Southern Unitarian Universalists in the Civil Rights Era
A Story of Small Acts of Great Courage
by Rev. Gordon D. Gibson
Under auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society
at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association
June 23, 2000, Nashville, Tennessee
What was it like to be a Unitarian Universalist living in the Deep South in the Civil Rights era? For many people on many days it was much the same as being a Unitarian Universalist anywhere in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s. But sometimes it became more complicated and less comfortable than that.
When Paul and Thelma Worksman moved from the Washington area to Mississippi they bought a house in Clinton, just west of Jackson. Paul was on the front lawn, supervising the unloading of the moving van, when a car pulled up. A man emerged from the car, walked up to Paul and introduced himself as the minister of the Morrison Heights Baptist Church. He invited the Worksmans to attend Morrison Heights Baptist. Paul thanked him for the invitation but said that they would be attending the Unitarian Universalist Church in Jackson. The man hesitated a moment and then said, “You know they shot the minister of that church.”
We all remember the Rev. James Reeb, fatally injured during the voting rights campaign in Selma, but some southern Unitarian Universalists have especially vivid and poignant memories. The Rev. Charles Blackburn, a native southerner serving the Huntsville, Alabama, Fellowship, remembers telling northern colleagues, including Reeb, that they were safe within the neighborhood right around Brown’s Chapel A.M.E. Church but not outside it; a few hours later Reeb was attacked after eating in a African American restaurant outside that immediate neighborhood. Jean Levine of Atlanta remembers that Reeb had his suitcase in the trunk of her car that afternoon, ready to go back to the Atlanta airport, but then pulled the suitcase out to stay another day or two. H.A. “Bob” Ross, then of Miami, remembers sitting at dinner with Reeb, but turning left as he departed the restaurant and later hearing on the car radio that Reeb, who had turned right, had been attacked and critically injured.
In Baton Rouge in 1955 a service on the lynching of Emmett Till was attended by about ten “southern gentlemen,” dressed in dark suits and dark hats. That was almost half the attendance that day. A few months later the YWCA told the congregation that the space they had been renting for services was needed for YWCA programming, although there was no evidence of the Y doing any new programming in that space for years to come.
In Knoxville in 1952 the Ohio State Symphonic Choir, scheduled to sing at the University of Tennessee, could not be fed on campus because it was an integrated group. The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church fed the visiting choir.
Those are a few vignettes. What was the larger picture?
If you looked at the Deep South — the states that had formed the Confederacy — a century or a century and a half ago, you would have seen a scattering of Universalist congregations in each state, but many states with no Unitarian presence. This meant that the South in the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights era, was to a great extent just beginning to encounter Universalist and Unitarian ideas and persons with much frequency. This was a fateful time for liberal ideas and principles to be coming to the fore in this part of the world. The dominant social ideas of the South in the 1950s and 1960s were of control, continuity, conformity, hierarchy. The ethos and core of Unitarianism and Universalism elevated values of freedom, personal responsibility, unfettered truth-seeking, and affirmation of human dignity. The dominant values of this religious movement were, to put it mildly, in conflict with the dominant values of the region. That conflict is what I will be talking about.
The Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s was a place of undeniable charm and a place of significant repression. The South had been hit desperately hard by the Depression. Roosevelt’s recovery programs, the economic stimulus of the war years, and related factors were bringing change to the South. But change was not welcome in all its manifestations. Economic change unsettled some people. Racial change, which was increasingly talked about and sometimes enacted, was deeply troubling to many white southerners. John Egerton, a native southerner and a wise and discerning observer of the region, has written:
” . . . it was precisely these problems of racial and regional inequality — the one sustaining the other — that festered beneath the surface of midcentury life in the region. In no remote sense could these be thought of as new problems. For nearly seventy-five years — since the end of Reconstruction — the political and economic rulers in the states of the Old Confederacy had gradually tightened their oligarchic grip until their control was more secure than it had ever been, even in the days of slavery. With the indulgence and complicity of their Yankee conquerors, they had locked the black minority in a straitjacket of segregation and built a self-perpetuating hierarchy based on political, economic, religious, and racial monopoly.”
