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Unitarian Universalist Racial Justice Timeline

Copy the story, and distribute the individual narratives to participants to read aloud.

Eliza Cabot Follen

My name is Eliza Lee Cabot Follen. In the early 19th century, I was an active member of abolitionist societies in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts along with my husband, a Unitarian minister. I wrote about the abolition of slavery, and am most well-known for my anti-slavery children's literature. Many of my stories tell of slave children and their mothers who rebelled against the slave masters for the sake of their children. I also wrote pieces like "A Letter to Mothers in the Free States" (1855), which calls on white mothers to "come to the rescue of this land" by telling their children about the wrongs of slavery, fostering in them a sense of justice, and shaping the next generation to save America's democratic principles. In "How Shall Children Do Good?" (1844) I addressed what free children can do about slavery, trying to arouse sympathy and empathy in order to shift their view of slaves as the "other." I have received criticism for voicing my abolitionist views, but children's literature was a less threatening way to express anti-slavery and liberation messages. By fostering understanding in this way, my readers moved one-step further toward abolishing slavery.

Reverend Theodore Clapp

My name is Reverend Theodore Clapp. From 1822 to 1856, I preached in New Orleans at the Strangers Church and was one of the first Unitarian ministers in the Southern United States. One day I read a pamphlet by my friend and fellow Unitarian on the evils of slavery. I could not stand idly by and let a Northerner, even the esteemed Reverend Channing, castigate our way of life in the South. Here is a portion of the sermon I preached that next Sunday:

There is but one unfailing good; and that is, fidelity to the Everlasting Law written on the heart, and re-written and republished "in God's Word." In this discourse, I shall confine myself to a single topic, what is the right — the true — the good — on the grand theme of inquiry already proposed? And first, I shall examine the question, are there any passages in the Sacred Scriptures by which slavery is condemned or prohibited. I mean by slavery "the being compelled to labor for another, without one's own consent."

It is an indisputable fact, that slavery was universal among that chosen, peculiar people of God, whose history is given in the Old Testament, during the long period, beginning with the first generation after the deluge, and terminating with the destruction of the Jewish nation and polity by the Romans. The most elaborate investigation of the Old Testament Scriptures from Genesis to Malachi, authorizes one to affirm, that there can be found therein no language, which fairly interpreted amounts directly, or indirectly, expressly or by implication, to a reprobation of slavery. This fact furnished a decisive refutation of the doctrine that the principles of religion taught by inspired men prior to the time of our Saviour, forbid the making, holding, buying and selling slaves. The venerable patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and others, of whom we read in the book of Genesis, were all slave-holders. In all probability, each possessed a greater number of bond-men and bond-women than any planter now living in Louisiana or Mississippi.

At the time our Saviour appeared and commenced his public labors, slavery was universal among the Jews. If it had been, in his opinion, a monstrous evil — the greatest of wrongs, - a thing clearly criminal and irreligious, - must he not have condemned it without qualification or reserve? If the modern doctrine be sound, Jesus should have said to the master, "your slave is your equal;" "you must immediately set him to liberty;" "you cannot justly hold property in man;" "it is wicked in the sight of God for you to do so;" "it is an infringement of the natural rights of the slave." Not a syllable analogous to this is uttered by our Saviour. If the institution were wrong; if it were a scandalous sin; if it were a daring outrage upon the first principle of right and freedom... could our Saviour, with the evidence of such a flagrant abuse all around him, have remained in silence on such a momentous subject, without pursuing a course revolting to every candid, honest mind and glaringly inconsistent with one grand object of his mission — the exemplification, and complete establishment of a perfect system of morals.

Now later in life I did begin to regret this position. As I observed the slaveholders in my congregation I began to see that slavery did evil things to them and caused them to do evil acts. But that did not change my belief that the North should stay out of Southern business.

Reverend Richard Leonard, March from Selma to Montgomery

On March 6, 1965, the TV news showed peaceful protesters in Selma, Alabama, being beaten and tear gassed by the police. The next day Martin Luther King asked for as many clergy as possible to come to Selma to support those seeking equal rights. One tenth of all the Unitarian Universalist clergy in the United States answered his call, a higher percentage than any other major religious group. I went thinking I could at least be an observer and a set of feet for whatever marching was called for, and that I would be home in a few days at most.

