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HANDOUT 3: Southern Unitarian Universalists in the Civil Rights Era — Small Acts of Great Courage

Excerpted and edited from 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. Used with permission.

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 that.

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." (Rev. Donald Thompson was shot by the Ku Klux Klan and wounded in August 1965).

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 an 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.

A 1955 service held by the Baton Rouge Unitarians on the lynching of Emmett Till, (a 14-year-old Chicago boy murdered in Mississippi after reportedly whistling at a white woman), 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 (from the organization) for (Sunday) services was needed for YWCA programming [and they would have to vacate], 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 choir.

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 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 religious traditions.
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."...

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.

... 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.

... (Stories like this) 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.

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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