Another observer, also a lover of the South, was Professor James W. Silver of the University of Mississippi. In November of 1963 he gave an address as the retiring President of the Southern Historical Association. That address expanded into his 1964 book, Mississippi: The Closed Society. In that book he wrote:
There are parallels between the 1850’s and the 1950’s which remind us that Mississippi has been on the defensive against inexorable change for more than a century, and that by the time of the Civil War it had developed a closed society with an orthodoxy accepted by nearly everybody in the state. The all-pervading doctrine, then and now, has been white supremacy, whether achieved through slavery or segregation, rationalized by a professed belief in state rights and bolstered by religious fundamentalism. In such a society a never-ceasing propagation of the “true faith” must go on relentlessly, with a constantly reiterated demand for loyalty to the united front, requiring that non-conformists and dissenters from the code be silenced, or, in a crisis, driven from the community. Violence and the threat of violence have confirmed and enforced the image of unanimity.
This, then, is the essence of the closed society. For whatever reason, the community sets up the orthodox view. . . . When there is no effective challenge to the code, a mild toleration of dissent is evident, providing the non-conformist is tactful and does not go too far. But with a substantial challenge from the outside — to slavery in the 1850’s and to segregation in the 1950’s — the society tightly closes its ranks, becomes inflexible and stubborn, and lets no scruple, legal or ethical, stand in the way of the enforcement of the orthodoxy. The voice of reason is stilled and the moderate either goes along or is eliminated.
In short, the South, ruled by a white power structure and pervaded by an ideology widely shared by its white residents, was facing a crisis in ideas and in social patterns at just the time that Unitarians, Universalists, and soon Unitarian Universalists began to be a visible and contrarian presence after World War II. The white South felt besieged and was in a mood to strike back at those perceived as agents of change, as “outside agitators,” or as “traitors.” Persons operating on the principles that were inherent to Universalism, Unitarianism, and then Unitarian Universalism were almost inevitably a challenge to southern mores and social patterns.
What was the result of this conflict? The result could have been Unitarian Universalists fading away, retreating yet again from the South even as the Unitarians in particular had previously avoided the South.
The result could have been Unitarian Universalists finding that accommodation to society was really more important than their own professed values; this was certainly something that had happened in many other religious traditions.
Either of these results would have been understandable, and in some instances one or both happened. There were places where Unitarian Universalists folded their tents and silently stole away in the night. There were Unitarian Universalists who accommodated deeply to the dominant society, maintaining only a mild and intensely private religious deviation from the social norm.
The most typical response, however, was for Unitarian Universalists to learn how to live in some degree of tension between their core beliefs on the one hand and, on the other hand, the beliefs and practices deemed acceptable by southern society. If the society was closed, we were a place of openness.
This stance was not easy to maintain. It led some congregations and many individuals to what I would characterize as “small acts of great courage.” I spent two months of my sabbatical this year collecting stories of these “small acts of great courage.” Why did I spend my time this way? Because I am a Unitarian Universalist, with three prior and one succeeding generation of my family in this faith. Because I am a native southerner, born and raised in the border South (Kentucky) and for 15 years (1969-1984) being the Unitarian Universalist minister in Mississippi. Because my couple of weeks in Selma, including a week in jail, make me, in a small way, a veteran of the Movement. Because this is history which, for the most part, was not written down as it was created, and is thus at great risk of being lost to us if we do not soon capture some of these “small acts of great courage” while some of the actors are still alive.
In a few minutes I want to share more of those stories with you, but as a setting for those stories, I would like to outline a typical or generic congregational history in the South. I think that that may begin to help you understand some of the unique aspects of the tension between liberal religious institutions and the broader southern society thirty to fifty years ago.
The first step in the typical history of a southern congregation in 1950 or 1955 was not that different from one in Minnesota, Arizona, or California. Someone from the American Unitarian Association, very likely Fellowship Director Munroe Husbands, would have come to town. That person would have collected names through an ad placed in local newspapers, from Church of the Larger Fellowship membership, through the Layman’s League “Are You a Unitarian Without Knowing It?” ads, and from other sources. A meeting would be held, probably in a hotel function room. If there were ten or more people eager to have a congregation, they would be encouraged to charter themselves and apply for recognition as a fellowship, a small, lay-led congregation. There would be a modest but steady flow of supportive material from headquarters in Boston, and ready response to correspondence.
