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In Their Own Words
A Conversation With Participants
in the
Black Empowerment Movement
Within the Unitarian Universalist Association

January 20, 2001

Edited by Alicia McNary Forsey
A Publication of Starr King School for the Ministry

Alicia Forsey: Welcome, everyone. Thank you, especially to the participants who have traveled great distances to be here for this conversation—the first of its kind since the controversies during the late 1960s and early 1970s, over issues of Black empowerment within the Unitarian Universalist Association.

During the last three days, twelve individuals have met in closed sessions in order to begin a conversation based upon their own perspectives as participants in the Black Empowerment movement. All participants were active in the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC), Black Affairs Council (BAC), or FULLBAC.


Jack Mendelsohn
FULLBAC

 

Now living in Maynard, Massachusetts, Jack said that although he found personal aspects of the January gathering to be tremendously important and moving, he hoped that the conversation would serve as a record in the general archive about that period in UU history—about the participants’ experience of watching a hierarchical institution with a long tradition try to come to terms with a complete revolution in the way things had normally been done.

He referred to the period as a time when White privilege was really being challenged,— and to wrestling with events even as lives were being transformed.

Historical narrative is greatly enhanced when it includes various perspectives, is in context, and related by those who experienced it. There will be considerably more to be told, and the larger view will come more into focus as time passes, but today’s conversation will be of value in efforts to piece the whole puzzle together.

The participants have asked to introduce themselves today, but I would like to draw out two of them: Harold Wilson and Jack Mendelsohn. Harold Wilson is the organizer of BUUC/BAC participants at this gathering. Jack Mendelsohn organized the FULLBAC participants.

Both Harold and Jack have worked with diligence, patience, humor and a dogged determination to see this gathering take place. It is their commitment, along with the initial conversations that included Yielbonzie Charles Johnson; the assistance of Cathleen Young, who paid attention to virtually all the details; and the support of the faculty and our president, Rebecca Parker, that brought us to this important conversation.  Let’s begin the introductions with Jack Mendelsohn.

JACK MENDELSOHN: Harold and I both want to express our gratitude to the Starr King contingent that has been so hospitable to us. It’s simply wonderful to be here, and we will forever appreciate it.

During the Civil Rights era, as it’s called, a great many more—first Negro, then Black, then African American—people joined our Unitarian Universalist churches than had ever been before in our ranks, and so by the time we reached the year 1967, there were groups of Black UUs all across the country. And from 1967 to ‘71, that changed presence in our ranks shook the very foundations of our Unitarian Universalist life. That took place because of the emergence among Black Unitarian Universalists of a caucus—a Black Caucus—in the form of demands upon the rest of us that Black Unitarian Universalists assume a dominant role in our midst—a dominant role of leadership and a dominant role of financial administration relative to our religious movement’s participation in matters of racial justice.

Now that doesn’t sound like a revolutionary idea today, but let me tell you, in 1967 that was a very revolutionary idea. And the Black UU Caucus, relatively small in numbers but spread across the continent, and organized, issued a call for White Unitarian Universalists to organize themselves and to organize on behalf of support for the demands of the Black Caucus. And that led to the formation of what you have on your sheet as FULLBAC, or full recognition and full funding for the Black Affairs Council. Well, that’s the nutshell description of what happened from ‘67 to ‘71, and those of us who have gathered here—there are twelve of us altogether—six from the Black Affairs Council, or BUUC primarily—Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus—and six from FULLBAC—have been reviewing what that experience felt like to us—how we perceived it and how it affected our lives. It certainly affected mine—created great changes in my point of view. I became very active in FULLBAC from the beginning. I was minister at that time at the Arlington Street Church in Boston, but I have continued similar interests all of these years in between. I was one of the first three Whites named to the Black Affairs Council, and served in that capacity for three years.

So much for me. Harold?


Harold Wilson BUUC

 

Born in West Oakland, Harold was the first vice-president, and the second president, of BUUC. Driv en from the time he was a little boy to help his people, Harold came out of the army “with a desperate feeling that we had to have some change.” Harold said his whole motivation for working on the January meeting was to sit down and “really write the story,” because it is very important that Black people tell their own story about “our own experience in the Unitarian Church and in the context of this movement.”

HAROLD WILSON: Yes, well, the only thing I disagree with you on, Jack—if such a thing as BUUC emerged in 2001 and began to make the kind of demands that BUUC made in ‘67, ‘68, ‘69 and so on, it would, for many people, be a remarkable and an alarming case at present to confront.

So much has happened in these last three days. It’s been a very rich experience for me. It’s been a rich experience meeting all these guys from FULLBAC again, you know?

I will talk about some dramatic events because I’m interested in history, and we have with us a fine author, Victor Carpenter, who has given us the outline for anything else we want to write.

But what we don’t have is the meat on the bones. We don’t have Black people talking about what they were experiencing at that time, as members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and some of us were there when it was the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America.
First of all, we [Blacks] were a small—we were a handful of people in the Unitarian Church. I was attracted by a man named J. Raymond Cope. One Sunday when I was just visiting, he said, “Some call Senator Knowland a fascist, you know.” Senator Knowland was the editor of the The Oakland Tribune. Then he looked around and he said, “He is a fascist.” I said, “My God! This is church?” I was attracted to that.
Because we were such a small group, we felt lonely in the UU churches. Some of us who went into the ministry and had a church had very few Black members. I had two or three Black people in my whole congregation when I was a minister. Amid all the things that were happening in America, we were not just isolated people being driven by isolated ideas, as Black UUs. We were members of a community, coming out of a community, and all kinds of things were going on in that community, and all kinds of issues were being raised.

As Black UUs, we had begun to understand that the issues were institutional. Some of us didn’t give a damn what White people thought about us, but we wanted free access to their institutions—the schools and the churches and the industry and all of the various institutions. We had no power in any of those institutions. In some cities we had developed some political power, in the East and Midwest, for example, but out here we had almost none at that point.

Reverend Homer Jack(1) called a meeting, and his meeting was the “Emergency Conference on the Unitarian Response to the Black Rebellion,” and a number of people came—some people from Black Unitarians for Radical Reform, which was a Black group that had organized in Los Angeles—out of Steve Fritchman’s church. I don’t know if you know about his history. Fritchman was named by LIFE magazine as one of the hundred most well-known fellow travelers in America. His picture was in the magazine. Steve was a radical guy. He attracted people, and he attracted more Blacks than most congregations had ever before attracted, plus he had a Black man working with him long before any Blacks were in the ministry. The few who were present were hardly visible.

We thought we might be able to bring major resources from the Unitarian Universalist Association to the Black community, and at the same time, we as Black people were enjoying being Black people. And being part of the movement, and addressing it. We later became more a part of the movement in the way we supported it.


Roy Ockert FULLBAC

 

Now living in Salem, Oregon, Roy had left Starr King and interned at the Berkeley church, then arrived at the Los Angeles church, where he gained the acquaintance of a number of people and learned about Black Unitarians for Radical Reform—BURR. Not long afterwards, he received notice that there would be an Emergency Conference on the Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion. He organized people to attend the conference and was eventually asked to be a member of the Black Affairs Council.

Having initially declined, he finally agreed to serve for one year, and was instrumental in the formation of White Universalists for Radical Readjustment—WURR, SOBURR, and FULLBAC.

JACK MENDELSOHN: Now—introductions.

 

ROY OCKERT: When I went to the Los Angeles church in September 1967 to become the assistant minister, I found that a group had been formed the month before—in August 1967—which called itself the Black Unitarians for Radical Reform—BURR. Very soon after that, a week or two later, there was a notice that came from Boston that there was to be an emergency conference on the Unitarian Universalist response to the Black Rebellion. By then I had known several members of BURR—Jules Ramey and Carrie Thomas and Althea Alexander and a few others—and I suggested to them that if there’s going to be a conference on the Black Rebellion, maybe there ought to be a few Black rebels there. [laughter in audience]

So they began scrambling around and did locate throughout the nation some Black people whom they managed to persuade to come to this emergency conference. And there they formed the Black Caucus, which was off by itself. Whites were not allowed into it, and this was a terribly dramatic sort of a thing. It was traumatic for an awful lot of Whites there. But the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus was finally formed and we began the process of funding for the Caucus.