The next eighteen days were filled with speeches, marches, threats of violence against the marchers, the killing of UU minister James Reeb, and eventually the successful historic march from Selma to Montgomery, which led Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

I have said to many youth groups since writing my book Call to Selma that leadership can be thrust on anyone in an emergency, and to be ready for that fact. Many Unitarian Universalists responded to this call to march, White and Black people together, witnessing and protesting the injustice being perpetrated.

Reverend William Sinkford, the Black Empowerment Controversy

My Story

In 1968, the General Assembly in Cleveland, OH followed the killing of Martin Luther King by less than two months. Many American cities had erupted in violence in the days and weeks after the assassination. Unitarian Universalists responded by committing $1,000,000, which was a lot of money back then, toward Black economic development. We were in the forefront in our response. It was only later that national Black leaders called for financial reparations.

The money was to be given over four years and the funds were to be distributed by a group of Black UUs (The Black Affairs Council or BAC). It was the decision that BAC would distribute the funds that led to what we now call the Black Empowerment Controversy. Unitarian Universalists had been in the forefront of the civil rights struggle in many communities and on the national stage. Integration was the goal, Blacks and Whites together. BAC, with its Black only membership, seemed to many White, and some Black UUs, to be a retreat to a segregated past. Integration vs Separatism was the argument which erupted in many congregations and many families, mine included.

In preparation for the 1969 Boston GA, congregations were asked to consider the motions on the agenda, including a motion to continue funding Black economic development through the Black Affairs Council. A new "integrationist" mixed race group (Black and White Action or BAWA) had formed and wanted to distribute the reparations money. At my home church, First Unitarian in Cincinnati, OH, the debate got heated.

Both sides believed they stood in the right. Names were called, friendships were strained or broken, feelings were badly hurt. I was on a Fellowship in Greece that year. I heard about the controversy from my mother's frequent letters which often included newsletter clippings. My mother was an ardent BAWA supporter. At age 57, integration had been her goal all of her life. So strong were her feelings that she decided to be a delegate to the Boston General Assembly.

I returned to the United States just prior to that GA. Mother and I met in Boston and the family feud began. I was a strong BAC supporter. The language of Black Power would speak to me a few years later. I sported a big afro. Mother and I were diametrically opposed.

We argued over meals and on sidewalks near the GA hotel.

Hindsight being 20/20, I'm sure I was using the issue as the final assertion of my independence from my mother. I felt deeply about the issue, of course, but some of the things I said in anger came from a different place. I know I hurt my mother deeply, so deeply that we were not able to talk about those days for over twenty years.

The GA became heated. Many Blacks and some white supporters (including the whole youth delegation) walked out and met at the Arlington St. Church. Finally, the vote was to continue the BAC funding for one more year but only half the promised $1,000,000 was ever committed. Both BAC and BAWA tried to raise money at the congregational level, which just renewed the hard feelings. The controversy was so divisive that most congregations simply stopped talking about race.

Youth from the Belmont Massachusetts Unitarian Universalist Church

In the summer of 2006, my friend Herman Taylor III was shot and killed in the Grove Hall neighborhood of Boston. Herman, or HT3 as we called him, was an African American kid from a tough neighborhood who got to come to our school in the suburbs through a program called METCO. Herman was great person and a lot of fun to be around. And even though we came from very different backgrounds, he was good friends with me and many of the other members of my church youth group at the UU Church of Belmont.

When I heard that Herman had been shot and killed I was devastated. I could not understand what had happened. Then I heard that Herman was the 37th murder in Boston. (By the end of the year there were 73 murders.) What I realized was that whereas I had never known anyone who had been murdered, the fear of getting killed must have been an everyday reality for Herman and his friends back in his home neighborhood.

So my youth group and our church decided that we needed to do something. We worked with Herman's family and other religious leaders in his neighborhood. Together we planned a march through Grove Hall where he was shot to help bring attention to the issue of violence in inner city neighborhoods. We scheduled it for during the evening rush hour on September 11th to get as much attention as possible.