The fellowship would begin to meet, perhaps at first in the living rooms of members, but soon outgrowing that and finding public space that it could rent or borrow. And, more frequently in the South than elsewhere, the fellowship would be asked to move. It might be religious prejudice: “You are not Christian.” It often was because the fellowship did not exclude people from attendance because of race. With the first African American visitors the YMCA, or hotel, or school, or whatever would announce a moving date. Some congregations went through half a dozen or a dozen meeting places.
Eventually, if this was a growing congregation, they would purchase or build their own building and/or would call a minister. These two steps intertwined, then as now. Both gave stability and maturity to a congregation. With a meeting place that they owned, the congregation no longer had anyone else policing their attendance or membership policies. With a minister, they generally found they had a consistent voice of conscience, which was heard in the wider community.
Finally, the congregation, now with full church status, would undertake a fuller level of programming. There might be a regular community forum. They might broadcast on the radio. Many members would work to form a local Human Relations Council, and often the Unitarian Universalist Church would be the only place, at least on the white side of town, where the integrated Human Relations Council could meet. In a number of instances, RE classrooms would be put to use during the week for a pre-school that would offer the only racially integrated learning situation in town. Depending on the congregation and on the issues in the local community, there might be an explicit support of African American demands for justice and equity.
Now that is an idealized schema. No one congregation followed exactly that trajectory. Nashville’s variations on this institutional theme are instructive and cautionary.
Our General Assembly host congregation here in Nashville stayed close to the typical story that I outlined. Let me, however, mention a messy interlude. In 1951 Munroe Husbands of the American Unitarian Association Fellowship Office heard that the Nashville Fellowship had adopted a verbal agreement “that if a Negro should wish to become a member, or worship with” the Fellowship “he would be informed that his presence was not wanted.” Husbands fired off a letter of inquiry, noting that he had found their by-laws proclaiming as one purpose “brotherhood undivided by nation, race or creed,” and so he hoped that what he had heard was incorrect. The President of the congregation responded:
When we formed this Fellowship at one of our meetings this question came up and someone had said there were several Unitarians connected with Fisk University and they might offer to attend our Fellowship services. We discussed the matter pro and con and finally decided that if we allowed negroes (sic) to become a (sic) member of our Fellowship that we might as well stop where we were. You might break the laws of a country and get away with it but you can’t violate its customs without paying the penalty.
Munroe Husbands’ reply asked, “Are you in truth living up to your Bylaws? To avowed Unitarian principles?” He also related his observation of the experience of other, similar fellowships, noting that Austin, Texas, Little Rock, Dallas, New Orleans, and Knoxville had open memberships and thrived. Then he concluded:
I mention the above, for I realize that it is more difficult, due to generations of “problems,” for the Negro and the white to meet for worship and discussion in the South than in the North. And yet the Southerners seem to be doing more about it.
Within a couple of years this debate became academic when there were, in fact, African American members. That couple told me that they think one or two people quit when they joined. Obviously, for most Nashville Unitarians it was not a problem. Indeed, many provided outstanding civil rights leadership.
The ministers who served these congregations in this era are heroes of mine. They stood tall when it would have been easier to keep their heads down. They lived and mostly thrived in places that most of their colleagues avidly avoided. They grew vibrant congregations. Who were they? In order to keep this presentation with some time boundaries, I have prepared a handout to honor in a small way the roster of colleagues who are at least the beginning of my list. Many of them — Albert D’Orlando, Alfred Hobart, Clif Hoffman come to mind — probably deserve full biographies or at least treatment in someone’s doctoral dissertation, rather than a measly few sentences here. Read the handout for an understanding of what I mean. But let me give notice to one undersung hero to whom I feel particularly close.
Donald Thompson served the First Unitarian Church of Jackson, Mississippi, 1963-65. In August of 1965 he was shot by the Ku Klux Klan and critically injured. A few weeks later the settlement director in the UUA Department of Ministry wrote inquiring whether “you think the time is now for you to move to a more comfortable situation or a different climate.” Don replied from his hospital room:
Thanks for your offer of assistance in placement. If any of the Miss. congregations feel that my presence is a danger to them, I’ll take advantage of your offer.
