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I am more sorry than I can say that your fellowship is again being caught in the grinders of the advance of history in the south. I hope desperately that the group will not suffer unduly as the result of the events in which our people are participating in Jackson and Mississippi. On the other hand, I do not see how we could really avoid participating in this as we do have a stake in this with those people being persecuted and we must stand at this point or allow ourselves to be classified with the group of those who look on, but do very little. — Reverend Clifton Hoffman, writing to the president of the congregation of the First Unitarian Church in Jackson, Mississippi in 1966

Many Unitarian Universalists are familiar with the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, and the violent deaths of African American civil rights protester Jimmie Lee Jackson, Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. James Reeb, and Unitarian Universalist laywoman Viola Liuzzo. Many Unitarian Universalists know that hundreds of ministers and laypeople from around the United States traveled to the South to participate in marches, protests, and the "Freedom Rides" that heralded the first big push to end legal segregation in America. We are rightly proud of the many Unitarian Universalists who realized their belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all people made working for civil rights a moral imperative. However, congregations and ministers in the South faced a set of choices that went beyond individual conscience and discernment. Threats of physical violence and financial ruin loomed over any effort to integrate public spaces. Organized opposition to integration was part of the system, from the street-level violence of the Ku Klux Klan to the legal violence perpetrated by many county courtrooms. Faced with these dilemmas, Southern congregations responded in many different ways. As the Rev. Gordon Gibson wrote in his history of Southern Unitarian Universalists in the Civil Rights era:

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.

This workshop looks at some ways Southern Unitarian Universalist congregations responded to the struggle for integration and civil rights. Participants explore the consequences of taking a public stance in a deeply divided society and ask how much they or their congregation might risk to take a position of conscience on a divisive social issue?

To ensure you can help adults of all ages, stages, and learning styles participate fully in this workshop, review these sections of the program Introduction: "Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters" in the Integrating All Participants section, and "Strategies for Effective Group Facilitation" and "Strategies for Brainstorming" in the Leader Guidelines section.


This workshop will:

  • Explore the responses of Southern Unitarian Universalist congregations to the Civil Rights Movement
  • Explore the tensions between personal safety and moral accountability and between institutional survival and faithfulness to one's ethical and religious values
  • Challenge participants to consider what it means to be make a real commitment to justice movements.

Learning Objectives

Participants will:

  • Learn about decisions and actions of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the South in response to the Civil Rights Movement
  • Learn about the Civil Rights era work of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans and its minister, Albert D'Orlando
  • Consider how they personally might respond to threats of violence against their own congregation
  • Understand that while, in retrospect, the "right" and "wrong" sides in history can seem clear, all people (including Unitarian Universalists) must struggle to discern appropriate responses to the events of their own time without benefit of hindsight.

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