This morning, as we once again devote this third Sunday in January to honor and remember the great legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we must do so in the terrible and divisive shadow of what is happening in many other angry communities all across the country. King’s leadership in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama is a well-known event of 1965. Imagine the South in 1964 and earlier, strategies and tactics to promote voter suppression, innocent youth murdered and justice never arriving, and systematic racism permeating the culture.
Oh! Did I say 1964? I meant 2015.
I’ve spent a lot of time in reflection on the legacy of King this month. I recently re-read the book Black Pioneers written by the Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed. I had the pleasure of spending three days with Reed last fall and our time together has changed my ministry. Reed tells stories of his black family arriving at a white Unitarian church in the 1960’s. The book chronicles the lives of black pioneers in a white denomination.
He writes, “The Unitarian Universalist church and others like it will remain largely segregated until there is a twofold transformation: one in society, the other within the church. First, on a societal level, it is essential that Unitarian Universalists and other liberal religionists never forget that political and economic freedoms are the mainstay of intellectual freedom, and that inequities and injustice subsequently undermine all freedom. This realization presses us to take seriously the cliché that until all of us are free, none of us is truly free. It is a 'moral imperative,' then, that we commit ourselves to the establishment of a just society. The result of this endeavor will be the evolution of a society potentially more responsive to Unitarian Universalist values. Second, within the liberal church, the transformation would begin with the strengthening of our spirituality through an enriched story –- a story that exposes our commitment to freedom, shakes up our class bias, sensitizes us to the needs of others, strengthens our sense of human connectedness, and, finally, inspires us to struggle with others for freedom.“
Unitarians and Universalists haven’t always been on the cutting edge of racial equity. There is a dark moment in our past that is labelled “The Walk Out.” First, some history. Two events shook the Unitarian Universalist Association soon after its formation in 1961. Both were related to the struggle for racial justice, but while one unified the denomination, sustaining its self-image of being on the right side of the struggle, the other shattered this easy assumption and inflicted wounds that still have not healed.
First, in 1965, came the murder of the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister, while he was in Selma, Alabama, demonstrating for black civil rights. Second, only four years later, many black delegates and their white supporters walked out of the General Assembly in Boston to protest what they considered a racist vote. What had seemed so obvious after Selma -- that in the fight for racial justice it was “us” (the good guys) vs. “them” (the racists) -- suddenly wasn’t so obvious after all. The line between “us” and “them” no longer seemed so clear.
Why? What had happened? We’re still struggling with these and related questions. Perhaps the search for answers can help us build on the things we have done right and improve on the things we have done badly since the UUA was formed. The national revulsion at the Selma murders –- Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a UU from Detroit, was murdered in a separate incident in Selma -- led Congress finally to pass long-delayed civil rights legislation. Thus the Reeb martyrdom became enshrined as proof of our racial sanctity, along with the famous story of how the Rev. Theodore Parker kept a pistol in his desk drawer to fight off anyone trying to recapture the fugitive slaves he was harboring. Parker, renowned as the most charismatic Unitarian preacher of the mid-19th century, said of the Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett, a supporter of the fugitive slave law -- which required the capture of runaway slaves who had fled to free states -- “He is calling on his church members to kidnap mine.” What we recall less often is that Gannett, too, was a Unitarian.
Clearly our hyped unity on the issue of race is not the whole story. Even Reeb’s death did not evoke the same emotions from all UUs. In 1968 Heyward Henry, chair of the newly formed Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus said, “We Unitarian Universalists like to keep saying, ‘But we went to Selma with you ... why are you [blacks] rejecting us?’ he continues, “In Selma, a black man named Jimmy Jackson was killed and at that time you could count the number of Unitarians in Selma on your fingers. A few weeks, later a white man was killed, and all Unitarians ran to Selma. Racism, that’s what it was.”
The legend of the 1969 UU General Assembly Walkout goes something like this. Black UU’s issued demands to organize a Black Affairs Conference and to be funded to do the work of the Council. The demands were accepted but the General Assembly voted down the funding. Chaos ensued. Black delegates left the assembly and their were protests, aggression, and hatred on the floor of a UU General Assembly. What happened in the following years is chronicled in Reed’s book. Black Unitarian Universalist leaders seeking equity in our denomination. The history is more complex than I can now summarize but it was a painfully polarized era of the so-called Black Empowerment Controversy. It was also the high-water mark of African-American participation in our churches. Nonetheless, many well-meaning white Unitarian Universalists, some of whom had devoted their lives to racial integration, were deeply offended by black UU’s who caucused separately and, with many white allies, demanded that the UUA do more to address racism within both church and society.