In April there were nine of us including Jack and myself; a lawyer from Indiana and six other Whites were invited—and six Blacks—were invited to be members of the Black Affairs Council. Now I refused. I delivered a sermon about this whole thing—in October, 1967, which used the model of labor unions as an example of what I felt that Blacks might do. That is, form their own organization, which would not have to be dominated by White liberals, White business professionals, business people, and so on. It would have its own organization, and I said I felt it—on the basis of the thesis I had—I felt that all members ought to be Black. But they wanted three Whites and they wanted me because of my labor background. So finally I agreed but I said, “I will serve one year. One year only.” And so I was on the Black Affairs Council for one year, and it was one of the most dramatic things that has ever happened to me in all my life.

I came here Wednesday—Wednesday evening—and it’s the first time I’ve seen some of these people in thirty-some odd years, and it’s very nice to see them.

 


Ione Vargus
BUUC

Now living in Philadelphia, Ione was working very closely with the Black students at Brandeis when she participated in BUUC. She worked with the president, Hayward Henry, and with Henry Hampton, who was then involved with the UUA.

Ione said she regrets the fact that BUUC did not continue, and she looked forward to the January meeting for the opportunity to review what actions BUUC took, what they funded, and what “we thought about philosophically.”

IONE VARGUS: Actually, I didn’t get to all of the national meetings of BUUC because I was a graduate student at Brandeis at the time, working on my doctorate, so I couldn’t afford to go, but I was very active in the Boston chapter of BUUC, and working therefore with Hayward Henry, who was the president, now called Mtangulizi Sanyika. I worked very closely with him and Henry Hampton, whom many of you know of as a person who developed “Eyes On the Prize” and several other wonderful documentaries. He worked with UUA then. But he was also very active in our group. That was when I was at the same time very involved with the ideology and all that was going on with the Black Caucus because I was also working very closely with the Black students at Brandeis. Actually, my dissertation was on Black students at White colleges, and it was about the kinds of demands and why they were making the demands, and the ideology behind all of that, so both of those movements were very close to my heart and something that I learned a lot from. I just feel very badly about the fact that BUUC did not continue.


Bette Sikes
FULLBAC

 

From Chicago, Bette has for many years been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. She first learned about the formation of BUUC when her husband, George, returned from the 1967 Emergency Conference in New York City. Bette, George, and Lee Reed worked to form a local Black caucus and to help White members gain understanding. They also organized a local FULLBAC group, and she and George took part in the walkout at the Boston GA, after which the local group formed a Fellowship for Renewal group that worked not only on racism, but also on sexism, homphobia, and other forms of oppression.

BETTE SIKES: My name is Bette Sikes, and I have been all these years a member of the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. In 1967, my husband, George Sikes, and Lee Reed from our church were invited by our minister to be among the participants in the emergency conference. Just very dramatic, it was very exciting. George, my husband, had been to Selma. He’d done part of the March to Montgomery—as much as he was allowed to do—so we were already involved in our household on the issues.

He and Lee Reed, who was an African American, came back and told us about what had happened—the separation—and my husband said it was very hard for us to deal with this, but I think it’s something that had to be done. And this was a key issue for many, many White UUs. They could not bear that these people no longer wanted to meet with them. They felt—the White people felt—that that was disrupting the old status quo, where we all apparently were equal and worked together. It was only through the formation of the Caucus that we were able to begin to get ourselves together and to begin to understand what it means to not be the dominant people. And of course, as many of you women know, later, when women had to do the same thing, they really began to understand “Why a Black Caucus?” It was only when we could meet without the men that we could begin to find out who we were.

After the conference we went on to form a FULLBAC group—interchurch group in the Chicago area—then, after the money was lost, the White people began another group called “Fellowship for Reconciliation.” We continued that group in the Chicago area until about 1975.

 

DAVID PARKE: Bette, do you mean the “Fellowship of Renewal”?

BETTE SIKES: Yes, Renewal. That other one I used to belong to when I was a Presbyterian. [audience laughter] We took on the oppression of absolutely everybody as our territory, including Black people.


Donald McKinney
FULLBAC

 

Donald McKinney is Minister Emeritus of the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, New York, where he served for forty years. The Brooklyn church has a long history of involvement in issues of racial justice and was deeply engaged in working for full funding of BAC. The church office served as FULLBAC headquarters, and Reverend McKinney was national cochair of FULLBAC with David Parke. McKinney also served on the BAC Board for several years.

Reverend McKinney has said that the Cleveland GA and its overwhelming vote to fully fund BAC remains “the single most significant, hopeful and spiritually thrilling moment” in his ministry.

Don McKinney: I am minister emeritus of the First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn. That church is a wonderful institution, one in which I feel very grateful to have been able to serve for my entire ministry—forty years of active ministry. I’m not dead yet. [audience laughter] The emergency conference that has been referred to is of course something that the Brooklyn church was very eager to be part of, and we sent—we had six—seven delegates. I happened to have been very sick at the time and was not able to go. At the end of that meeting, all the delegates came over to our house. There was so much excitement and so much joy. There was one Black only, and six Whites from the church, who felt themselves, really for the first time, hopeful that at long last we were going to find ways to address the problems of racial justice and empowerment in the city. That was something of course that we were primarily trying to serve. We had started a center a couple of years before—a storefront center—in an area of Brooklyn we found totally unorganized, with no opportunities for people to get together to try to set agendas for community organizing and development that might mean something. We therefore saw the great need that the Caucus was addressing, and the fact that we could hope to have the full funding of the Black Affairs Council, which you remember was for $1 million—in those days $1 million was quite a lot—to spread over four years for programs of community development and empowerment in all of the different areas of life that would be directed and started in new directions under the aegis of the Caucus and the Black Affairs Council.

For me, the vote in Cleveland—and I’d gone to General Assembly—I’m a lifelong Unitarian—I’d gone since I was twelve years old to these things—that was the single most wonderful moment in my professional life. I had a feeling and a hope that something really was going to happen. We weren’t going to talk and talk and discuss and argue forever and ever, and then think we had solved the problems.

The years that I had the privilege of serving on the Black Affairs Council and the time that our church became the center of the FULLBAC support program, when our assistant minister spent half of his time in doing administrative work, were exciting and wonderful years. Unfortunately, our denomination—although we were enthusiastic at the beginning—all those doubts and questions and organizational problems that are endemic to the way in which institutions somehow fail to address problems brought about the destruction of the Black Affairs Council. The hope is always that something will happen—again.

I am deeply grateful that in our church in Brooklyn, there is, standing by our altar of all faiths, a Masai warrior statue that was presented to our church by the Black Affairs Council—the only one they were able to give before it all disintegrated—for our efforts at confronting White racism. That warrior is there to protect our church, and I hope to continue to give inspiration to generation after generation to be—I mean, it’s wonderful that we confront racism in our institution and talk about weaving fabrics of diversity and everything, but we’ve got to be able to find ways to get out and be supportive in new and bold efforts to address those problems in the community. They just ain’t going to go away until we find a way.


David Parke
FULLBAC

 

Now living in Richmond, Virginia, David has been in the full time Interim Ministry program of the Unitarian Universalist Association since 1988.

Affiliated thirty years ago with the Unitarian Church of Germantown, David said that when “the call came from Southern California for White Unitarian Universalists to step forward in support of the Black Caucus’s demand for full funding by the Unitarian Universalist Association of the Black Affairs Council at the 1968 General Assembly in Cleveland,” he joined with Jack Mendelsohn, Leona Light and Ann Raynolds in the leadership of FULLBAC, which he perceives as having implemented decisions that affected the denomination on behalf of the spirit of history as liberation rather than history as oppression.

