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Southern Unitarian Universalists in the Civil Rights Era

General Assembly 2000 Event 265

Presenter: Rev. Gordon D. Gibson

A standing-room-only audience of more than ninety people listened with rapt attention Saturday night as Rev. Gordon Gibson, minister of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship of Elkhart, IN, presented partial results of his research into the role of Southern Universalists, Unitarians, and Unitarian Universalists during the momentous years of the Civil Rights era. Gibson, who was the sole UU minister in the state of Mississippi from 1969 through 1984, made it clear from the outset that that the struggle for civil rights was a movement "of, by, and for African-Americans," but he felt a need to chronicle "the small acts of great courage" that marked UU participation in the nation-changing events of the 1950s and 1960s. Gibson noted that many of the participants in the events of this era were now passing from the scene, and that this history, if it is to be remembered, must be captured now.

Gibson outlined the typical pattern of UU expansion into the South, starting with a visit from Boston of the American Unitarian Associations's fellowship director, Munroe Husbands; the initial meetings of interested residents; the finding of a temporary meeting space; and the chartering of the fellowship. Gibson acknowledged that to be a UU in the South in this period was often no different from being a UU in any other part of the country, but there were times when the liberal principles of UUism came into direct, and sometimes violent, conflict with the dominant culture of white supremacy and racism. There was a spectrum of response to this conflict on the part of UUs, Gibson said. Some fellowships retreated from the conflict and ceased to exist; others came to an uneasy accommodation with the white power structure; and some braved the wrath of racist culture by starting human relations committees, opening their doors to African-Americans, and marching in protest. This integrity to the values of liberal religion frequently resulted in the fellowship's losing its meeting space. Far more tragically, it led to the shooting of the Rev. Donald Thompson, the UU minister in Jackson, MI, by the Ku Klux Klan, and the fatal assault on Rev. James Reeb in Selma in 1965.

Gibson presented vignettes of the UU participation in the civil rights struggle: the UU physician who angered white supremacists by having an integrated waiting room; the UU high-school student who was vilified by classmates because her fellowship had welcomed an African-American to its worship service; the UU attorney who was the only white lawyer in Mississippi who would accept civil rights cases. But this history was not without its flaws and failures, Gibson noted: the Unitarian fellowship in Nashville was discovered to have agreed that it would not admit any non-whites to its membership, and Munroe Husbands wrote to them from Boston asking pointedly if they were living up to the values of the liberal faith they professed.

Gibson also spoke of the dilemma facing white UUs in the South during this time: they were often too radical for other white Southerners yet too white for to earn support from African-Americans. Despite this, they bravely attempted to live out their faith, their integrity intact.

Gibson closed the session with the promise to work diligently to chronicle this significant history. He admitted that an adequate history of the civil rights movement could be and has been written without any mention of the involvement of UUs, but that adding the story of this involvement provides fuller documentation of the movement. From the trivial to the momentous, it is a history that UUs are eager to know more about.

Unitarian Universalist Ministers of the Deep South

Brief Introductory Notes by Gordon Gibson

Clif Hoffman had been the American Unitarian Association regional director of an area stretching from Dallas to Richmond and became district executive 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, AL, 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 thirty-one 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, VA, 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, NC, 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 I.

Sid Freeman went from being a Professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia to being minister of the Charlotte, NC, 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, SC, 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 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 a cting 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 p resident 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 p resident 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 s chool 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 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. 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, AL, which included his jailing in McComb, MI, 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, VA, from  1962 to 1966. 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.

Reported by John Hurley, edited by Bill Lewis

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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