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It Happened the Way it Had to Happen

General Assembly 2009 Event 4068

Sponsored by Meadville Lombard Theological School. Presenter: Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed.

Saturday afternoon, Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister and historian Mark Morrison-Reed took on the most contentious event in living UU memory—the black empowerment controversy of 1967-70.

Building on his talk's title, "It Happened the Way It Had To Happen," Morrison-Reed framed the controversy as a tragedy. "These were honorable people," he said, "responding to cultural circumstances not of their making while in the grip of emotional forces beyond their control, circumstances which compelled them to choose between dearly held values."

Personal History

Morrison-Reed began his talk by explaining his own relation to the controversy. Initially, he said, "I ignored it." Years later, when he began the doctoral research that ultimately led to his book Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, he observed the emotional intensity that events like the GA (General Assembly) walk-out of 1969 still had for those involved. "I'm not going near that," he remembered thinking. In the 1980s he tried to reconcile two of the main participants in the controversy, an effort which he described Saturday as "naive." He mentioned workshops in 1993 and 2001 in which mention of the controversy caused arguments to break out anew.

"What is powering the acrimony?" he asked. "And what is making reconciliation so difficult?"


Observing that there are "at least two contradictory narratives" and that this itself is part of the problem, Morrison-Reed focused on the larger historical forces at work and gave only a broad overview of events: Following the race riots of that summer, an emergency conference on "the Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion" was held in October 1967 in New York. This led to the creation of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus and later the Black Affairs Council (BAC). The General Assembly held in Cleveland—two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King—in 1968 voted to fund the BAC with $1 million over four years.

A proposal at the 1969 GA in Boston to split that year's $250,000 between BAC and an integrated alternative Black and White Action (BAWA) was defeated after a walkout by BAC supporters. But when Robert West took over the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) presidency in 1969, he discovered that the UUA's financial condition was worse than anyone had expected. Major budget cuts included spreading the $1 million commitment over five years instead of four, and the 1970 GA in Seattle defeated an effort to restore full funding. Much acrimony ensued, including a schism in BAC. Both BAC and BAWA soon "ceased to function" according to a summary in the March/April 2000 issue of UU World.

"As I have read and listened to people talk about this era," Morrison-Reed said, "the emotional charge is always, always evident. The word 'polemic' best describes the decades-old non-discussion."

Larger Forces

Morrison-Reed listed four long-term forces—none the fault of the 1967-1970 UUs—that he believes made tragedy inevitable.

  • Demographic change. UUs and UU churches had been moving from the cities to the suburbs for many years. The fellowship movement had sprouted new churches in college towns. "Systemically, UUism was moving away from the areas populated by African-Americans, and into regions where there were few."
  • Institutional immaturity. In 1967, the UUA was only six years old. The first UUA president, Dana Greeley, was ending his term at a crucial moment.
  • Lack of money. This lack was due partly to Greeley's ambitious plans and partly to "our chronic stinginess, which is our way of disempowering the institution."
  • Lack of institutional trust. The newly founded fellowships "tended to be anti-clerical, anti-institutional, distrustful of power, and protective of congregational autonomy."

Missed Opportunities to Nurture UU African-American Leadership

"Throughout the Fifties, half-hearted efforts to settle African-American ministers largely failed, and good, qualified ministers, discerning that, went elsewhere." Throughout our history, African-Americans "have been scattered in time and place, and with few exceptions have never formed a critical mass. Neither the Universalist Church of America nor the American Unitarian Association ever gave strong backing to African-American congregations."

Identity and Democracy

Because of the long history of failure to form black congregations and encourage black leadership, "we never developed forms of worship, liturgy, writing, music, or theology that were reflective of the African-American experience. ...Black folks came to us, not the other way around."

To Morrison-Reed, both BAC's separatism and white UUs' resistance to it "makes sense." Black UUs "felt that they had given up pieces of themselves" to integrate into a white denomination, and needed "an exclusively African-American space in which to explore and formulate a new identity and agenda." This need for identity was exacerbated by Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, when well-assimilated African-American UUs "became suddenly and painfully aware how disconnected and isolated they were from the black community. ...It made sense that African-Americans had to lead in the struggle for black self-determination and identity. Anything else would have been patronizing."

But the urgency felt by BAC members conflicted with the cumbersome nature of democratic process, which (like justice) is a core UU value. "There was no place for soul-searching, group process, or the consensus-building that we now know are necessary to work through such issues." BAC won a close vote over BAWA at the Boston General Assembly, "and in that moment lost. That too makes sense, because as every parish minister knows... change is always time consuming... you can't move ahead when half the congregation is moving one way and the other half is moving in another."

Some African-American UUs, including the currently outgoing UUA President Bill Sinkford, left their UU churches after the UUA funding decision. But others stayed, and even for the ones who left "it wasn't that simple." Some left to put their energy into the black community instead of UU institutions. For some, "anger may have provided a cover as they did what they needed to do: distance themselves form their white friends. ...Affirming one's black identity became more important than affirming one's liberal religious identity." 

Call for Reconciliation

The participants' failure to reconcile after 40 years also makes sense, "because they were all the good guys. They all stood on principle. ...Because they are all still seeking vindication, each spins a narrative in which they were defending the good cause and suffering for it. ...Contrition is for the guilty, and they are not."

"No one who was involved has felt understood or appreciated, much less honored. Today, I come to honor their passion and their fervor and their commitment to principle, and to argue that it did make a difference."

The 150-200 people in the room applauded, and Morrison-Reed's voice wavered as he explained how the mistakes made during this era set the stage was for the later successes of "women and gays and the disabled and Hispanics and other left-out groups." Ever afterward, "we accepted an oppressed group's right to gather together, to explore its identity, to formulate a strategy, and take a stance." Also, African-Americans have subsequently been represented in all the key UUA leadership groups, subsequent hymnals have recognized black experience, and "Euro-Americans have come to see that it is their own racism and their own cultural illiteracy that they are called to address."

"It happened because the nature of life is often tragic," Morrison-Reed said, "but it is also, never, never without hope. Reconciliation is always possible." And he closed with a call for reconciliation based on "sincere, deep listening. That is what we are called to do every day. That is how we heal."

Reported by Doug Muder; edited by Bill Lewis.