I was an eager participant in the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus. Although I was not at the Cleveland General Assembly, nor did I know anything was going to happen there, as soon as I heard of BUUC, I joined. At that time, I was a doctoral student at Brandeis University in the Florence Heller School in Waltham, MA. I was already communicating with Black students around the country regarding their demands and was the Communications person for the Black student movement. Thus, I received, analyzed and disseminated information from African American student groups around the country. I understood the reasons and processes of the students' demands. Ideologies were swirling around and those that BUUC embraced were ones I agreed with. I believed that we could make a difference by supporting community-based organizations seeking to bring about change.
I recall the meeting held at my house in Medford, MA, as we worked on the BUUC position on educational policy. In the Boston chapter, our focus was on community control rather than integration. This was interesting, because busing and White people, particularly South Boston White folks, hotly contested desegregation. Louise Day Hicks became their darling. But we, along with a number of other Black leaders, had disagreed with busing and "racial balance" as the solution. First, we didn't think it was necessary for our kids to sit next to White kids in order to be able to learn, as tended to be the general attitude. But more than that, we felt it was very important that neighborhoods and parents have control over their schools. (Now of course, people beg for parents to be involved with the schools.) On the other hand, we were aware of the importance of integration to our Southern sisters and brothers. Thus our final policy recognized and supported their efforts. Naturally, those opposed to busing were also opposed to community control.
I also made speeches to congregations attempting to explain the BUUC position and the position of those in the Black Nationalist movement. I remember the speech that I gave to a Unitarian-Universalist Congregation in New Hampshire on March 5, 1969. I explained that many Black people were no longer interested in integration, and that we were about self-determination. Using Lerone Bennett's definition of the Conscious Negro from his 1964 book, The Negro Mood, I asserted that we were no longer White Negroes, that we were interested in building a collective system of Black action and that we were interested in redistributing power. The reception was very cold. Such speeches usually were greeted this way. Perhaps the concepts were so new to White people, vis-à-vis Black people, that they did not know how to respond.
The activity that I enjoyed the most was my work with a group of junior high school students called "The Soul Cousins." We went from church to church putting on a program to explain the Black experience using music, dance and literature from slavery to that time in the '60s. The program had emanated from a talent show at Ferry Beach where I had taken my children while serving as a counselor. On the last night at the camp I had led a group of children in explaining the Black experience using performance. (At that time I was teaching the Black experience through Black Music at Brandeis University.) It was so popular that I was asked by several of the ministers who were also at Ferry Beach if I could bring this to their churches. After we left camp, the youngsters who participated were not available, so I organized a group consisting of my children and their cousins, thus "The Soul Cousins." The son of the minister of the Braintree church traveled with us since he played the part of a White overseer, but the other children liked him and considered him as part of our extended family. We traveled by my Volkswagen and my brother-in-law's car to churches all over New England and even in New York, carrying instruments, costumes and food. The forty-five minute program, which started with slave dances, included "shouts" and spirituals, the poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar "We Wear the Masks," and literature from Langston Hughes. We gave examples of jive talk and jive behavior and explained the "double entendre" through making up words of our own. We danced the Charleston, played some jazz, imitated music from James Brown and ended with the song "Amen." I also carried soul food, which I had cooked at home, generally collard greens, sweet potatoes and pork. Our reputation spread and when we were invited to the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, I felt that we had had enough. I couldn't make it in the Volkswagen and Philadelphia seemed a far distance from Boston in those times. Furthermore, I was getting ready to write my dissertation and didn't have the time for traveling so much.
Not everyone in BUUC was pleased with this performance. After all, it was very popular, and it was not threatening. Some people thought that the singing and dancing was too stereotypical. But when Henry Hampton saw it, he thought it had a great message and was very encouraging. Sometimes when he gave a speech on behalf of BUUC, he would invite us to join him.