Otherwise, I feel that I ought to try to stay here for the next seven or eight years. (“I should live so long.”)
I realize that the same night riders may be out to finish the job, but why have a successor who would also be a target.
The Klan probably is quite upset because, for once, their execution didn’t take. Maybe they’ll do something about it. Yet one cannot live on the basis of fear.
. . . It takes courage in Jackson to join a liberal church. Yet I believe that my continuing after the shooting incident might attract some worthwhile members.
As it worked out, a couple of months later Don accepted the advice of local friends, corroborated by the FBI, and left the state of Mississippi on a few hour’s notice before the Klan again attempted to kill him.
As I said, Don Thompson and the 16 others profiled on the handout are heroes of mine. But they are not my only heroes or heroines. There were people in other professions who performed heroically.
Unitarian Universalist physicians were often ahead of the pack. Page Acree willingly signed public petitions, even knowing that if the names were listed alphabetically he would probably be at the top of the list. But, he observes looking back, he was the only heart surgeon in Baton Rouge and so someone would have to go out of town for treatment in order to boycott him. Carlton Watkins began his medical practice in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1946 with a non-segregated waiting room. For many years he was the only pediatrician serving the only hospital in Charlotte that took African American patients. This probably helped him get African American votes in 1966 when he was elected to the School Board after he and his wife had each run unsuccessfully once before. During his service on the School Board he was a voice for a good desegregation plan for the Charlotte-Mecklenberg school system.
Attorneys who were members or friends of Unitarian Universalist congregations included a disproportionate number of the white attorneys who would deal with civil rights cases. For example, in 1953, the first time that an attempt was made in Montgomery, Alabama, to form a Unitarian Fellowship, the person elected President was Clifford Durr. Durr and his wife Virginia rose to prominence (or, in the eyes of some, notoriety) after 1955 as supporters and advisors to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Mr. Durr later returned to the Presbyterian Church of his upbringing, but both Clifford and Virginia Durr remained friends of the Fellowship in its later incarnations. The Fellowship that formed in 1966 and that still exists built its current building during the congregational presidency of Morris Dees, our Ware Lecturer this year, although no longer active in that congregation.
In New Orleans, Ben Smith had a general practice of law with some specialization in labor law. With the advent of the civil rights movement he began to fill a vacuum that existed, especially in Mississippi, for legal representation of demonstrators. There were only three or four African American attorneys in the state of Mississippi in the early 1960s. Once Bill Higgs, a member of the Jackson congregation, was run out of the state there were no white attorneys in Mississippi who would take civil rights cases. Ben Smith, others from his law office, and colleagues from the National Lawyers Guild helped fill the void. Smith also is notable for hiring the first African American secretary in the central business district of New Orleans, something that cost the law firm the renewal of its lease.
So far I have been speaking of Unitarian Universalists of European American background. There were also Unitarian Universalists of African American background, some of them publicly well-known and some with a lower profile.
John Frazier became an activist while he was still in high school in Greenville, Mississippi. He was expelled from that school for insisting that the principal celebrate the Supreme Court school desegregation decision. He had arrests in Greenville and Winona, Mississippi. John worked with Medgar Evers and was the youngest member of the national NAACP Board. While he was seeking to be the first African American to enroll at the University of Southern Mississippi he met Buford Posey, a white Unitarian Universalist who was an alumnus of USM willing to sign John’s application for admission there. Eventually Buford invited John to attend the First Unitarian Church in Jackson. Subsequently John Frazier attended Crane Theological School of Tufts University, and was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1969.
Two Alabama African American political figures have Unitarian Universalist ties. Dr. John Cashin, a Huntsville dentist, ran for Mayor of Huntsville and Governor of Alabama, and led the movement to found the National Democratic Party of Alabama. Cashin and his late wife Joan were for a time very active members of the Huntsville Fellowship. In Mobile John LeFlore had a dual membership, belonging to both an A.M.E. Church and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. He ran for one of Alabama’s U.S. Senate seats, and was serving in the Alabama House of Representatives at the time of his death in 1976.
