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Starr King President's Lecture

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Part II; unfortunately, video for Part I is no longer available.

General Assembly 2003 Event 4029

Speaker: Mtangulizi Sanyika

"We've come a long, long way from where we used to be," said Mtangulizi Sanyika, speaking of the so-called "black empowerment controversy" within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) from 1968 through the early 1970's. Speaking to General Assembly at the invitation of the Rev. Rebecca Parker, president of the Starr King School for the Ministry, Sanyika added that we haven't come far enough in anti-racism work, "but thank God that we're not where we once were."

Sanyika, formerly Hayward Henry, chaired the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) from 1968 to 1973. Now an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church, Sanyika left Unitarian Universalism in the 1970's. Sanyika was also a founding member of the Department of African American Studies at Harvard University, and served as an associate faculty member at Starr King School for the Ministry this past year.

"Let me clear up an enormous important mischaracterization of that period," Sanyika said. "There was no 'black empowerment controversy'." Rather than a controversy, Sanyika contended that "there was an explosive great awakening" of African American Unitarian Universalists, an awakening that was supported by many white Unitarian Universalists. That awakening exposed the racism within the UUA, and "provoked a white backlash."

"The very language of 'black empowerment controversy' implies that we, the victims, caused the problem," said Sanyika. During that period, the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus was charged with abandoning integration, the expressed goal of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960's, in favor of black separatism. Sanyika saw it differently. "It was a black power struggle," he said.

"Power was at the center of the problem," contended Sanyika, "as it always is in relationships of marginality.... Power was all right for white folks to have, but it was an alien concept for black folks to have." He charged that the leadership of the UUA at that time refused to acknowledge that separatism was already in place in the UUA. Sanyika contended that the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus called for African Americans to run their own organization within the UUA. Calling for whites to share power with African Americans was "an exciting new approach," an approach that some white Unitarian Universalists supported.

"It was like one of those seven point oh earthquakes that we get in California," said Sanyika. "The ground just shifted under us." In Sanyika's view, much of the white leadership, and some of the black leadership, within the UUA could not understand that everything had changed. He charged that the UUA merely reacted against the black power struggle, rather than responding in a creative way.

Regarding his own actions during that period as chair of the Black Unitarian Universalist Conference, Sanyika said that "as the national chair of that organization, it was my responsibility" to speak the truth. "It was not my responsibility to satisfy Unitarian Universalism, it was not my responsibility to make anyone comfortable," he said. "It was not my responsibility to save the institution."

"I call it an exit," said Sanyika of the so-called "walkout" of advocates of black power during the 1969 General Assembly in Boston. "It was people who were sick and tired of being sick and tired of putting up with nonsense." He went on to say, "When the black folks left, there was no crisis. When the white folks left there was a crisis." "And I thank god that our Anglo colleagues did the right thing."

"We need to be a people of faith," said Sanyika. "We will be a people of justice, but I've never seen a people of justice without faith."

Sanyika’s passionate talk was frequently interrupted with applause, leaving the impression of hearing a prophetic sermon rather than listening to a lecture.

Sanyika turned to UUA president the Rev. William Sinkford, who was present at the lecture, saying that Sinkford will serve as "a bridge over troubled waters" in continuing the work of anti-racism within the UUA. Expecting Sinkford "to advance the agenda of peace and reconciliation, " Sanyika said, "I feel, Bill, that the BUUC ... baton has been passed to you."

Sinkford responded to Sanyika's lecture. "It was an era that was deeply painful to me," said Sinkford, speaking of the aftermath of black power struggle. "It was an era that I felt I no longer had a future in that faith." Many African American Unitarian Universalists left the UUA at that time in disillusionment.

"I want to say a word from an institutional point of view," said UUA President Sinkford. One major impact of the events from 1969 to 1973, he said, was that Unitarian Universalists "got scared, we became frightened of the issue of race. We didn't want to deal with it. When we did deal with it, it led to division, it led to a decline in stewardship." Sinkford believes that Unitarian Universalists began to see anti-racism work as something "very dangerous for this movement."

"As a movement we didn't engage, we pulled back, and it was caused by our fear," said Sinkford. "For a community of faith to operate out of fear is absolutely deadly," stripping us of the ability to accomplish anything.

"We were not willing to hear the various stories of that time, and this too is spiritually dangerous," said Sinkford. "We need to hear the various stories and not insist that we make of them one narrative." Sinkford suggested that Unitarian Universalists now must gather the stories from this era "so we can cease being afraid."

"I think there's hope for us," said Sinkford. "It is my prayer that we will be able to move beyond our fear and find a path that can allow us to move forward, to justice, yes, but justice is a sharp-edged word. Let's find a path together that will allow us to move toward justice but with the spirit of love in our hearts. That is my hope."

Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Lisa Presley.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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