DAVID PARKE: Since 1988 I have been in the full time Interim Ministry program of the Unitarian Universalist Association. In 1965 I became the minister of the Unitarian Church in Germantown in northwest Philadelphia. My colleagues in ministry in the city of Philadelphia at that time were my dear friend, Victor Carpenter, who had just a few months before returned from Cape Town, South Africa, where he had a five-year ministry prior to assuming the ministry of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. The minister of a church about a mile from the Germantown church—Universalist Church of the Restoration—was the Reverend Rudolph Gelsey, whom some of you know. Rudy and Victor and I became a very congenial trio in the leadership of FULLBAC, the White support group for the Black Affairs Council. We also during that period became very good friends and have continued on that basis ever since.

I attended the emergency conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York in October of 1967, but I have to confess to you as I confessed to the group of us a few days ago, in our earlier introductions, that I did not fully understand what was happening at the Biltmore even as it was happening. I knew that there was a Black Caucus. I didn’t fully understand the dynamics of that, coming out of a—personally out of an integrationist background, serving a racially integrated church. The White response to it—some Whites were supportive of the Black demands for an up or down vote without discussion and major presentations to be made by Blacks—minimal participation, but—at least in the presentation phase, by Whites—I didn’t understand that. So I returned home from the Biltmore to my church and home in Philadelphia with my mind just aswirl, wanting to affirm, not fully understanding, but knowing that something fundamental had occurred within Unitarian Universalism.

In ensuing weeks, based on conversations with colleagues, others who had attended the emergency conference, and my friends and neighbors in Philadelphia, I began to understand what had happened. Also, the Unitarian Universalist Association, having sponsored the conference, was concerned to get the word out to the denomination of its importance, and the particular outcomes.

What I did understand was that Black people meeting in integrated settings do not have as much power as Blacks as they do meeting solely as Blacks. That was the most important finding, or discovery, for me, of the Biltmore conference. On the basis of that understanding, I supported from the beginning the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus because I knew that Blacks who get lost in integrated situations would be less likely to get lost—in terms of self-identity, self-presentation, and strategic planning—in an all-Black situation, and that’s what a Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus is—diverse Black Unitarian Universalists versus meeting together as Blacks. I just found that idea magnificent, and I still do.

I returned to Philadelphia in the course of events. The call came from Southern California for White Unitarian Universalists to step forward in support of the Black Caucus’s demand for full funding by the Unitarian Universalist Association of the Black Affairs Council at the 1968 General Assembly in Cleveland. I believed that that cause was just. As the minister of a large church with a full staff and wonderful facilities, I jumped in and joined with Jack Mendelsohn, Leona Light and Ann Raynolds in the leadership of FULLBAC, the White support group for the Black Affairs Council. Jack and Ann and Leona and I were the original co-chairs of FULLBAC.

“What I did understand was that Black people meeting in integrated settings do not have as much power as Blacks as they do meeting solely as Blacks. That was the most important finding, or discovery, for me, of the Biltmore conference.”

I just want to mention one other detail. During the year after the Cleveland General Assembly—after the great victory of seventy-two to twenty-eight percent majority vote in favor of a million dollars’ funding for the Black Affairs Council over a period of four years, I bet I was on a plane to Boston at least twice a month to meet with Jack and Don and Victor and others, male and female, White and Black, trying to help the Unitarian Universalist Association leadership understand the implications of this commitment. There was resistance because they liked to do things the way they had always done them on an integrationist basis. They wanted to have all the staff members who were on the staff continue on the staff, whereas with the funding for BAC, that meant that a big slice of the UUA budget was going not for staff salaries but for empowering Black people. So what adjustments need to be made on the UUA staff in order to accommodate this bold new program by the Unitarian Universalist Association as voted in Cleveland? We were negotiating with the UUA leadership and with the president, Robert West, who was elected in 1969, the year after the Cleveland General Assembly.

One could go on. Let me just share a vignette from the Cleveland General Assembly in ‘68. We were in a state of high euphoria after that vote, as you can imagine. I was turning to various FULLBAC supporters around the hall to express my personal gratitude to them. I found Farley Wheelwright, a minister colleague, standing alone. I walked over to him and said, “Farley, I want to thank you for your support of FULLBAC. I’m looking toward today’s vote.“ He said, “Why are you thanking me? I didn’t do it for you.” [audience laughter]

Gwen Thomas
BUUC

 

Now living in Colorado, Gwen is an English professor who says some of the “wonderful things“ she has done on behalf of the Unitarian Universalist Association happened when she was on the Black Affairs Council.

Gwen, who was chair and vice chair of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus, served on the Black Affairs Council and on the UUA Board of Trustees for about the same length of time. She won first prize for the funniest story told during the open conversation.      

GWEN THOMAS: I’m an English professor from Colorado, and I’m not going to go into details about my BAC-BUUC experiences unless you ask me, because all I’m supposed to do as I understand it at this point is tell you who I am. So—.

I have done some wonderful things. I want you to know that some of them were done in the name of the Unitarian Universalist Association when I was on the Black Affairs Council. I have been chair and vice chair of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus, so I have been very active in this denomination. I want you simply to know that that activity was spurred by my White Unitarian minister [Rev. Richard Henry] in Denver, Colorado. He came back from Cleveland so excited he didn’t know what to do with himself. We probably had four Black members in our church, but he surely wanted some of us to get into what was going on nationally. And I turned out to be the person who really got involved in national BUUC and served, I guess about ten years, on the Black Affairs Council. I also served on the UUA Board of Trustees for about ten years. It’s been a wonderful experience.

 

WINIFRED NORMAN: My name is Winifred Latimer Norman, from New York City. My grandfather was Lewis Latimer, a famous inventor, and a founding member of Flushing Unitarian Church. So I was very interested when in New York this conference was held that you’ve heard about so far. I’m not going to say too much, either, but I do want you to know that I went to that overall Unitarian conference, representing my minister, Donald Harrington, from the Community Church of New York, who was not available that day and asked me to represent him. Little did he know what I would report when I came back to tell him what went on! He was most unhappy [audience laughter] because—some of you evidently know him—because of his principles of integration—nothing should be separate at all. However, we did get some members who were interested in what we were doing, but in an effort to overturn what [the] Black Affairs Council had done, what BUUC had done, he formed, first in his own church, BAWA—you’ll see it in here—the Black and White Action—it was called something else before—.

 

VOICES: —Alternative—.

Winifred Norman
BUUC

 

Winifred, from New York City, is the granddaughter of Lewis Latimer, a famous inventor who was also a founding member of the Flushing Unitarian Church. She was a member of the Community Church of New York at the time of the conference, and her minister, Donald Harrington, was not available and asked her to represent him.

After the conference, Winifred reported back to her church, and she referred to that as “quite an experience.” She eventually joined the Fourth Universalist Society—where she is still a member—and planned after the January conversation to include something about it in the church service the following Sunday.

WINIFRED NORMAN: Yes, Alternative. Well, it ended up as Action. They wanted it to be that. I was a member of that church and I brought several people into the church. I stayed a while longer as people left because they did not want to be around with the minister’s stand. However, I was asked to stay on to see what they were doing and whatnot [audience laughter], but it was a most unpleasant situation because the church has a lot of columns—you’ve seen it in New York—and some of the nice members and some of the older members in particular—I’m no kid myself, by the way—were sort of hiding behind pillars to talk to me, to let me know that I was supporting them. I did eventually leave and join another church in New York, the church I’m a part of now, the Fourth Universalist Society. However, I did support the program all the way through, and there were some people in New York who did as well, and I’m very happy to be here today and to see you.

 

Victor Carpenter
FULLBAC supporter

 

Living in Cape Town when the Emergency Conference happened at the Biltmore, Vic began his ministry at the First Church in Philadelphia around January 1st, 1968. Because of his longtime involvement with the antiapartheid movement, Vic became a supporter of FULLBAC, BUUC and BAC, and was part of the walkout at the General Assembly.

Vic says his purpose in writing the Minns lectures (1983), which cover approximately twenty-four months, was to make the point that the Black Empowerment controversy was “absolutely at the heart and soul of our association.” He called it a “defining moment” which “remains an important part of our lives,” and he is currently writing “another, larger story that needs to be told.”