After finishing my dissertation and earning my doctorate in 1971, I went to the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, as an assistant professor. Although the Urbana congregation had had a Black minister, who later became one of the leaders in BUUC, he had left the area, and my participation in BUUC became mainly that of an onlooker. To this day, however, I include something about BUUC/BAC in my speeches to Unitarian-Universalist groups and speak of it as an opportunity lost for the UUA. We were not concerned about ourselves or whether the church sang the right songs or had the right curriculum. We were concerned about the community and social justice. We wanted to support programs based in Black communities. Clearly we were before our time. Because of our approach, I still believe we could have made a big difference had we lasted.
Late in 1967 I returned to the United States after completing a five-year ministry to the Unitarian Church in Cape Town, South Africa. During that time I had become involved with organizations dealing directly and indirectly with the effects of apartheid upon the African and "colored" peoples of South Africa (one of these organizations was banned by the government). I had also been contacted by and been encouraged to become an informer for the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The invitation was declined.
As a result of my South African experience, I became deeply aware of the workings of a highly centralized nationalistic government, its efforts to maintain its policies of racist oppression, and its attempts to enlist the cooperation of foreign nationals.
In South Africa I followed the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement, while at the same time reading the work of Malcolm X, Franz Fanon and others who were voicing a vigorous critique of the integrationist movement, charging it as a subtle attempt to maintain White control and direction of that movement.
The beginning of my ministry to the First Church in Philadelphia (January 1968) coincided with the beginnings of the Black Affairs Council and the Black Empowerment Movement within UUism. It appeared to me that the Black leadership of our movement was providing the denomination with an opportunity to confront the assumptions and to break out of the restrictions imposed by the White-sanctioned and -approved "integrationist" agenda.
In retrospect, I believe there were two reasons for my support of the agenda of the Black UU Caucus (formed in October 1967): my South African experience had made me suspicious of White attempts to address the issues of Black empowerment—efforts that seemed at best condescending and, at worst, a form of White supremacy. In addition my geographic remove from our denomination's direct involvement in the Civil Rights struggle as enacted in Selma, Alabama, had prevented me from developing the emotional commitment to an integrationist model as the most effective way to address racial conditions in this country.
The organization of FULLBAC (i.e., full funding for the Black Affairs Council) at the beginning of 1968 appeared to be the most appropriate vehicle by which I, a White UU, could support this new phase (and I perceived it as a new phase rather than a contradiction of) the Civil Rights movement. What I had not anticipated was the degree to which it would deepen and confirm my commitment to the struggle for an antiracist society. It appeared to me that the Black leadership of our movement was providing the denomination with an opportunity to confront the assumptions and to break out of the restrictions imposed by the White-sanctioned and -approved "integrationist" agenda.
While I was not among the leaders of FULLBAC, I was a full participant in its struggles in support of BAC (including my participation in the "walkout" during the UUA General Assembly in Boston in 1969). My concern for this period and the issues which it raised led me to deliver four lectures on the topic "The Black Empowerment Controversy and the UUA" under the auspices of the Minns Foundation in 1983.
When, in September 1967, I arrived in Los Angeles to serve as Associate Minister of the First Unitarian Church, after having been a student at Starr King School for the Ministry and simultaneously the intern minister at the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, I soon learned that there was a group there that called their organization BURR—Black Unitarians for Radical Reform. The group had formed in August and included Black Unitarians from several churches in Los Angeles County. Among the members were Jules Ramey, Lou Gothard (who had suggested the name), Sue Williams, Carrie Thomas, Bob Wicker, Althea Alexander—and others whose names I never knew or have forgotten.
I became acquainted with several of the BURR members and, when a notice came from the UUA Boston headquarters that there would be an Emergency Conference on the Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion, to be held in New York City on October 6-8, 1967, I suggested to my Black friends that there surely ought to be participation by Black UUs in the conference. I also delivered a sermon on October 1, my first at the Los Angeles church, called "Conflict: Function and Dysfunction," which was originally intended to be concerned with the Black Rebellion which was resulting in riots in cities across the United States—including in the Watts area of Los Angeles. But instead, my focus became the problem of separation vs. integration and separation vs. segregation in race relations, particularly as the concepts applied in our liberal churches.
