination and our country elected persons of color to their highest offices, and I have hope that President Obama will serve our country as honorably and compassionately as Rev. Bill Sinkford has served the UUA. But our work is not done. My hope is that the pride and joy we feel about these landmarks in history will bring enough healing, enough hope, to bolster us to for the rest of the journey. Let us travel together to that land where people of all colors and cultures can worship together, and may we Unitarian Universalists be leaders on the way. Come and go with me to that land.


1) Charles A. Howe. The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism. Skinner House Books, 1993.
2) Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice. UUA.
3) Much of the post Civil War Timeline comes from "The Unitarian and Universalist Racial Diversity Timeline" 1784-2001.
4)The timeline for the Black Empowerment Controversy is taken largely from In Their Own Words: A conversation with Participants in the Black Empowerment Movement Within the Unitarian Universalist Association, January 20 2001. Ed. Alicia McNary Forsey.
5) Warren Ross, The World: The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association “The UUA Meets Black Power: BAC vs. BAWA, 1967-1971” March/April 2000.
6) Toward an Anti-Racist Unitarian Universalist Association,
7) “How Did DRUUMM get started”
8) Young Kim, “How We Began” March 2005,

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