A word also needs to be said about children and youth. Over and over again I heard people who had just described their own actions add the thought, “My kids paid a lot for what I did.” Often the “kids” themselves stood apart from their schoolmates in their announced attitudes and in overt actions they took. Carolyn Fuller, now herself a mother, was in the early 1960s the teen-aged daughter of Peggy and John Fuller of Birmingham. Listen to some sections of her e-mailed response to my questions to her about her experience:
. . . there is no doubt in my mind that the reason I wanted to raise my son in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a direct result [of] my reaction to growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. I’m extremely proud that my parents took such a role in the Civil Rights Movement. I’m extremely grateful that Morris Dees continues to live in Alabama and fight a very important battle. But I just couldn’t. I ran as hard and as fast as I could to a complete safe haven. But just how safe is Cambridge? I can try to hide but none of us will ever be safe until all of us are.
When asked what she herself had done, she replied:
This was my sophomore year in high school. I talked to the black student who desegregated the school. I whole-heartedly supported my mother when she asked me if we could enter a law suit against the State of Alabama for closing the schools. As far as I know I was completely isolated. But I suspect I wasn’t as isolated as I thought. I had friends, timid though they be. There was someone who came to warn me when a fellow student was waiting outside the school doors, planning on doing violence against me. The student who planned the violence was the son of a former Unitarian who left the church when it became integrated. In fact, there were three of us Unitarians at the school and one of them wanted to kill me and the other would avoid me for all she was worth. But the Unitarian Church was my SANCTUARY. It provided the only really happy peaceful memories I have. Recreating that experience for my son has been a real driving force in my life.
Outside of the threat on my life from the fellow student and the feeling of complete isolation, [a] traumatic event associated with that particular school year was when I came home late from school one day because I had Junior Achievement. My Mom had forgotten. She had received an anonymous phone call, saying that I would be arriving home in 10 pieces. She was frantic and I was scared.
There were many more traumatic moments that year forever seared into my brain: the church bombing (I knew one of the children who was blown up), JFK’s assassination (None of my friends cared about him. They only wanted to know the answer to the algebra test questions. A teacher led one of my classes in applause.).
And now I’d like to share a few more stories — stories from the average (but exceptional) people in the pews (or the folding chairs as the case often was in the early days).
Horace Montgomery is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Georgia. On his apartment wall is a framed memento of something he is proud of having taken a leading role in. It is an odd memento: an envelope that arrived with three cents postage due, mailed from Seattle, addressed to “Dr. Horace Montgomery, Professor of History, Director N.A.A.C.P., University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.” With the envelope, the typed note that it contained: “Horace, Judas received 30 pieces of silver for Betraying only one Man. HOW MUCH DID THE N.A.A.C.P. PAY YOU FOR BETRAYING YOUR RACE? PLEASE BE THE MAN THAT JUDAS WAS.” You see, Horace had led the faculty effort to keep the University open and the two African-American students enrolled when there began to be unrest after the University of Georgia desegregated. Georgia had less difficulty than Alabama or Mississippi where there was no such clear stance by a majority of the faculty.
On March 6, 1965, the Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, a Lutheran minister and the Chairman of Concerned White Citizens of Alabama, led a group of 72 white Alabama registered voters in a march to the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, Alabama. On the steps of the Courthouse they read a one page statement in support of black voting rights. Of the 72 Alabamans in that group, 36 were Unitarian Universalists.
Some of those 36 were from the Unitarian Church in Birmingham. The events around Selma were traumatic for that church. A day after the Concerned White Citizens march there was the first attempt to march to Montgomery, which ended with the beatings and teargassing known as “Bloody Sunday.” The following Tuesday well over 100 Unitarian Universalists were among the people who answered Martin Luther King’s call to come to Selma for a second attempt, which proved merely symbolic, marching to the point at which Sunday’s beatings had occurred, praying, and turning around. But that night three of the Unitarian Universalist participants were attacked and one, Jim Reeb, fatally injured. Birmingham is where Jim was taken for treatment and where he died. The UUA Board adjourned its meeting from Boston to Selma. Hundreds of other Unitarian Universalists came to Selma for the memorial service and later for the march. The Birmingham Church installed extra phone lines, met people at the airport, fed people, put people up overnight, arranged buses. In the midst of this was a Sunday when they were welcoming 25 new members and having a kickoff dinner for their first “by the book” pledge drive. The tea after church to welcome new members was cut short when the police appeared to search the building for bombs. Child care during the canvass dinner was moved out of the church for security reasons. This pressure stretched over more than two weeks. The church survived. The church served the larger movement generously and bravely. And the church increased its pledging by 50%.