After discharge from the Army, I had been a student of economics at the University of California at Berkeley (1946-1952), had been an officer in a local union of the American Federation of Teachers, served as economist for the United Rubber Workers and, before entering Starr King, as a research economist for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. With Dr. Charles Gulick and J. Raymond Wallace, I had published a book, History and Theories of Workingclass Movements—A Select Bibliography and I had published a number of articles, mostly in the union press. To quote from the sermon: "Because of my experiences in the union movement and because of my longtime interest in the history and theories of working class movements everywhere—and everywhen—I think I see some similarities between working class union movements and recent trends in the Black Freedom movement. "
Particularly I had in mind the fact that workers had not been successful in organizing an institution which would represent their unique interests until the American Federation of Labor was formed in1881—and membership was restricted to working men and women. Prior to that time, "labor" organizations had included, as full members, liberal and socialist middle class businessmen, lawyers, clergymen and others who sympathized with the conditions of workers. It seemed to me that most "Black" organizations suffered from the same handicap. Workers had not been able to formulate their own needs, policies and programs in integrated organizations and Blacks were not able to formulate their own needs, policies and programs in integrated organizations. What was needed in both instances was separation into organizations of people living and sharing the same circumstances—not forced segregation, even as subordinates in "their" organizations. To the Whites, I suggested we form a study group to search for understanding and that we call the group WURR—White Universalists for Radical Readjustment.
I was scheduled to attend a new ministers' conference in Boston and was able to stop in New York and attend the Emergency Conference. BURR had scrambled and located Black UUs all over the United States, urging them to attend, and the Los Angeles church raised funds to send three BURR members. Most of the Black UUs, led by the three BURR delegates (Jules Ramey, Lou Gothard and Carrie Thomas), formed an exclusive Black Caucus. And the conference became a traumatic event for people who believed passionately in ideal racial integration, but who did not realize that, as of that time, it almost always resulted in tokenism and/or virtual invisibility.
My "Conflict" sermon was distributed among the Black Caucus members, who drew up a program which they demanded be sent to the UUA Board without change. They proposed that there be a UUA Black Affairs Council with the members chosen jointly by the Black Caucus and the UUA Board. After considerable soul-searching and agonized debate, the Emergency Conference voted to do as the Black Caucus asked.
Sometime later, when Jules and Lou returned from meeting with the UUA Board, they addressed a meeting at the Los Angeles church and the group immediately formed the Supporters of BURR—SOBURR. The UUA Board had rejected the proposal for BAC, and WURR asked me to draft a resolution for adoption by our church, to be sent to all societies in the denomination.
On January 28, 1968, I delivered a sermon I called "Black Is the Color" which supplemented the earlier sermon and detailed the history of the period since the Emergency Conference. In February, 200 Black UUs met in Chicago. They changed the name to Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus—BUUC—and decided to proceed with forming the Black Affairs Council despite the negative action by the UUA Board. I was asked to be a member of BAC—and refused. Hayward Henry came to Los Angeles to persuade me. I told him it seemed to me that BAC should be all Black. He replied that BUUC had decided to have nine members on BAC—six Blacks and three Whites, and they wanted me to be one of the members because of my union experience. I agreed, but said I would serve only one year.
The nine selected by BUUC were attorney Sam Beecher of Terre Haute, Indiana; Dr. James Clark of UC Berkeley; Lou Gothard (who had become associate director of an inter religious foundation in New York); BUUC chairman Hayward Henry of Boston; Chester Lewis of Wichita, Kansas (a leader of the NAACP "Young Turks"); the Reverend Jack Mendelsohn of Arlington Street Church in Boston; nuclear chemist Ben Scott of Boston; educator and community consultant Dick Traylor of Philadelphia; and me—Roy Ockert of First Church-LA. Althea Alexander of the Los Angeles church was elected an alternate.
