Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Resistance and Transformation: An Adult Program on Unitarian Universalist Social Justice History


"Black Empowerment," "walkout," "racist"...the words we use, the language we have to describe the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s are loaded. Why, for example, do we use the term "Black Empowerment Controversy"? It seems to make the anguish of that period the fault of the relatively small group of African American Unitarian Universalists, rather than the result of the white Unitarian Universalist encounter with race and racism. The term "White Power Controversy" would be more accurate in many ways and would direct attention to the broad Unitarian Universalist movement, and its need for healing and transformation, rather than to the small, marginalized group of "black" people and their allies. — Rev. William Sinkford, in his introduction to Long Challenge: The Empowerment Controversy by Victor H. Carpenter

In the late 1960s, the Unitarian Universalist Association and its member congregations were faced with a changing philosophical and strategic landscape surrounding their social justice efforts. The Black Power movement was one of several empowerment and liberation movements that challenged the existing structures and priorities. This workshop examines how the "Black Power" movement affected our religious movement by focusing on two narratives—one the story of a congregation and one of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Both were torn apart by the pressures and tensions that arose as a result of their responses to the events of the time. In the late 1960s, the Unitarian Universalist Association experienced an institutional crisis called the "Empowerment Controversy" when leaders disagreed over the best way for the institution to respond to the growing demand for racial justice and equity in the Association and the wider world. During that same period, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, Ohio, responding to both national events and events within the UUA, deeded its building and half of its endowment to the Cleveland Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus in an effort to start an African American Unitarian Universalist congregation. The experiment was not successful, and what transpired has had a long-term impact on Unitarian Universalism in the Cleveland area.

The experience of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland is unique in its particulars. However, many of our congregations, and the Unitarian Universalist Association as a whole, were significantly impacted by the struggles over and for racial justice that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. This workshop explores why the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland was able to function as an integrated community in the 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s but could not support a primarily black congregation in the late 1960s. The workshop asks: has the way Unitarian Universalists "do social justice" been permanently affected by the black power movement and crisis of the late 1960s and 1970s?

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:

  • Introduce participants to the history of the Empowerment Controversy
  • Introduce participants to the history of the Black Humanist Fellowship of Liberation and the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland
  • Invite participants to reflect on the impact of this history on contemporary Unitarian Universalism.

Learning Objectives

Participants will:

  • Learn about and consider what transpired during the Empowerment Era in Unitarian Universalism
  • Consider how events within the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations at that time impacted local congregations by examining the story of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland
  • Reflect on how on the Empowerment Controversy has shaped contemporary Unitarian Universalism
  • Reflect on how Unitarian Universalism can become a more multiracial religious movement.