VICTOR CARPENTER: As Dave Parke said, I was part of FULLBAC, but I was not among the original people involved in FULLBAC. When that emergency conference was held in New York that you’ve heard about, I was finishing a five-year ministry in South Africa, where I had come face to face with what racist fascism looks like up close and personal, if you will. I came to Philadelphia in January of 1968, met with Dave. Dave told me what had happened in New York and I was absolutely thrilled because having seen what apartheid looked like in South Africa, I was able to translate what apartheid looked like in the United States. And you know, apartheid always has a fascist component, and from what I had seen, the fascism was not only being surfaced but being confronted. I felt it had been confronted in a wonderfully fundamental and powerful way in the reports that I had read in the emergency conference in New York, and so I should tell you that my church in Philadelphia did not have a clue about what was going on. I felt that I had five years instruction in South Africa in what exactly was going on, and so I was pleased by the prospect of becoming involved in a group that did not lead, but was in fact supportive of, the leadership of the oppressed people of this country in addressing their oppression and demanding power. And so it was my privilege to be part of FULLBAC and it was my privilege to be part of the various organizations involved in the next several years.

 


Joe Samples
BUUC

 

From Detroit and a Unitarian since 1955, Joe organized and served on the steering committee of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus, and was subsequently elected to the Commission on Appraisal. Two years later he was made its chairperson.

Today Joe remains especially concerned about closet racism, and says what he learned from the Black Caucus is that there has to be a point in history where Blacks themselves get together to decide their own destiny.

JOE SAMPLES: I’m from Detroit, and I’ve been a Unitarian ever since 1955. I did not go to New York, but I did go to Chicago, where Blacks from across the country met, and was so impressed that I went back to Detroit and organized the largest caucus group in the country. And because of that, the first national meeting of the Black Caucus was held in Detroit. I served on the steering committee of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus, and because of my involvement there, I got elected to the Commission on Appraisal, and two years later was made its chairperson. And after I left the Commission on Appraisal, I then acted as a coordinator for the Urban Church Coalition.(2) So that’s about all you need to know about me.

HAROLD WILSON: We had one more participant, Alex Poinsett,(3) who many of you might know through his writings. He’s a distinguished writer and has been published in periodicals and magazines, and at one time had an ongoing relationship with Ebony magazine. He was a member of BUUC. His wife was also an active member of BUUC.

What we hope now is that we’ll be enriched by your questions. Could we open it up for questioning?

JACK MENDELSOHN: Let me add one other thing. It probably would not be appropriate for you to ask the question and then say, “You have one minute to answer,” but the thought in mind is very important. [audience laughter]

Those of us who sit here in this semicircle are all given to oratory.

 

HAROLD WILSON: Do you have any questions? What are the questions out here?

 

(Note to Reader: There are approximately 75 invited guests present for the conversation.)

 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: What do you think is the most significant issue that you’ve discussed in the last two days among yourselves?

 

Jack Mendelsohn: Who would like to take a crack at that one?

 

GWEN THOMAS: I would say, How important is the history? See, that’s what we’ve been talking about—the history of BUUC and BAC, and I think that the issue is, was it worthy of all the time and attention among these people coming from all around the country to bring up this experience and to sort of set it in concrete so that our denomination will never forget what went on among us during the Black movement? That’s what I think.

 

Don McKinney: And there’s a concern that that story has not been told fully or appropriately yet, and this really needs to happen.

 

HAROLD WILSON: The most appropriate thing lacking is that story has not been told by the Black Caucus members and people in integral roles in the Black Caucus. I agree with Gwen. Our planning is partly around what we’re going to do next and our agreement is that we will proceed and produce the history as best we can.

 

Jack Mendelsohn: Would anyone else like to respond to that question, which was pretty general? There may be other views of what was important.

DAVID PARKE: One distinction that came up during the course of our three days was the distinction between separatism and segregation. The formation of the Black Caucus was an instance of Black separatism for an affirmative ethical cause. Segregation, which involves the forced collectivities of Blacks by the hands of White people, their overlords, which is Victor’s experience in South Africa, is a very different configuration of power.

 

Jack Mendelsohn: Another thing that I think we talked about at length in between other things was the light that this whole episode from ‘67 to ‘71 threw on the nature of racism—that racism is not just personal bigotry. Racism is systemic. It’s institutional. It’s deeply embedded. We all grow up with it, and part of the racism of our society is under the name of White privilege, and until White privilege is examined and understood, we are never going to understand how racism operates in our society.

 

HAROLD WILSON: [Do any of our members?] have any comments on what they thought were important issues we discussed?

 

IONE VARGUS: Yes. I thought one of the things that was important is our reviewing of—quite a bit—of what BUUC actually involved, actually did—some of the action that they took, what they funded, what we thought about philosophically, and all of that. That was of very real interest to me, and then where we would be in that thinking today. [voices together say yes, yes] And so we discussed that.

 

GWEN THOMAS: I think it was important that I in particular have an opportunity to recount some of my personal experiences as a member of BUUC. That’s the reason, you know, if somebody here wants to hear about it, I’ll tell you what happened in Greene County, Alabama.

 

HAROLD WILSON: I want to hear about it right now.

IONE VARGUS: And she wants to talk about it. [laughter]

 

GWEN THOMAS: Obviously, this was one of the most exciting things that happened to this middle class school teacher. Right? I’m a college professor who reared two sons in the suburbs. Now I went as a member of BUUC down to Greene County, Alabama, where those White folks down there were drowning the Black Muslims’ cows, and we went as Unitarians—not just Black Unitarians. There were some White Unitarians, the members of BAC, who went along to make a personal, physical demonstration of the fact that we thought that those Black farmers ought to be able to have their cows in peace, and that those White folks had no business drowning cows that belonged to Black people. And somebody shot at us while we were down there—nobody ever shot at me before in my life—this guy had two bodyguards with him. And he flew in to Greene County, Alabama—.

 

“And I was about to say, ‘Well, that would be all right,’ and he said, ‘I’ve got two bodyguards to see that nobody puts any sugar in the gas tank.’ Now that alarmed me, see?”

HAROLD WILSON: In his own plane.

 

GWEN THOMAS: In his own plane, but first called me up and asked me if I’d like to fly down from Denver with him. And I was about to say, “Well, that would be all right,” and he said, “I’ve got two bodyguards to see that nobody puts any sugar in the gas tank.” Now that alarmed me, see? That was what made me understand [audience laughter] that I was going on a dangerous mission. So I told him, No, thank you, I would fly down on United. [audience laughter]

And that is what I did, but the fact is, that when we were down there, we were driving to the meeting place—out in the country someplace—somebody shot at us. When we got ready to leave this makeshift hall where we had had our meetings, these bodyguards came to us one by one and said very quietly into our ears, “When you leave this building, don’t stop under that light. Go straight to the car and get in it.”

And if that wasn’t bad enough, then this man got into the car, beside my mother’s middle class daughter, with a gun in his hand—a revolver in his hand—and sat down beside me in order to protect me on the ride back to town. Now this was a BAC/BUUC experience, y’all—hear?

 

HAROLD WILSON: But more importantly, this was the setting in America that Black people were living, that was real for them, and they were in constant danger if they raised up their head in any way and objected. And you’ve got to understand the significance of Greene County. BAC finally funded Greene County to take a case to the Supreme Court of the United States—and we provided the funding for the briefs—on a voters’ rights case. It was the first case before the Supreme Court where they found in favor of us, and it was not just significant for Greene County, but for all of us.

 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: What year was that?

 

GWEN THOMAS: I don’t know. [voices offer various answers]

 

HAROLD WILSON: About ‘70.

 

GWEN THOMAS: Probably.

 

HAROLD WILSON: I want to clarify one point. Dave has mentioned separatists. FULLBAC had to deal with the issue of separatists, because we were accused of being Black separatists, and we were not Black separatists. But that’s what we were accused of and that’s what FULLBAC had to address politically to keep us alive so we could have votes when these votes came up about the money and about our place in the denomination.

