By Annette Marquis
UU Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage: Birmingham, Alabama
Today forty Unitarian Universalists
(UUs) are converging on Birmingham, Alabama. They are arriving from eight
Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) districts representing thirteen states
and one Canadian province. Exactly one-half are ministers and three more are
ministerial candidates. Four are employed by the UUA. A couple, UUA President
Bill Sinkford and UUA Moderator Gini
Courter, were elected by the UUA General Assembly to lead our
Association. All are active in their congregations, their districts and/or our
national organization. Several young adults and a significant number of senior
citizens are part of the group. 25% identify as people of color and 75% identify
as white. Another 25% also identify
as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Although 38% currently live in the
South, only a couple were actually born and raised there. A few claim to have never even visited
the South. So what do all these different people from around the UU
world have in common? All of them are
committed to learning more about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s
and its impact on our 21st century world. Today is the start of the 2009 Unitarian
Universalist Civil Rights Living Legacy Pilgrimage.
The Living Legacy Pilgrimage is
another step on a journey that began over forty years ago when UUs ventured, by
design and by circumstance, into the midst of a revolution, one that is far from
over but that reached an important milestone this past year with election of
Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States.
Rev. Gordon Gibson was one of those UUs
who lived and breathed the Civil Rights Movement.
Gibson, along with his wife, Judy, witnessed the might of peaceful protest as it
stood its ground against a sea of violence and hatred. As a result of their experiences, Gordon
and Judy Gibson have a deep commitment to educating other UUs about this period of
history. They have organized and led four previous civil rights tours.
It was during the tour in 2008 that
the idea for the Living Legacy Pilgrimage was born. Several participants on that
tour, including Rev. Hope Johnson,
Janice Marie Johnson, Annette Marquis, and Rev. Wendy Pantoja, began talking about the
importance of this piece of U.S. and UU history, and asking
questions about how it relates to our current UU commitment to anti-racism and
social justice. Can we claim the
important role we played in this history without addressing the fundamental
questions of how much progress we have made toward becoming an anti-racist,
anti-oppressive, multi-cultural institution? What is the relationship between
our civil rights legacy and the current state of our Association as it relates
We UUs have an incredibly rich legacy
of courage, strength, fortitude, and commitment in the struggle for civil
rights. From James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo—who gave up their lives—and many,
many other UU ministers and lay people who put themselves at risk for this
struggle, we have every right to be proud ofthis piece of our history. But what
the planners of the Living Legacy Pilgrimage decided is that we cannot rest
there. We cannot live on our legacy. We have to find ways to keep that legacy
alive by living in ways that honor these heroes of our faith.
Although many UU congregations are
actively engaged in social justice and anti-racism work, the reality is that our
congregations remain predominately white, middle-class establishments. Somewhere
we have to find the courage to step out of our comfortable lives, out of our
safe congregations, and take the risks we need to take to move us closer to the
world we want to create. It will not
happen if we sit idly by. These people knew that. They put their lives on the
line to make their dreams of a brighter future see the light of
At the 2007 General Assembly in
Portland, Oregon, UUA President Bill Sinkford asked
these questions when speaking about the Black Empowerment Controversy of the
late 1960s: “With whom do we need to be reconciled?” “Doesn't our moral balance
sheet still carry an unpaid debt?" Sinkford pointed out that for many at that
time, both black and white, there was a real sense of betrayal. And he acknowledged that he left our
movement for a time because of these feelings. Yet, he cautioned,
"Merely writing a check won't heal
the wounds. Telling the story—truth to reconciliation—is needed."[i]
For many of us who have visited
Selma, Alabama, this is a sacred place, because of the human sacrifice that took
place there and, for UUs, because
of our own sacrifices to the important cause of racial equity.
And what is our faith community’s
relationship to Selma? In some ways, Selma has become a
metaphor that proves that we (white UUs, in particular) are good,
justice-seeking people even if we are not engaged in any racial justice work
today. We continue to live on the legacy of Selma without substantive commitment in our
congregations to address the issues of race and racism internally or externally.
How many times have our ministers over the past forty years invoked Selma in a sermon as an
example of living our faith? What do we owe the people of Selma today as a result of
our claim on their history? What is
the true impact of Selma on the UUA today?
This is a pilgrimage of inquiry and
discovery. We plan to address the
questions posed above, and many more, this week as we listen to those who are
veterans of the Movement, as we walk on the sacred ground where so many walked
before us, and as we talk and plan among ourselves to turn this historic legacy
into a living reality of a justice-seeking, equity-promoting, multi-cultural UUA
in the twenty-first century.
Annette Marquis is District Executive for the UUA Thomas Jefferson District, and one of the leaders of the UU Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage.
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations.
Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Thursday, August 23, 2012.
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