How would your congregation respond if a bomb threat forced you to shorten the post-service reception welcoming new members and re-locate child care for the stewardship dinner that evening? In March of 1965 Unitarian Universalists in Birmingham, Alabama, responded to such a threat with a 45% pledge increase.
In Knoxville, Tennessee, the Rev. Ken MacLean was entrusted with coordinating local logistics when the Poor People’s Campaign brought 500 to 800 people through town on their way to Washington in May of 1968. Ken phoned church member Janet Porter and asked, “Can you feed a thousand people tomorrow?” The people were fed.
All of us who venture into social justice work worry about whether our commitment will stir fierce opposition, either within the congregation or in the wider community. We feel frustration when even the strongest, best planned action yields no immediate visible results. In the worst cases, our justice-making actions stir massive pushback but achieve little or no clear change.
As we meet the justice-making challenges and commitments of our own time, it may be comforting to become better acquainted with the lives and work of our co-religionists 45 to 65 years ago in the southern United States. They operated in a context in which it could be a bold and revolutionary social justice action just to have a non-segregated church service. The pushback could take the form of job terminations for church members, or even, on rare occasions, violence. While Unitarian Universalists sometimes face opposition when taking a stance for justice today, the strength and viciousness of the opposition is unlikely to come close to that of the Civil Rights Era.
In 1965, I was serving a northern congregation, but went south and spent two weeks in Selma. Although my presence and civil rights work had only a minute impact on the events there, it was life-changing for me. In 1969, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and began serving as minister among people who lived with and were immersed in issues of racial justice every day. What I learned changed my life even further. I’ve been collecting stories of southern Unitarians and Universalists of that era ever since. Many of those stories have wound up in Southern Witness: Unitarians and Universalists in the Civil Rights Era.
Reading the stories can’t be the same as living them. But it can help us know that others before us have experienced and survived severe controversy and opposition. It can also help us to remember that work for racial justice, today echoed in the “Black Lives Matter” movement, is serious business, and will ask many of us to move outside our comfort zones and grow into deeper understandings and longer commitments. A seemingly short-term success (feeding a thousand people tomorrow!) sprang from practiced collaboration. Significant long-term change may depend on years of work before getting visible results. These stories can provide inspiration and wisdom for today’s Unitarian Universalists in the ongoing work of racial justice.
A reflection, discussion, and action guide for Southern Witness is available on UUA.org. The guide, written by Deborah Kahn, with plans for a single session or for a three-session series, invites today’s Unitarian Universalists to make connections between the stories told in the book and the justice work of our own era. Organize a group in your congregation to read Southern Witness and then to gather and use the guide to help you draw wisdom from the book and act for racial justice in our own time.
Offer Workshop 11, Civil Rights, from Resistance and Transformation: Unitarian Universalist Social Justice History in your congregation.
Watch the film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, and gather with others to discuss it using the youth-friendly discussion guide available on UUA.org.
About the Blogger
During his more than forty years in Unitarian Universalist ministry, Gordon Gibson has taken part in voting rights demonstrations in Selma, served as the only Unitarian Universalist minister in Mississippi from 1969 to 1984, and co-founded the Living Legacy Project, which leads pilgrimages to civil rights sites in the South. He is a past president of the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society.