Let’s talk about Black self-determination. It is not separatist, and it is not separatism. It is people of color understanding that the only thing they can do at a given time is to unite their own forces as strongly as they can to confront White institutional racism. And inherent to the concept is something else. The reality that we control no institutions, and we have to collaborate with White groups who do have power in those institutions to try to convince them to deal with their own people. And that’s what we were about. We were not separatist, but charged as separatists.

 

Jack Mendelsohn: Well, that elicited quite a bit of response, so what about a second question?

 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I have a question. What happened in Boston, because I think that’s very significant. I don’t know if anybody knows that.

 

Jack Mendelsohn: The question of the 1969 General Assembly and what happened there. All right, who wants to begin a recital in response to that—.

 

BETTE SIKES: It was all your fault, so I think you have to respond. [audience laughter]

 

MEMBER OF AUDIENCE: I’ve heard Jack’s version. It’s a great version.

 

Jack Mendelsohn: Well, prior to the General Assembly in 1969, there was a lot of—what do we call it—backlash. A tremendous amount of backlash current in our midst, relative to the passage in ‘68 of the funding, and the accusations of separatism, for example, were much involved in that. And the UUA board simply backtracked—got scared—and voted to rescind the whole thing. The president said there wasn’t money for it, the board said that it was not going to be able to implement the decision of the General Assembly, so we had to face into a General Assembly in which the tide had institutionally—at the executive level—had vastly changed. We had the prospect of a new president who was likely to be elected who was opposed to the whole idea of the Black Affairs Council.

So we tried to get organized both as FULLBAC and as BUUC to carry the day in Boston if we possibly could, and there was talk. There was some talk about having a blackout—I mean a walkout [audience laughter]—a walkout!—if necessary. People have blackouts in California.

HAROLD WILSON: Yes, well, we were going to have a blackout. [audience laughter]

 

Jack Mendelsohn: And in fact that’s what it was. This talk was that if the Black Caucus request for an up-or-down vote on the funding right at the very beginning of the General Assembly was refused, then the Black Caucus members would walk out. And precisely that’s what happened, that the vote on whether we would change the agenda so that a vote could be taken on the question of funding—that vote lost—at which time most of the Black attendees—the delegates—and there were a considerable number—we’re talking now about maybe as many as a hundred people—got up and walked out.

 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: At that meeting, how many were there? What percentage was a hundred people of the people that were there?

 

HAROLD WILSON: About 2,500 in that meeting.

 

Jack Mendelsohn: Five percent—.

 

HAROLD WILSON: I see the story a bit differently than he does, but keep telling.

 

Jack Mendelsohn: I don’t want this to get to be some dispute between Harold and myself, really. I’m just simply trying to tell you what happened from my point of view.

“This was a deeply, deeply sorrowful group of people who were going to leave. They were going to leave the General Assembly, they weren’t sure whether they weren’t going to leave the whole shebang—the whole movement.”

So when the Blacks walked out, there was a recess called by Joe Fisher, the moderator, and I went to look for the Black delegates. I didn’t know where they’d gone. And I found them in a room of the Hotel Statler as it was called then, and they were saying good-bye to one another. And there were more tears being shed in that room than you’re likely to see many times in your life. This was a deeply, deeply sorrowful group of people who were going to leave. They were going to leave the General Assembly, they weren’t sure whether they weren’t going to leave the whole shebang—the whole movement.

I asked if I could have permission to speak, and I spoke to this group and said, “Let me go back into that assembly to demonstrate to you that you’re not alone in this. And would you just please stay around until I’ve had a chance to do that?” And so I went to Joe Fisher and Dana Greeley and said, “I’m asking for a point of personal privilege. Can I have just a few minutes?” And they gave it to me.

So I stood there in front of the General Assembly when it reconvened. I got the floor and I spoke, and I said, “This is a perfect example of Blacks again being told to go to the back of the bus. And that’s why they’ve left.” And I was hooted and booed, and when the tide died down a little, I said, “I’m going over to Arlington Street Church, because I can’t stay here and do business as usual anymore. And those who want to join me, I invite to come and join me. Be free to come.”

I got up, went down the stairs of the platform. One of my colleagues came up and spit in my face. I walked out and about three or four hundred other people walked out with me, and followed me the block and a half over to Arlington Street Church, where we assembled in the great auditorium. We’re licking our own wounds and asking ourselves, What can we next do? There’s a sequel to that whole story, too, but that’s what happened.

 

AUDIENCE: I wanted to hear that again.

 

HAROLD WILSON: There’s one thing I’d like to add. We were not just crying. We had designed our walkout in advance. We knew what we were going to do. We knew what we had to confront. It was strategy, not impulse. We knew that we had to put people on microphones. We knew we had to declare, for us, that we asked that this meeting be adjourned till they were ready to discuss social justice issues. And then—and only then—did we walk out. We saw ourself [sic] caucusing in that room that you appeared in, Jack, and we had made up our mind that we would only use one person to go in and out of there who would talk to anybody during that period of time. And we used one person as a contact, and fortunately, our general strategy had worked. To begin with, we had developed a very strong, loyal group of White people who we never could have done that without, who were a part of it. And the truth of the matter is, while everybody was talking about separatism, there was more honest, decent, wholesome relationship between Black people and White people than had ever appeared in the church before because we talked as peers and back and forth and out of our realities.

 

JOE SAMPLES: Harold, I don’t remember it that way.

 

Jack Mendelsohn: He’s making me sound like I lied.

 

HAROLD WILSON: No, I’m not saying you lied.

 

Jack Mendelsohn: I told them these people were getting ready to leave, and they were.

 

JOE SAMPLES: I don’t remember it that way, Harold.

 

HAROLD WILSON: I do.

 

[voices join in]

 

BETTE SIKES: Let’s continue with questions.

 

Jack Mendelsohn: Clare?

 

AUDIENCE (CLARE FISCHER): Thank you. First of all I want to say this is the most gratifying thing that’s happened in this room for a lot of years. Twenty years ago, when I first came to Starr King, I remember Til Evans often speaking about that walkout to the Arlington Church, and in between, in twenty years, not much else has happened with that narrative until today, in my view. So it’s wonderful.

My question is this—and it’s less historical and more sociological. I’m curious about the extent to which the various groups coordinated, built coalitions with secular Black movement groups during that period of time. How important was that, and was there a good deal of crossover?

 

HAROLD WILSON: There was a good deal of coordination across lines. To begin with, we funded some programs through BAC, or BAC funded some programs like the Committee for a New Newark, where they were trying to run a Black for the mayor of the city. We funded a program through BAC—a voter registration program—but it was really a political organizing program where we brought Black people from all over the country in to Newark, and they put on voter registration and political organizing meetings for a whole weekend. There were a number of things like that. The fellow who preceded me as chairman of the Black Caucus, Mtangulizi Sanyika—was then known as Hayward Henry—left the chairmanship in order to develop a world organization of Black people.

 

GWEN THOMAS: I think that you ought to set what was going on with Unitarian Universalists in the context of what was going on with African American people throughout the country. I would walk into an airport and a janitor would say, “Hello, Sister!” Now that was an unusual experience for some of us professional African American people, but it was the tenor of the times. We were recognizing all of our African Americans as being related to whatever we were doing, and so the African American Unitarians were very much a part of that atmosphere in the country. It wasn’t just limited to the small number of African Americans who happened to be Unitarian Universalists, you see. It was an American thing that was going on, and we were part of the mood of the Black movement that was taking place at the time.

“I would walk into an airport and a janitor would say, ‘Hello, Sister!’ Now that was an unusual experience for some of us professional African American people, but it was the tenor of the times.”

We did provide a good bit of leadership for it, but we didn’t start it and we really just sort of fit into it.

 

JOE SAMPLES: On my part is that in Detroit, the Protestants and Catholics got together and formed what they called the Michigan Community Organization Council, and put in about fifty grand a year for distribution in the Black community. They heard about my experience with the Caucus, and I was a chairperson for the council for five years. Also, because of my experience with BUUC, I was also on an IFCO board, which was the Interfaith Community Organization, which met in New York. This was a gathering of all Black community organizations across the country.