I could go on, but I won’t. I hope that you understand the tenor of the stories. And they continue through the Carolinas and Virginia, over into Louisiana, down into parts of Florida. In most of the places where there were Unitarian Universalists there were at least some of these stories.
These stories do not mean, “Unitarian Universalists led the civil rights movement.” The Movement was a movement of, by, and for African Americans, only some of whom were Unitarian Universalist. An accurate history of the Movement could be written without using the words “Unitarian Universalist.” I think it would be missing some of the details, because there were small but crucial contributions by individuals and congregations which were Unitarian Universalist, but it could be done.
Although the overwhelming thrust of the Movement was the liberation of African Americans, there was a secondary effect, and that was the liberation of European Americans. Unitarian Universalists were among the first liberated, and among the key liberators.
What these stories — stories of congregations, stories of individuals, stories of acts, small and large, of great courage — what these stories do mean is that Unitarian Universalists often provided an early crack in the “closed society” of the white South. In response to an ideology allied with religious fundamentalism, we were religiously open and tolerant. In response to an ideology that depicted some people as of great worth and others as of little worth, we proclaimed the worth and dignity of all persons.
We were a crack in the “closed society,” but not without cost. What was done was often at a high price for some. Those of us who are white were often too radical to have much of any support from other whites. But we were also too white to merit much support or attention from African Americans. There were psychological scars. There were family ties sundered. There were jobs lost. There were sometimes physical attacks. Those are very real costs.
But there were benefits as well. The benefits were less tangible, but they were real. At base, I think the benefit obtained by Unitarian Universalists, young and old, lay and clergy, was the sense that they were in fact living out their faith. Their integrity was intact. They were making real some small part of the ideal world that they imagined.
I see a parallel in what Czech President Vaclav Havel has written about living under Communism. It is not an exact parallel, but it is close enough to be suggestive to me. Havel writes:
. . . ethical behavior pays in the long run. To be sure, such behavior can often lead to suffering, and can’t always be expected to deliver immediate and obviously positive results. . . .Ethical behavior pays not only for the individual, who may suffer but is inwardly free and therefore fortunate, but mainly for society, in which tens and hundreds of lives lived thus can create what might be called a positive moral environment, a standard, or a continually revitalized moral tradition or heritage, which eventually becomes a force for the general good.
In short, I daresay that the basic political lesson taught to us by life under communism is the recognition that the only kind of politics that makes sense is a politics that grows out of the imperative, and the need, to live as everyone ought to live and therefore — to put it somewhat dramatically — to bear responsibility for the entire world.
“To live as everyone ought to live and therefore . . . to bear responsibility for the entire world”: I think that comes close to what the actions of southern Unitarian Universalists in the 1950s and 1960s meant, even when they were undertaken spontaneously and without premeditation.
To help you remember that, let me introduce three homely symbols: a coffee cup, a telephone, a shoe. There are stories for each, to add to the stories you have already heard.
The coffee cup is for Virginia Price of Nashville, one of the first people I interviewed in my sabbatical travels and one of many who were modest about their contributions. Virginia said, “The main thing that I did was drink enough coffee to float a battleship.” She would go to one of the dime stores when notified that there would be a sit-in, and take a seat by an African American person at the counter. The point was to demonstrate that she would be served while her African American compatriot would be ignored. They might remain there for several hours. She comments that after a day spent in that way, she would toss and turn at night, at least partly because of a heavy caffeine intake. Virginia Price, a nice PTA mom, was one among many Unitarian Universalists for whom a coffee cup at a lunch counter would be a good symbol.
