On Wednesday evening, January 17, 2001, a group of
Unitarian Universalists who had spent the day traveling from
various parts of the country to Berkeley, California, began
to trickle into the lobby of the Hotel Durant, a short walk
from the University of California and Starr King School for
the Ministry. When I arrived with Yielbonzie Charles
Johnson (Yielbonzie is a former Professor of Ministry at
Starr King School), to pick up the group for dinner, the
atmosphere in the lobby was not exactly what you would call
subdued. No travel-weary souls here!
It had been thirty years since some of these Unitarian
Universalists had seen each other. A few had remained
in close contact, but getting together with the larger group
made for a happy reunion. They would be together three
days for a conversation long overdue. Everyone who
gathered had participated in the Black Unitarian
Universalist Caucus (BUUC), the Black
Affairs Council (BAC), or were their
white supporters (FULLBAC).
These groups (and others) were active during the late 1960s
and early 1970s in the Black Empowerment controversies
within the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The reason most often given by participants for deciding
to come to Berkeley in January 2001 was to "get the story
straight." A conference planned solely by participants in
these groups had never taken place. There were
occasional invitations to recount events of thirty-plus
years ago, but never a time when the participants of
BUUC/BAC and FULLBAC
had planned their own, extended time together.
Attendees active in BUUC/BAC included
Winifred Norman, Alex Poinsett, Joe Samples, Gwen Thomas,
Ione Vargus, and Harold Wilson. Attendees from
FULLBAC included Victor Carpenter,
Donald McKinney, Jack Mendelsohn, Roy Ockert, David Parke
and Bette Sikes.
Starr King School for the Ministry agreed to provide
hospitality, expenses, and a place to meet in support of the
gathering. The understanding was that the seminary
would not interfere in any of the planning or organization
of the conversation. When I became the primary contact
for the school, I also became responsible for seeing that
this agreement was not breached. My sense is that the
seminary held to the expectation that the participants would
not be expected to accommodate any agenda other than their
The one request the seminary made of participants was
that the proceedings be taped. Starr King would then
edit and publish the outcome of the three days of
conversation. It did not take long to see that this
plan was not favorably received by all present.
Clearly, a tape recorder was not appropriate in an initial
conversation among individuals who had experienced intense,
tumultuous, and in some cases, life-changing times together
over thirty years ago. I decided to tape only the
closing conversation between participants and invited
guests. There will be further conversations.
Future gatherings will include others who participated in
the Black Empowerment controversies of three decades ago,
and these will provide broader, fuller accounts, compiled
and published by those who lived the experience.
The open conversation was attended by about 75 people.
Starr King School President Rebecca Parker, faculty and
staff of Starr King School, students of Starr King and other
schools, trustees, local ministers, graduates and friends
made for a standing-room-only audience interested in what
was going to be said, in their own words, after three days
of conversation among people who had participated in the
Black Empowerment movement within the Unitarian Universalist
The conversation published herein is but a small piece of
an immense and complex history. It is full of
insights, gems of humor, and harsh truths. When
Cathleen Young and I began working on this publication, my
first inclination was to augment it with other materials to
make it something that could be used as an educational tool
for students and other interested parties. Instead of
taking it for what it is, I thought of all the missing
pieces. Some of the leaders of BUUC
and BAC who left the
UUA were not present. The recounting of the
history as it unfolded was missing. The perspectives
of the participants in Black and White Alternative (later
changed to Black and White Action) were missing. The
programs that BUUC voted to fund were
missing. The important role that the Black Empowerment
movement played in paving the way for other oppressed groups
needed more development — beyond what was mentioned in the
open conversation. Theological perspectives that were
brought up briefly during the conversation on Saturday
afternoon deserve to be thoroughly explored. The
implications of the Black Humanist Fellowship which evolved
out of BUUC are relevant to current
issues within Unitarian Universalism and ought not to be
overlooked. Insights on these subjects and others on
the part of the individuals who were (and continue to be) in
the struggle contain sparks of hope for ways that we can
move forward from this point.
The list of what I would ideally like to see in a
publication goes on. However, six months of reflection
and evaluation has brought me to realize that the
conversation held on January 20, 2001 must stand on its own
or get stored in a cupboard. It does stand. It
will be of use to those who want to recount the larger
history. It will also offer a glimpse into the
thinking and the lives of twelve outstanding and committed
individuals who have remained Unitarian Universalists.
Most of the people you will find here have been leaders
among us — each in his or her own way. The open
conversation is all that is published here, along with
statements given to us by some of the participants, and a
timeline. The rest needs to be attended to by people
who have the real right to report.
Sometime in the future the whole of this history will be
unveiled for all that it was. The prophetic voices
that have gone without praise or thanks by contemporaries
will, in time, be respected for what they contributed to our
justice-seeking religious tradition, and to the larger world
Alicia McNary Forsey
Professor of History
Starr King School for the Ministry
Rev. Alicia McNary Forsey, Ph.D.
Professor of Church
Alicia is a lifelong UU. She is the
Professor of Church History at Starr King School for the
Ministry in Berkeley, California, and is also responsible
for continuing education endeavors. Her Ph.D. is in
Religious Studies with an emphasis on Unitarian History.
In June 2000 she received final fellowship as a UU minister.
Alicia, in addition to the classes she teaches at Starr King
School, is known for her outstanding online course in UU
History. She is a Board member of the UU Historical
Society, Chair of the UU Scholars' Panel, current Chair of
the History Section of COLLEGIUM,
and Trustee of The Church of the Larger Fellowship.