 

HAROLD WILSON: You’ve had your hand up back there all the time. Why don’t we answer your question?

 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I heard that you spent some of your time looking at the issues today and looking forward, and I wondered if you talked at all about the public school system or the prison system in this country. What did you talk about?

 

Jack Mendelsohn: Frankly, we didn’t look forward very much at all.

 

BETTE SIKES: No, no. We’re not—we’re looking back.

 

DONALD MCKINNEY: But this is a very good example. What has just been discussed is one of the great reasons why we’ve got to have this story clearly understood and told. The programs that were being investigated and then funded by the Black Affairs Council, with UUA money that had been voted and was projected to go over that four-year period, was starting—and I had—it was for me a great privilege to be a part of BAC in those years to have a chance to see the detail in planning those proposals—not planning the proposals. The proposals came from the communities to BAC, and it was so heartrending when it was necessary to say, “Well, there is no more money.” And some of these were the most exciting programs, and those programs—the details of the proposals are there. And they’ve got to be brought forth and that’s got to be a very important part of the history.

 

GWEN THOMAS: Some of us have brought these copies of books that date back to ‘68, ‘69, in which there are lists of some of the programs that BAC funded. You may want to look at these before you leave here today.

 

VICTOR CARPENTER: One of the reasons why your question was not addressed, John,(4) goes very deeply into why we are here and what I think the importance of this meeting, our meetings, and this whole gathering is all about today, namely the Black Empowerment controversy has been so buried in the psychic understanding of what Unitarian Universalism in the twentieth century is all about, that we really have not been able to bring the kind of attention to the programs that you have just mentioned, and the kind of possibilities that were at least in bud with the Black Empowerment work and the work of the Black Affairs Council. Really we’re talking thirty years ago, and you had a lot of this stuff just germinating with Black people empowered to deal with precisely the kind of areas and problems that you’ve just mentioned. Now, we backed away from it. We decided that it was an embarrassment to us. It was looked upon and is still looked upon in the denomination as a failure. I hope one of the things you carry away from this meeting today is that you are seeing before you some people who were really turned on by this, who do not regard it as a failure, who regard it as the most important experience in their professional and individual lives. This was really important stuff, and if nothing else gets out about these meetings, and this meeting right now, let it be known that the Black Empowerment moment was a moment of enormous religious significance for at least the people who are sitting in this room today.

 

DONALD MCKINNEY: And for our history.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Leading up to the walkout, what would you say was the ratio between the backlash that you mentioned around separatism and the real issue of money?

 

Jack Mendelsohn: The ratio? [laughing] That’s a good question. I think they were pretty deeply intertwined.

 

GWEN THOMAS: You couldn’t separate the way White people feel about money from the way they felt about giving it to Black people. [audience laughter] Let’s be honest about this. And that’s really what we were dealing with. I was on the Black Affairs Council. I was one of the people helping to decide which of those programs would get dollars, and I listened—both actually physically listened and then emotionally listened—to the way that people felt about money.

You know, Black people don’t feel that way. We never had anything to start with. And so all these Unitarians, though, who had had direct relationship with dollars all along, were very concerned that these irresponsible Black people—I know that’s what they thought we were—wanted to go help some kids in the inner city have a playground to play on. Those kids can play in the dirt.

 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: What about White accountability for guaranteeing money that wasn’t there in the first place? Was there accountability in that respect?

 

HAROLD WILSON: Can I clarify for you? The following year, there was a major issue about funding for the whole denomination, and we were in the middle of a struggle with the denomination leadership. I knew that Bob West was going to be in this area for a day or two, and I invited him to dinner—.

Jack Mendelsohn: President of the UUA.

 

HAROLD WILSON: President of the UUA, and I invited him to a meeting at my home, because I’m going to really answer your question as to money, and the response of money and emotion, money and racism, money and intense feeling, no matter what you want to call it.

He and I—he came to my house to dinner—and that dinner lasted from 7:00 till 2:30 in the morning when I drove him back to his hotel. When he left, he felt very good about things, and I think he began to see us in a little different light. Not just these Black devils who were just, you know, throwing away money and irresponsible and crooks and all of those kinds of accusations that have been made against us—by the way—by Unitarians. And we agreed. He would go to his people, meaning the structure—executive structure in the Unitarian Church, and I would go to mine, meaning the executive structure in the Black Caucus. And I went to the executive structure in the Black Caucus, who by then was very suspicious around this, and very suspicious of joining in. But I told them I had made an agreement that I would push our joining the finance drive for that year, and further, we would go to our FULLBAC group and ask them—and they had a lot of energy and some pretty big churches—and ask them to join. His response was, That was great. We would meet in New York City and discuss that on a given date.

So I met him in, of all places, outside Grand Central Station. I went to that meeting. We were to go to go somewhere and then talk. We never got a chance to talk. He looked at me and all of the fervor and the good feelings and all of that were gone. He had talked to the boys, and they probably were mostly boys anyhow in those days, and the boys had told him, “You’re out of your mind, West. You’ve got to back away from that stuff,” and they backed away. There was a real chance to deal with the debt, but that’s how that stuff worked. The anger and the hatred was far stronger than the ability to say: Look, this FULLBAC organization has a lot of powerful people in it. I promised we would go from church to church, evangelizing around dollars, but that’s what happens when you have racism.

“We have not made clear that there is a Christian segment to Unitarian Universalism, and so most African Americans look askance at us.”

Victor Carpenter has mentioned something very important. Wherever you find apartheid, you find fascism. I am very glad that you understand America represented absolute apartheid for Black people, and in order for that to exist, there had to be fascism, and it was real fascism, and that was the context that some of us were playing out of, and that’s the understanding we had, and that’s what we wanted to change, and then we also wanted to change the manifestations of it in a church that we had been drawn to and called our church.

Jack Mendelsohn: Way in the back.

 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I’m just wondering—there seems to be an issue in terms of bringing African Americans into the UU congregations today, and I’m wondering, with this history, which I’m hearing—correct me if I’m wrong—it’s sounding like post-1960s and BUUC, there doesn’t seem to be any support for strong African American self-identified people in the UUA, so I’m wondering, is that a correct assumption, or am I missing something?

 

GWEN THOMAS: My feeling is that it is a fairly correct assumption, but what it is about is not that the UUA wouldn’t be really excited and pleased to welcome numbers of African American people into our various congregations. It is that most African Americans come from a decidedly Christian orientation, and they themselves cannot tolerate the liberalism of Unitarian Universalism. We have Christian Unitarians, but we are much better known for the Unitarians who do not identify themselves as Christian, and that creates a problem with the African American community, which is predominantly a Christian community, you see. And so I think you’ve put your finger on a very important and serious issue that accounts for the limited number of African Americans in Unitarian Universalism. We have not made clear that there is a Christian segment to Unitarian Universalism, and so most African Americans look askance at us. They think that we are not Christians, and therefore, they don’t want that particular identification.

“I think we have to look—since this is especially a predominantly White audience—at ourselves, in our churches, as to what our attitude is on this.”

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Do you see it as a theological issue?

 

GWEN THOMAS: Oh, I certainly do! I mean it’s either you believe Jesus Christ is a savior or you don’t, and you could be Unitarian if you don’t.

 

IONE VARGUS: I think, too, in addition to that—I’m not sure, though, that you see as much social justice strongly—which is also an attraction to African Americans. I think when you were doing your churches in Philadelphia, you probably attracted African Americans because they saw that sense of hope really out there—action-oriented social justice—and I see that—I do a lot of Jubilee training, so I go to a variety of churches, and one of the things that a number of churches—of congregations are doing—is what I call social service, but it’s not social action. And I think that it’s the social action piece that attracts a number of African Americans. I mean I agree with you, Gwen, about the Christian piece, too, but I also think that there’s always more than one issue.