The telephone is for the Fuller family, Eve Gerard and Harry Wiersema, Jr. The Fullers in Birmingham at one point had harassing phone calls coming in every 13 minutes. Eve Gerard was for many years the secretary of the Unitarian Church in Birmingham. As secretary she sometimes had to deal with things not usually in the secretarial job description like the advisability of inspecting the outside of the church before she went in if it was a time when there were a lot of church bombings; things like fielding threatening phone calls. One day she took a call threatening to bomb the church and came up with the rejoinder: “You’ll have to take your turn. There are several people ahead of you.” Harry Wiersema, Jr., grew up in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church in Knoxville with activist parents, and he himself went on to a career of activism. He told me that when people phoned with threats he would try to keep them on the line. He would ask them what their motivation was. Was it religious, as his was? The telephone is for the Fullers, Eve Gerard, Harry Wiersema, Jr., and hundreds of other Unitarian Universalists who picked up telephones not knowing what they would hear.
And the shoe is for the many ways that Unitarian Universalists gave feet to their beliefs. Sometimes it was just the matter of walking into a church that you knew was religiously and socially not approved by much of the rest of the community, maybe disapproved of enough to be a potential bombing target. Sometimes it was walking into work, knowing that you would take some flak from co-workers or maybe a supervisor for what you or your minister had said or done. Sometimes it was more dramatic than that. Charles Blackburn tells me that on Tuesday, March 9, 1965, when the people assembled in Selma heard that if they marched across the Pettus Bridge it would be in defiance of a federal court order, each of the 15 people from the Huntsville Fellowship who were there with him went off to ponder the implications. Each of these people had a job in the aero-space program, a job that required a security clearance, the sort of clearance that might be lost by defying a federal court order. Each one of those people came back to say, “I’m marching,” and so they faced possible injury, death, arrest, or loss of career. Their faith had more than the vaporous form of a sermon, the empty elegance of a resolution, the enthusiasm of a weekend workshop. Their faith had shoes. It walked, perhaps more than it talked.
Think about the coffee cup, the telephone, and the shoe. Think about the other stories. They capture some of the best of Unitarian Universalism in the 1950s and the 1960s. They capture some of the best of the South. They suggest some of the remarkable history of southern Unitarian Universalism.
We have, despite our human flaws and failings, an empowering history. I hope to find a way to share this history in greater depth and breadth, but I hope you can begin to sense the power of it. Take this empowering history and use it to inspire yourself to create solutions to today’s problems where you live as our southern forebears created solutions to the problems when and where they lived. Take this history. It is, for the most part, a noble and courageous history. Use it to make some history yourself.
Unitarian Universalist Ministers of the Deep South
Brief Introductory Notes
- Clif Hoffman had been the American Unitarian Association regional director of an area stretching from Dallas to Richmond and became District Exec for the Southeast after merger in 1961. He nurtured and supported a couple of generations of ministers across that area.
- Alfred Hobart served our congregations in New Orleans and Charleston, and then became the founding minister of the Birmingham, Alabama, Church. He worked quietly and courageously in that hottest of all hot spots. For example, when the Alabama Education Association disinvited John Ciardi, poetry editor of the Saturday Review, because he had published an attack on Jim Crow, Al Hobart invited him to speak to a non-segregated audience at the Unitarian Church, which Ciardi did.
- Albert D’Orlando hung in for 31 years as minister of the First Unitarian Church of New Orleans, surviving the process of fully desegregating an established southern congregation, and also surviving the bombing of both the church and his home. He and the church established a “Freedom Fund” which distributed over $25,000 to help with legal expenses and living expenses of those who fought segregation.
- Jim Brewer went to Norfolk, Virginia, as his second settlement as a Unitarian minister. He was there during the crisis period when there was talk of closing the public schools rather than desegregating them on even a token basis, and he led a local effort that swung public opinion behind keeping the schools open.
- Dick Henry, Bob West, and Ken MacLean each gave notable leadership in Knoxville in this era, with Bob West there during the time of sit-ins. A Presbyterian observer/participant of the sit-ins wrote of him, “Bob is a wiry young man whose keen mind quickly pierces to the heart of a problem. I have a great deal of admiration for him — almost enough now to quit wishing he were a Presbyterian.”