We also set up the HT3 Peace Fund in Herman's honor. Money raised for this fund help create educational opportunities for kids like Herman. It also funds on-going anti-racism work based on the 'village model. This means that it funds projects that help prevent violence by connecting youth to extracurricular activities, part-time work and anti-violence training.

I am proud of the work that my youth group and church have done but I really wish that we could have done it before Herman was shot.

Reverends Hope Johnson and Barbro Hansson

The Thomas Jefferson Ball

HOPE: In 1993, I was at a meeting at Community Church of New York, my home congregation, with all who were heading to Charlotte, North Carolina for General Assembly. I asked about the main event and was told it was the Thomas Jefferson Ball. That was fine. The description went on to say: "Come in period dress." Ouch!!! I recall hearing my twin sister Janice Marie Johnson, who, like me, is of African Caribbean descent, ask: "Well, what am I supposed to wear?"

BARBRO: Though I was president of the Thomas Jefferson District at the time, I had no part in planning the Thomas Jefferson Ball at the 1993 General Assembly in Charlotte, NC. However, during the last few weeks before GA, I was told that there may be a potential problem with the ball.

HOPE: Aside from Community Church, there were others, including the UU Women's Federation,who tried to get the GA Planning Committee and others to make the theme a "teachable moment" one way or another. Unfortunately, no one listened to us so we descended on Charlotte knowing where every costume house was located. We knew that we had to dosomething. The opportunity presented itself when I went to an African American UU Ministers meeting and was asked to speak at GA about how people of color felt about the ball. I said yes, not realizing that I would need to change the statement that I had been asked to read because it was not inclusive enough of Unitarians Universalists of all colors and ethnicities. When I read the re-written statement I was nervous and afraid that Moderator Natalie Gulbrandsen would put down her gavel and cut me off but all went well. I said all that I had to say and I knew that it made a big difference.

BARBRO: Even as GA began, many people did not know much about the problem surrounding the Thomas Jefferson Ball. At the first Plenary session, when Hope Johnson began to read the letter of protest on behalf of African American Unitarian Universalists, I was as stunned as everyone else. Three thousand plus Unitarian Universalists held a collective breath and you could hear a pin drop. I remember thinking to myself, "Wait a minute. That is Thomas Jefferson you are speaking about, the name sake of the T.J. District." The collective silence lasted for only a brief moment before the big assembly hall began to sound like an angry beehive. My choice could have been to remain anonymous in the sea of GA delegates and wait for others to sort it all out. Instead, my conscience called me to take action and I stepped up on stage where a small group of leaders had gathered. That is how I became one of 13 people who were asked by the UUA Moderator to reflect on what had happened and report back to the Plenary session later. We walked off stage, found a small room where we stood together in a circle and there we opened up to each other. I was deeply moved by the open and honest sharing of feelings. It was the most profound experience I had ever had. After a little while, we agreed that what had happened was ultimately a good thing. In a democratic faith, we must be able to listen to the pain and anger that is real. We also agreed that no event should be canceled and that each person must come to their own decision about how to respond and which events to attend.

HOPE: The ultimate outcome is that though the Thomas Jefferson Ball took place, we were told we could come in period dress, or not. The important point was that everyone knew more than they had before about the reality of racism beyond and within our beloved movement.

BARBRO: I had been selected to be the first person to speak when we reported back to the delegates. The tension was extremely high. As I spoke with my Swedish accent, I could see the tension give way to relief. I felt as if the words I spoke came from far beyond. Afterwards, while some people expressed disappointment and anger at what we had decided, most people were profoundly relieved that the problem had not resulted in a massive walk out.

HOPE: This incident was a defining moment for me in my life as a Unitarian Universalist. I met my sister Barbro Hansson through this difficult experience. I had found a faith home that was willing to grapple with the tough stuff. I knew then that this faith was mine and that I would stay no matter how hard it gets. I've since entered into UU ministry and there is no turning back.

BARBRO: Personally, I felt a sense of pride in having been part of something big, an event that I began to understand as part of an important turning point in Unitarian Universalism. It was also the point at which I felt called to become a UU minister. Before leaving Charlotte, Hope Johnson and I bumped into each other. It was a meeting of two women, heart to heart, and the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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