In early April 1968, a national organization was formed in Philadelphia. It was called "For FULL Recognition and Funding of the Black Affairs Council"—and known as FULLBAC. Leona Light of the Westwood church in Los Angeles, who had been a founder of SOBURR, was a founder and elected co-chair of FULLBAC. In May 1968, the largest-ever gathering at a UUA General Assembly voted 836 to 337 to recognize and fund the UUA Black Affairs Council.
On October 6, 1968, I delivered a "Report on the Black Affairs Council" to the Los Angeles congregation. I served the year as a proud member of BAC and attended all meetings except the last in May 1969, when I was scheduled to perform a wedding ceremony, which was canceled too late for me to attend what I had intended would be my last meeting with BAC.
The two sermons and the pulpit editorial detail what I knew of the origins of the Unitarian Universalist Black Empowerment movement in Los Angeles in 1967 and 1968. At a BAC meeting, I was told that excerpts of the two sermons were used in a New York Times advertisement, but I have never seen it. I plan to edit the three items, correcting typos but not changing the text, and to add a foreword and an afterword. Six former BUUC members and six former FULLBAC members met at Starr King on January 17-20, 2001, and expressed a profound desire for the compilation and distribution of the history of that time and those organizations. We also expressed the hope that as many Black and White perspectives as possible be made available. The Black effort to tell the story from the African-American perspective has barely begun. My sermons and report relate some of the earliest history and perhaps will assist others to tell the story from their perspectives. I would especially like to see a version written by an early member of BURR.
When my children were babies, I made a very conscious decision, and that decision was that during the Black Power movement, I figured it would become a very important part of our history, and I did not want my children to ask me when they got old, What was I doing during this period? So I organized the Detroit Black Caucus of Unitarian Universalism. One of the first things I recognized was that I began to understand that I was no longer a victim of racism, that Whites were the victims of their own racism. And as I realized this, I made a conscious decision that I was not going to help Whites to deal with their racism. That if indeed they wanted to talk to me about racism, they had to come to me first and say, "I am a racist and I'm trying to deal with it." And since I made that decision, there have been many Whites who have come to me and said, "Joe, I'm a racist. What can I do about this?" And I simply just tell them, "Hey, you got to live with it. This is something that was created by your race, and you've got to understand it, and once you understand it, then you can make it on your own."
I then got involved in the Unitarian Black Caucus and one of the first things I realized was that this was the first time that Blacks could get together and talk about their destiny without the influence of White folks. But one of the things that had happened prior to the Black Power movement was the fact that any time Blacks wanted to deal with racism or separatism, that they had to include Whites, and Whites had to be involved in determining their destiny. I found this a very provocative step in terms of Blacks getting together and saying, "Hey, we can decide our own destiny."
During that period, I was fairly active as a militant. I was chairperson of the Michigan community organization. We had funded Black militant groups with church money, and also I traveled about the country urging Black folks to get together to determine their own destiny. I have now come to a point in my life where I firmly believe the real victims in our society really are poor Whites. I believe this because I think the system is really totally fighting against them. If you look at the vote that went down in Florida, it was not only a disparagement against Blacks, but it's also a disparagement against poor Whites. One of the things I firmly believe is that we have not seen a revolution in this country until poor Whites discover what the system is doing against them.
There is one other thing I would like to impart, and that is this whole question of diversity. I think that diversity is a code word. Diversity means one thing to Latin Americans, it means another thing to Arabs, it means something else to Blacks, and I firmly believe that until we as Unitarian Universalists really define what the hell it is we mean about diversity and what it is we really want to happen—. Let me say this. I believe that once Unitarian Universalists develop some kind of strategy to attract poor White folks, then I will say that you really believe in true diversity. I don't think that diversity—for me, diversity does not mean involving Asians, Latin Americans, Black folks and so forth and so on. Diversity to me means that you are including everybody. Are you trying to relate to everybody? And I just don't see this right now in the Unitarian Universalist Church.