- Glen Canfield, Ed Cahill, and Gene Pickett served the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta through these years. There had been a predecessor congregation with a clear policy of segregation, at least for a little while, and so it was not a clean, fresh start. Even with the announced intention in 1952 of breaking from that past, there were the agonies of meeting in rented quarters that did not permit real desegregation, much less integration, of the new congregation at the outset. Despite the delay this caused, the congregation very quickly developed a very strong operation as an integrated institution that worked actively on issues of racial justice. Atlanta was one of three cities in the South where the Unitarian Service Committee funded a staff member whose job was to start a bi-racial Human Relations Council. There were close personal and institutional ties between this congregation and Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King family. For example, I heard that Atlanta performances of the Metropolitan Opera were desegregated by means of a white Atlanta Unitarian Universalist, Jerry Reed, buying tickets for Coretta Scott King.
- Ed Cahill also served with vigor and distinction in Charlotte, North Carolina, before going to Atlanta. In Charlotte, the congregation’s ringing affirmation of an open membership policy was reported in the newspapers on the same day in 1954 that the Supreme Court handed down its decision on school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education.
- Sid Freeman went from being a Professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia to being minister of the Charlotte, North Carolina, congregation 1957 to 1989. He was active in sit-ins and the congregation housed the area’s first integrated pre-school, which continues even today.
- Spencer Lavan, later President and Dean of Meadville/Lombard Theological School, had Charleston, South Carolina, as his first settlement, 1962-64. It was not an easy or comfortable time. One member of the Vestry (“board”) was a vocal member of the John Birch Society who actively questioned both Spencer and his predecessor’s support of what were by Birch Society standards “Communist” causes. In June of 1963 Spencer wrote the manager of one local hotel deploring the arrest of African-Americans seeking to use the hotel’s facilities, and he reported that the District Ministers Association had moved their next year’s meeting to a different hotel. Unfortunately, two of the owners of the offending hotel happened to be members of the Charleston church. That was the downside, but there was an upside too. During Spencer’s two years in Charleston there was at least one folk concert presented in the church’s parish house by Guy and Candie Carawan, friends of the church, and important as people who taught singing to various groups in the Civil Rights Movement. Guy Carawan in particular is identified as one of the people, along with Pete Seeger, in the line of transmission that transformed a song called, “I’ll Be Alright,” into the Movement anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
- Bob Palmer, the first settled minister of our Nashville congregation, is recalled by the Rev. Will Campbell, who served as the National Council of Churches’ chaplain to the civil rights movement, as, “a tough and noble soul.” Another evaluation of Palmer comes in a story recounted by church member Ray Norris, who for a time served as Acting Dean at the George Peabody College for Teachers. Peabody had desegregated its graduate level programs, but on the undergraduate level and in its laboratory school it was still segregated. The President of the college wanted to change this and carefully calculated the votes available, even having a dying Board member ready to come by ambulance from Knoxville if his vote was needed. The Board voted to desegregate the undergraduate programs immediately and the Demonstration School the following year, but the newspapers simply reported that the vote had been to desegregate both programs. The President left for Europe immediately after the meeting and Ray Norris was left with the designation of “Acting President.” The first day of summer school Ray got a call from the Principal of the Demonstration School saying that a black man had come to register his son for the School and the man wanted to talk to someone with more authority than the Principal. Ray said to send the man up. The man in question turned out to be the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church and the pre-eminent black preacher in Nashville. Ray Norris began by apologizing for his embarrassment in having to decline the registration, and he explained that in order to get the change through the Board they had had to postpone a year the Demonstration School desegregation. The Rev. Kelly Miller Smith asked, “Where do you go to church?” Ray said, “I’m a member of the First Unitarian Church.” Smith said, “You’re one of Bob Palmer’s boys. Okay, I believe you. Now, would it help or hurt if I were to put some demonstrators in front of that school down there?” Ray Norris assured him that it would hurt, and so there were no demonstrations. All this on the strength of Norris being “one of Bob Palmer’s boys.”
- Charles Blackburn had a short and intense settlement in Huntsville, Alabama, which included his jailing in McComb, Mississippi, participation in two marches in Selma, and various local civil rights activities in Huntsville 1964-66.
- Greta Crosby had a part-time ministry in Lynchburg, Virginia, 1962-66. Using her knowledge as a graduate of Harvard Law School as well as Meadville/Lombard Theological School she wrote a letter to the editor about issues of fairness in the rape trials of an African American man. Although she had signed only her name, the editor of the newspaper appended her church affiliation and life became controversial for a time. She was also active as Secretary of the Virginia Council on Human Relations, again, not without some controversy.