The involvement of Unitarian Universalist clergy and laypeople in the series of civil rights marches in and between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 is often regarded as a high point in Unitarian Universalist social justice efforts. During this time, three people were killed by white supremacists. Jimmy Lee Jackson, a young African American, was shot defending his family from the Alabama State Police. The two others, Viola Liuzzo and the Rev. James Reeb, were both white Unitarian Universalists who were participating in the marches after Jackson's death. Reeb's assassination is credited by many with drawing national attention to the struggle for voting rights and prompting passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. President Lyndon Johnson sent yellow roses to Reeb's hospital room and Martin Luther King, Jr. preached Reeb's eulogy. King's eulogy summed up the vision of the integrationist arm of the Civil Rights movement, "He was a witness to the truth that men of different races and classes might live, eat, and work together as brothers."
That vision was tested over the next decade within the Unitarian Universalist Association, in what has become known as the Empowerment Controversy.
The controversy began in October, 1967 at the Emergency Conference on Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion at New York's Biltmore Hotel. The conference had been called in response to the rising tide of violent protests and riots in America's inner cities. Shortly after the conference began, the majority of African Americans attendees withdrew from the planned agenda to form the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC).
The Caucus was immediately controversial. Some delegates to the Biltmore conference alleged that it was engaging in separatism or "reverse racism." After meeting, the Caucus demanded that the conference endorse, without amendment or debate, a series of proposals, calling for African American representation on the UUA Board of Trustees, Executive Committee, and Finance Committee, as well as subsidies for black ministers. Most remarkably, they called for the creation of a UUA-affiliated Black Affairs Council (BAC) to be financed by the UUA at $250,000 per year for four years. The Biltmore conference endorsed the proposals.
When presented with the proposals endorsed by the Biltmore conference, the UUA Board rejected them. Instead, the Board decided to fund a national conference for BUUC; at that conference, the more than 200 participants reaffirmed the Caucus's prior demands. The UUA Board response was to create a Fund for Racial Justice Now, with an annual goal of $300,000, to be administered by a newly created Commission for Action on Race. The Black Affairs Council (BAC)'s application for affiliate status with the UUA was also granted, but no promise was made to fund that organization.BUUC chairperson Hayward Henry charged that the Board's refusal to fund the BAC and allow the BAC to control such funding directly reflected "a traditional racist and paternalistic approach to black problems."
Over the next few months, as preparations were made for the 1968 UUA General Assembly, supporters organized to place a resolution to fund BAC on the Assembly's official agenda. Unitarian Universalists who opposed the BAC resolution formed Unitarian Universalists for a Black and White Alternative (BAWA) "to provide an independent denominational agency in which... black and white Unitarian Universalists ...can work together as equals."
The assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King shortly before the 1968 General Assembly changed the shape of race relations in the UUA and set the tone for the meeting. In the wake of King's death, BAC supporters became more militant and more explicitly linked to the growing, national Black Power movement. The General Assembly passed the motion to fund BAC by a vote of 836 to 326. Victor Carpenter wrote that this showing of support for BAC's agenda "gave the nation its first example of a denomination's making a significant 'reparational' response to the conditions of racism in America."
The action approved by the 1968 General Assembly soon ran aground. The Association's finances were in dire straits, a situation which at that time was known only to the UUA Administration and Board. In an attempt to relieve some of the financial pressure the Association faced, UUA President Dana Greeley tried to alter the financial outlay called for in the resolution, making an offer to BAC to divide the million dollar total payment over five years instead of four. Instead, the UUA Board reintroduced the issue of BAC's funding as part of the 1969 Assembly agenda. Their intention was to require reaffirmation of BAC's financial support each year.
These events set the stage for the most dramatic General Assembly in the UUA's history, in 1969 in Boston. It began with a struggle over the agenda. The official agenda placed the vote on the funding of BAC, now coupled with an additional $50,000 to fund BAWA, near the very end of the meeting. Members and supporters of BAC felt that this was not in keeping with the urgency of the issue and moved that it be placed at the beginning of the agenda. The vote to alter the agenda received a simple majority but did not reach the two-thirds majority required for an agenda change. In response, BAC chairperson Henry declared, "Unless the Assembly agrees to deal with these basic problems... now and not next Wednesday, the microphones will be possessed and the business of this house will come to halt." Sure enough, the floor microphones were seized by BAC supporters and the business session was forced to end with nothing resolved.
The next day, a motion was made to reconsider the order of the agenda. When the motion lost, Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) members quietly walked out. After talking with leaders of BUUC, the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn addressed the Assembly, stating, "Our Black delegates of BAC have now left the room. They have left this Assembly, and they have left our movement, because life and time are short ...the Assembly is returning to business as usual and to the position of Black people at the back of the bus." Mendelsohn invited those who shared his feelings to join him down the street at the Arlington Street congregation where he was minister.
In a show of solidarity with their black co-religionists, more than four hundred people, all white, joined Mendelsohn. The UUA leadership made overtures to those delegates, who rejoined the General Assembly the next day. The Caucus members remained in the Association and BAC won full funding by vote of the General Assembly delegates.
A few months later, the UUA Board, faced with the ongoing fiscal crisis and their own legal responsibility for the financial well being of the institution, voted to reduce the grant to BAC from $250,000 to $200,000 and spread the million dollars over five years instead of four.
BAC's members decided to disaffiliate from the UUA and attempted to raise money for the organization's programs directly from Unitarian Universalist congregations and institutions. Over the course of a few months they were able to raise as much as $800,000 from the Liberal Religious Youth, the UU Women's Federation, the First Unitarian Society of West Newton (Massachusetts), All Souls Church (Washington, DC), and the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn (New York). The money was raised through bonds that were marketed primarily as an investment.
Despite this initial success at fundraising, the BAC, beset by internal strife over differences in strategy, direction, and loyalties, slowly faded from the Unitarian Universalist scene and many of its members left Unitarian Universalism altogether. In 1973, the BAC changed its name to the Black Humanist Fellowship. Shortly afterward, a three-year-long legal battle began between BAC member, over the money lost on the bonds and the legality of the BUUC meeting at which the name was changed. In time, the Black Humanist Fellowship dissolved and its demise marked the end of the Empowerment Controversy. However, the feelings these events caused remained raw. Not until 1979 did the UUA begin to explore what had happened and why, so the Association could again begin to move forward on the issue of racial justice.