During the 1960s my husband George and I were active members of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. George went with other UUs to Selma for the protests and the March to Montgomery. During the summer of 1966, when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Chicago, we participated in weekly demonstrations and continued working with the Chicago Freedom movement during the ensuing months. George was chosen by our minister, the Rev. Jack Kent, to be one of two lay representatives from our church to the 1967 "Emergency Conference on the Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion." The other person, Lee Reed, an African American, had long been involved in racial justice work.
George and Lee brought back from the conference their stories: the story of the necessity for Black people to separate for a time to focus on their own identity and on what the Black community needed to be doing, and the story that White Americans must not impede that separation, for to do so would again assert White control over non-Whites. Lee Reed immediately set about building a Chicago area Black UU Caucus, and George set about helping White people understand the necessity of the Black Empowerment movement.
I was a partner in this latter work. We carried the news to our own congregation and to Chicago area UU churches through area Council gatherings. We also became active in the continental FULLBAC group that was working to support the efforts of the Black UU Caucus to establish, with funding from the UUA, the Black Affairs Council, which would focus on Black economic development and self-determination. I attended a FULLBAC conference in Philadelphia in 1968 and another in Brooklyn a little later.
Our FULLBAC group worked with Chicago area UUs on explaining the need for Black empowerment and on developing an antiracist agenda for White people. In fact, we had a strong Chicago area FULLBAC group that was well represented at the 1969 UUA General Assembly in Boston. We participated in the walkout at the General Assembly and the several days of meeting with those of like persuasion at the Arlington Street Church. After that General Assembly, our group became the Chicago Area Fellowship for Renewal (CAFFR), a group that provided antiracist and anti-repression programs at churches throughout the Central Midwest District. We also ran a workshop at the Lake Geneva Summer Assembly (called "The Whole Ball of Wax") from 1971 to 1974. In April 1971 CAFFR held a continental conference in Chicago, which was attended by people from around the continent.
Those days were quite important for me. I began to see African Americans in a new light. There were many opportunities for discussion of and confrontation over the issues of the day and much to be learned about oneself and the world. I know that some still feel that all that happened in our movement in those days was destructive. In our church that was not true. Those of us who struggled through the issues have been bound together in what is still today a rich Beloved Community.
My greatest moment as a Unitarian Universalist—the two denominations had consolidated to form the Unitarian Universalist Association in the early sixties—occurred during my Philadelphia ministry when, at the Cleveland General Assembly in 1968, the UUA, after months of soul searching, partisan maneuvering, and denomination-wide debate, voted a million dollars for the Black Affairs Council, an independent, biracial program agency created the year before by the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus to implement the association's commitment to racial justice.
In response to America's racial crisis, marked by the burning of downtown Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark, and other cities, Black Unitarian Universalists met in caucus, as Blacks, for the first time in history. At the time, and since, members of the Black Caucus gave voice to their feelings of awe, gratitude, and liberation that now, at last, after decades and centuries of slavery, segregation, and structural inequality, they were meeting face-to-face as Black sisters and brothers, alone together. Some White religious liberals, committed to a policy of integration, cried foul. You can't meet as a Black Caucus, they said of the Black Unitarian Universalists, several of them from Philadelphia-area churches, because our denomination is inclusive, and you can't hold a meeting from which I as a White Unitarian Universalist am excluded.
Well, the Black Caucus kept on meeting. Realizing that the Black Caucus could not carry the day alone, some of us organized FULLBAC, a White support group committed to full funding of the Black Affairs Council. The proposal to fund the Black Affairs Council was adopted by a 72 per cent majority at the Cleveland General Assembly.
I have never felt prouder of my church than I did on May the 26th in 1968 when our overwhelmingly White denomination said Yes to its militant Black minority. Yes, we said, we embrace you as Unitarian Universalists. Yes, we stand with you in your pain and rage as Black Americans. Yes, we accept your vision of a nation and a denomination led out of bondage by those having a direct experience of oppression. Yes, we trust you with the million dollars. Yes, we know what other programs will suffer, but we are willing to do with less because you have done with less for so long. When, I ask, have Unitarian Universalists, Black and White together, stood so tall? Not in my lifetime. Perhaps not ever.
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