 

WINIFRED NORMAN: I’d like to say something—that the responsibility is not only on the African Americans, which is the way the discussion has gone. There are many White people in our churches who are not interested in the kind of program we discussed, who are not interested in trying to involve people in coming to join—at least to come and see what the church is doing. I’m in a small church in New York, but I’ve been a member for a long time and then I was a member for a long time in other churches, and I think we have to look—since this is especially a predominantly White audience—at ourselves, in our churches, as to what our attitude is on this. First you get informed about what we say, and then I think it’s a question of what your attitude is on African Americans, on involving them, inviting them into the church, and spending some time following up. It is possible, but we haven’t done that very well.

“It’s not just us anymore. It is the Asians. It is the Other. It is the gay and lesbians. It’s all of that. It’s an interesting thing.”

Jack Mendelsohn: Joe—do you want to speak?

 

JOE SAMPLES: Well, one of the things I want to say is that [going on in the Black community now] is that people used to think, “Oh, the Baptist church—Blacks singing, shouting, and carrying on.” But if you go to a Baptist church nowadays, you’d be surprised what’s going on. They’re doing community service, they’re getting out, working with kids. They’re doing stuff that they weren’t doing fifty years ago, and Black folks are like this. And in fact in Detroit, I would say about ten of our former members belong to a Baptist church that is doing something. That’s what’s going on.

 

Jack Mendelsohn: In the 1950s, we had a steady trickle of Black people coming into our congregations in areas where Black people lived; that is, generally in close-in suburbs or cities. That went on because of the Civil Rights movement. As I said earlier, the Civil Rights movement and the activity of many representative UUs, widely known for what they were doing, like A. Powell Davies in Washington, or Donald Harrington in New York, and others—.

And so all through the `50s we were increasing in Black membership, but we were also increasing in White membership. The Black members and the White members were coming in for essentially the same reasons—that that was a place they felt comfortable and enjoyed being. In the 1960s, in the early years of the 1960s, there was in metropolitan areas an explosion of people of color coming into our churches, which lasted up until 1970. From then on it began to decrease, and went down precipitously after 1971. Now we’ve been in this ten-year cycle of trying again to do something about enlivening our attraction to people of color with welcoming congregations and with anti-racism workshops and all the rest, but the fact of the matter is, we’re doing just about what everybody else is doing these days—just about holding our own in both categories—total memberships and increase in any real racial diversity.

JOE SAMPLES: Could I interject that I reported that I had organized the largest Black Caucus group in the country. Now, today, in that church, my wife and I are the only ones left from that group.

 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I am Eliyahou Farajajé, and I am Dean of the Faculty here.

I want to thank all of you. I want to thank particularly my sisters and brothers of African descent because I think probably in some very real ways, those of us who are of African descent who are here now probably wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for what you all experienced and what you all have done to create a space, and also to take this occasion to thank those who have been real allies and have put themselves on the line and moved themselves beyond their comfort zone in order to create and make justice.

One of the things that has become very clear to me in working with the UUA for the last couple of years is that when we talk about race, we’re also talking about class, we’re talking about gender roles, we’re talking about sexuality, so on and so forth. One of the issues that’s been kind of hitting me often is looking at the fact that sometimes it appears to me that in some rather well-heeled White congregations, it’s much easier for middle/upper-middle class White people to relate to middle/upper-middle class people of color than it is for them to relate to poor White folks.

I think what my question is is, How do we move this to the next level? For example, I’m very challenged—or troubled, to be more honest—by the fact that because of the intensity of this history, the understanding of race in the UUA in my experience is pretty much based on a Black-White construct of race. And I would really lament gathering again in thirty years—if I should still be here—and have a meeting of the Asian-Pacific Islander Caucus, and the Latino Caucus, and so on and so forth, talking about pretty much a lot of the same issues.

What are the ways in which—do you feel—that the work that you’ve done in the past and continue to do—will also help empower other people of color within the UUA—poor White people within the UUA—people with disabilities within the UUA, so on and so forth—to create their spaces of self-definition and self-determination so that we really start to get to creating the kind of communities that we all say that we so desperately want to see?

BETTE SIKES: My lordie!

 

DON MCKINNEY: One part of it may be—looking at the history again, though, even though the BAC became a failure, in the process I think the thinking of many UUs was expanded to see that there were empowerment issues there for many other groups, and I think there’s no question that the women’s movement was very, very deeply affected by what happened in the Black movement, and the Gay Caucus was definitely there. And the Fellowship for Renewal was an organization which also has disappeared now, but it grew out of FULLBAC and drew into it very quickly people who were concerned exactly in trying to do what you’re talking about. And that is when the Gay Caucus and all these other groups were starting in the churches. And now there’s no question—I think—I hope—although I’m retired now—but I do see in my old Brooklyn church that this weaving the fabric of diversity is providing a mechanism, certainly within the local church, that, if it’s used with enthusiasm, can be a welcoming and empowering means for people to realize that from any wide variety of backgrounds of lack of self-determination or feeling of support, that our churches can be—and our movement, I hope, could see in the larger setting that they could be there as a main and important support.

 

HAROLD WILSON: Dr. Vargus, what’s your response to that?

 

IONE VARGUS: Well, you know, this may sound—well, I don’t need to apologize, but it is going to sound kind of funny—first of all, I think that in some ways that’s what the whole Journey Toward Wholeness is about, isn’t it? It is about making us very aware of the diversity of all kinds that exists, and in fact, the group that used to be called the Black Concerns Working Group is now the Antiracism Group, in order to get away from the notion that it is just Black and White, and in order to make the connection for all the groups. But you know, it’s interesting that you’re the one [gestures toward Eliyahou] who raises the question, because very often the persons who raise that question—How about all the other people besides Black and White?—tend to be the African Americans. So this is what I see, so it’s kind of interesting that, you know, if you get more African Americans, you’ll get more—you may get more, because we raise that all the time. It’s not just us anymore. It is the Asians. It is the Other. It is the gay and lesbians. It’s all of that. It’s an interesting thing.

 

VICTOR CARPENTER: I want to add a word to what’s been said. I was the first chairperson of the disability task force in the UUA, and I gave another lecture—I’m always giving a lecture on these things—on ableism—to introduce the term to the association, and out of that grew the whole issue around our heightened sensitivity toward issues of disempowerment of the disabled and how we can respond to the disabled more effectively. And once again, I don’t think I would have been as sensitive to this had it not been for my experience in FULLBAC.

 

JOE SAMPLES: My response to the so-called UUA program on diversity is, When you can bring me a program that’s going to attract poor White folks, then I can deal with it. [audience laughter]

 

HAROLD WILSON: Do you [toward Gwen] have any comments?

“So much of it is unconscious. It is so much a basic, underlying thing for us that we cannot possibly conceive why somebody wouldn’t just be rushing to get inside of our doors.”

GWEN THOMAS: I think we are attracting people from other groups. I think there is a much less rigid structure of people in our congregations than there once was. We still have inner city churches from which much of our original membership has moved away, you see. And the people who live around those churches are coming into them if they continue to stay open. And so I think that what we have now in terms of diversity includes people of different financial statuses, and people of different racial backgrounds, due to the fact that the areas in which some of our churches are located are changing demographically. And so it’s almost automatic that we’re going to have certain kinds of diversity that we want—did not have—and fortunately, it comes at a time when we are open to that increased diversity, I think. And so I just believe it’s a natural kind of growth that’s going to keep on going among us.

 

HAROLD WILSON: Where are you [toward Bette] on this question?

 

BETTE SIKES: Well, for a long time I’ve felt when issues of class come up, that we have to stop and think what we are offering in the way of theological stuff and liturgy and comfort for people who don’t have money, and I think we think we have salvation, we have the non-answer answers, you know, but there are a great many people in the world who are not comfortable with that. That’s the first thing. So they’re not going to be with us. The other is, a member of my family in the next generation down is quite comfortable with UU thinking on religious issues, but when she was poor and tried to enter one of our churches in a smaller city which has much the feel of the suburb—it isn’t, but it feels like one—there were so many assumptions about what people have. What they own, what they make, how they live their lives, that she could not at that time stay there. Now, when she and her husband got more money and felt not so threatened by everybody else’s affluence, they were able to come back, but it still distresses me when I think about it. And I think we forget that, because it’s just like White skin privilege and it’s like prick privilege. So much of it is unconscious. It is so much a basic, underlying thing for us that we cannot possibly conceive why somebody wouldn’t just be rushing to get inside of our doors.