When it appeared the Assembly would not address their concerns and many people of color, hurt and angry, began to leave the floor, Jack Mendelsohn – then minister at Arlington Street Church -- took the podium, announced that he too would leave to commiserate with his sisters and brothers. To consider future options, Jack also invited others to join him at the church. Therewith, a few hundred distraught delegates -- with tears streaking down faces, walked out. One minister spit in Jack’s face and said, had he a gun, he would have shot him. The events of that assembly were a trauma, the anguish of which is still felt. Many African-Americans, including Bill Sinkford who would later return and became UUA President, left our faith -- many never to return.
I spent a lot of time in airports a few days ago. I was making my way from the new York/Canadian border to Florida, or from the tundra to paradise. I sat with the New York times in my lap and on my cell phone and poured over the article and photographs of the ‘Freedom Journey 1965’ Photographs by Stephen Somerstein of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., from the new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. Holland Cotter of the New York Times writes, “Scads of photographers were on the job that day and, inevitably, certain subjects -- political leaders, visiting celebrities -- were the focus of many cameras, including Mr. Somerstein’s. Yet most of the people in his pictures are not stars; they’re rank-and-file participants. It’s from their perspective that we see the march. In one shot, we’re in the middle of it, surrounded by fellow walkers. In others, we’re looking out at bystanders who line the way: white office workers; hecklers; multiracial shoppers; African-American children on porches; women, dressed in Sunday best, on the steps of black churches. Cotter tells us that “this viewpoint subtly alters a standard account of the event, one perpetuated in “Selma,” which suggests that a small, elite band of high-level organizers were the heroes of the day. They were indeed heroes, but they were borne on the shoulders of the countless grass-roots organizers who paved the way for the march and the anonymous marchers, many of them women, who risked everything to walk the walk.”
When I speak of pioneers I am not necessarily only speaking of those leading, first in line, or those who have their names memorialized. The pioneers I am speaking of are the people caught in the Freedom March photographs, the people, black and white, walking out of the 1969 General Assembly, the people I marched with yesterday in Riveria Beach celebrating the legacy of King. These are the pioneers that operationalized the dreams and the hopes of leaders. These are the people who were, who are, struck down, these are the people that dare to pursue equality. Typical, everyday people. Us. We are the pioneers in the movement for racial equity today. I refuse to believe that preaching equality each January, attending a single program on a Thursday night, or a check is enough. It isn’t.
Young, old, and in between we as Unitarian Universalist have our own legacy to attend to. We cannot offer ourselves passively. 1965 has returned. We have replaced the martyrs Reeb and Luizo with Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. How will we pioneer? How will we learn from our mistakes and bring equity to our communities and sanctuary? We are the pioneers. We are the liberal voice in South Florida. Our hope lies not only in the inner strength that our religion teaches us to nurture, but also in the example of those who went before to show us the way. They built a church for us, and it is ours to hand on to our children and to their children.
“Will we forsake this legacy?”, writes Rev. Scott Alexander. “On this -- Martin Luther King holiday 2015 -- the 29th year it has been officially celebrated in America -- race relations are at least as strained and endangered as they have been at any other time in our recent national history. Let us therefore promise ourselves -- this day -- that we will each lend ourselves to being (as the old saying goes) “part of the solution,” rather than “part of the problem.” Let us focus on cultural transformation” rather than cultural “blame.” And most important of all, let us keep our hearts open to every last of our fellow Americans -- be they black, white, yellow, or brown, or (as I say every Sunday when we gather) “Some other wonderful shade of what it means to be human.” Martin Luther King Sunday reminds us -- this year perhaps more than others -- that this work is as important as it is difficult.
So let’s once again get about it … now … together … that America can (one day soon) become true to its promise to all its citizens. May the light of reason, the comfort of kindness, the depth of a growing spiritual life, the outreach of action, and the acceptance of our own goodness and potential always be our inspiration and the source of our continuing gratitude to our founders and to those who have carried the torch that we hold high. May it be so.
Black Pioneers, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Jan 18, 2015.