 

HAROLD WILSON: Roy, did you have a comment?

ROY OCKERT: I spent most of my adult life—working life—as an economist in the labor movement. Out of this came the feeling that what people needed to do was to—use the word however you want—but self-determination applies not just to Blacks but also to working people—Indians—.

 

HAROLD WILSON: Women—.

 

ROY OCKERT: I was born on an Indian reservation and my half-sister is part Indian. One of my closest—I had many Indian friends, but one of my closest buddies—one of my two closest buddies—was a young man named Dick Powaukie. When I lived in Los Angeles, there was a very large Indian population there, including people from the reservation that I grew up on. I think that one of the things that is necessary is for people to develop the self-determination, the competence—the self-confidence, the feeling of worth and so on that comes out of it, and out of that will come people who come, who not only accept Unitarian Universalism, but who seek it, just as I did. And I think that this is one of the things that’s important.

On the list of acronyms, I think that there are three that are missing that are important for the history of what all went on. One is Black Unitarian Universalist—the Black Unitarians for Radical Reform—BURR—and it was formed in the LA area in August 1967.

 

IONE VARGUS: It preceded BUUC.

 

ROY OCKERT: It preceded BUUC. SOBURR was the Supporters for BURR, which preceded FULLBAC, another—. [voices say which—. SOBURR—] S-O-B-U-R-R.

 

IONE VARGUS: Supporters of—.

 

ROY OCKERT: Supporters of BURR. And the third one was a study group that we formed which in some ways also preceded FULLBAC—one we called WURR—W-U-R-R, which was the acronym for White Universalists for Radical Readjustment.

“We have not seen a riot yet until poor Whites discover what the system is doing to them.”

HAROLD WILSON: Joe has brought up a critical issue. Whenever I’ve gotten together with Black people, usually it’s been around Black political organization, and when we finish our business, we sit around and talk. Eventually somebody’s going to say, “You know, man, we’re talking about moving these White people,” and I’m discouraged because they don’t give a damn about underclass White people. Then somebody will say, “You ever heard a White person talk about his brother, or his sister, when they were underclass?”

 

WINIFRED NORMAN: I wanted to say since there are many young people here that the possibility of doing more on these questions is among the youth—youth in the denomination, and young people in the churches. We’ve had a limited experience, again in my church, but also in other churches in our New York district. We have been going ahead quite well on this question, and I would suggest if you are a part of this movement that you look around and see what the chances are of increasing our membership and increasing this information about what we are doing among the young people.

 

JOE SAMPLES: Let me add a sequel to my point. You know what? We have not seen a riot yet until poor Whites discover what the system is doing to them.

 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: [Directed to Don McKinney] When you said—in the midst of what you were saying before—something about how BAC might have been a failure—it was a failure or something like it—you said that—and tears came to my eyes because, God! It wasn’t a failure.

 

DON MCKINNEY: I said mainly it’s failed.

 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Well, it stopped happening—.

 

DON MCKINNEY: Of the dreams it could have provided with the money. That’s what I meant.

“We felt that all of the Unitarian churches ought to be somehow involved with antiracism and ought to encourage some Black membership in their mix. Now I was out there walking up and down and it was at a time when I had a great big Afro. And a little White lady looked up at me and she said, ‘I’m not afraid of your hair!’”

HAROLD WILSON: Let her plainly state her point.

 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: It was an emotional response to—if there’s any thread that FULLBAC and BAC and those efforts were in any way failures—I’m sitting here thinking, What a wonderful effort! What a heartfelt—what a love—what a passion, and that if there was a failure, we can look beyond to the larger institution and we can look at what stopped the process, in the way that it got stopped and the heartbreak of it all.

 

DON MCKINNEY: That’s what I meant.

 

JOE SAMPLES: Let me say this to you. The organizations have failed, but we haven’t failed!

 

[voices say “No! That’s right!” and audience applauds]

 

HAROLD WILSON: Gwen gives the best example of that. Why don’t you talk about all the things you did as a basis of the shift in you—as a basis of your experience in BUUC?

 

GWEN THOMAS: Oh, Harold! [audience laughter] You know, I’m a college professor, and everything that I do gets into my classroom some kind of way—you know. It doesn’t matter—I do teach Afro-American literature, but I don’t limit accounts—my students know where I am right now, and when I go back, I will tell them what all these people said, you see? I think that what happens to those of us who are activists is that we use all of our experience. We don’t compartmentalize and ignore the things that we participate in. I think there’s a natural tendency toward integration of experience, so that all the things we do and all of the people we come to know turn up in the classroom if you’re a college professor, you know? It doesn’t really matter what I’m supposed to be teaching. I’ve got to do a syllabus, but the fact is that anybody who takes a class I teach is going to learn a lot about Unitarian Universalism because it’s at the center of my life. I cannot teach short stories and never talk about the fact that I made this trip and spent this three or four days and got to know all of these different people. It seems to me that everything touches upon the center of one’s being, and so that you don’t isolate experiences. I don’t even try to isolate experiences. I appreciate the fact that the students of Starr King wanted to hear something about my activities when I was part of BUUC, and there’s just one little episode that I want to tell you about that doesn’t fit anywhere else. Doesn’t really fit here, either, but I want you to hear it.

At one time, BUUC was picketing a White Unitarian church in New York City, plus it was a very prosperous church, and it had no Black members. We felt that all of the Unitarian churches ought to be somehow involved with antiracism and ought to encourage some Black membership in their mix. Now I was out there walking up and down and it was at a time when I had a great big Afro. And a little White lady looked up at me and she said, “I’m not afraid of your hair!” [audience laughter]

There are all kinds of experiences. [audience laughter]

 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I wanted to just make a statement, which is, I truly hope that the event here has somehow been an opportunity for some personal healing for you folks, and that it contributes to a more general healing within our movement so that we can get on with the work. Thank you for being here.

 

HAROLD WILSON: Our purpose for calling this meeting, and our purpose for being here, was to see if we could generate the kind of resources among our own people to develop a written history that comes out of Black Unitarian Universalists who were a part of that Caucus experience. For much of the data and all of that, we’re going to depend on what some of our FULLBAC members have already done and done very well, but we still need to hear the story from the Black point of view.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I just was thinking—and I don’t quite know how to phrase the question—but the Unitarian Universalist young adult movement is an effort to organize with a people of color caucus understanding—with self-empowerment and shared leadership across lines that divide—a radically inclusive vision for our movement. But what I haven’t heard about is the connection with you all, or maybe we’ve kind of said, “That’s history,” and have forgotten—I mean, this is just, I guess, an ignorance of youth or you know, that whole thing of like, “You’re still alive?!” [audience laughter]

I think we feel like we’re creating it all over it again from scratch, so if there could just be some way to make that connection a bit more real, so that that learning could happen both ways. Thank you for doing this and I’ll take it back.

 

GWEN THOMAS: Let me make one observation about that. One of the most important persons in the BUUC movement was Ben Scott, and Ben Scott died within the past two weeks—in Sumter, South Carolina—and so what you say touches me a great deal. We are going to lose some of the personal contact that keeps this history alive, and so it is important that you people here at Starr King have allowed us to come here and share with you our experience. I think it is a vital contribution to Unitarian Universalism and I personally want to thank you.

 

HAROLD WILSON: Yes. [applause]

 

 

__________

1. Dr. Homer Jack was the denomination’s executive for Social Responsibility.

2. In a later conversation with Cathleen Young, Joe explained that he came to a point where he didn’t want to deal with White folks, and so he chose to work with the Urban Church Coalition because it moved beyond racism, toward engaging urban churches with diverse communities.

3. A statement by Alex Poinsett appears on page 49.

4. John Marsh, in the audience, is a local minister who asked the question now being discussed.

Copyright 2006 Alicia McNary Forsey.  Last edited on Monday 30 October 2006.


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