Alex Poinsett

Alex, an active UU from Chicago, was asked to write a detailed statement because he could not be present for the open conversation. He will join the Board of Trustees of the Starr King School for the Ministry in the fall of 2001.

Reflections on Black
Empowerment in the UUA

Years of experience as an Ebony magazine editor covering race conflict stories throughout the United States readied me for the firestorm which raged during the late 1960s over the issue of Black empowerment in the Unitarian Universalist Association. Much earlier, I had been radicalized already by the lynchings of Blacks almost daily somewhere in the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” angered by the Jim Crow navy that I served in, and traumatized by all sorts of insults at the University of Illinois, including a “nigger-in-the-woodpile” joke told by a professor to about 100 students that included only one African American—me. I had been challenged by Chicago newspapers, house organs and radio stations that refused to hire Blacks. Apparently, my master’s degree in philosophy only qualified me for a $40-a-week job as a spray painter in a pig sty factory. I had been radicalized by the murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, disgusted by too many Black and White liberals so mortgaged to the establishment that they were unwilling to challenge it seriously. I had been radicalized, too, by the mass beatings and jailings of Black students in the South who bravely staged lunch-counter sit-ins and freedom rides, or risked their lives for “integrated education” or voter registration. Given these circumstances, scraping across the national consciousness like a fingernail across glass, I no longer could relax in the relative ease and comfort of my politically liberal but guilt-ridden middle-classness. No longer could I float in a psychological space capsule above the social and economic suffering of most of my Black brothers and sisters.

In 1968, 40.9% of them lived in poverty, compared with 11.9% of Whites. Some 7% were unemployed or underemployed, compared with 3% of Whites. Their family income was only 58% that of Whites and falling. These 1968 statistics did not shock me. Only two decades earlier I myself had escaped from the depths of Depression-era poverty.

Nevertheless, I was more than primed for the incandescent Black Rebellion which finally ignited the UUA in 1968, recapitulating larger events occurring nationally. While many of us had respected Martin Luther King’s nonviolent disobedience stance, we knew that his “integration” goal was rejected by many others. It had dawned on us that you could not integrate elephants and gophers because of the unequal power relationship, the unlevel playing field. Also, integration was, in fact, a one-way movement of Black to White, an assimilation process in which African Americans, instead of affirming their unique gifts, became mere carbon copies of Whites.

Indeed, integration as defined in the 1960s was cultural suicide. African Americans could enter American society’s big house provided they were willing to accept its stress on Western thought and institutions that embodied a myopic and limited view of the world while perpetuating the myth of civilization as a European monopoly. That is, African Americans could enter the big house provided they left their traditions and values parked at the door.

I remember a discussion at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago about efforts to integrate Hyde Park housing back in the 1960s. “We want to integrate,” claimed the wife of one of our associate ministers, “but we just can’t find any Negroes (we weren’t African Americans yet) willing to move in.” I could not resist replying, “We want to integrate Chatham, but we just can’t find Whites willing to move in.” In fact, by the time Norma and I bought our home in Chatham in 1961, most of our White neighbors had fled. Within two years, the last two White families still living on our block had broken their earlier promises to stay put.

By 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders had warned: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one White—separate and unequal.” Perhaps, more accurately, the Commission could have reminded the nation that it had never in its history been ONE society. The Commission blamed mounting urban riots on “White racism” and urged massive aid to the Black community.

Even so, both Black and White liberals were gradualists in a world of rapid change. The most arrogant among them spoke with an air of superiority, saying in so many words: “Make yourselves acceptable, that is, make yourselves like us and MAYBE IF you don’t press too hard and MAYBE IF you don’t holler too loud and MAYBE IF the time is right and MAYBE IF you show the proper gratitude and MAYBE IF you do not cause disorder, then MAYBE we will accept you.”

This was only part of the social ambiance that triggered a rash of Black caucuses around the nation, including the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) which emerged out of an emergency call of UUs to respond to the urban riots. Using the words “empowerment” and “self-determination,” we argued that Black people should take charge of affairs affecting Black people, that no longer could White people tell us what our values should be and what was good for our communities. Because we faced racism daily both North and South, we were experts. We knew, for example, that the quality of schools and resources in Black communities was far more important than school busing.

Sometimes employing undemocratic methods, BUUC pressed the UUA to establish a Black Affairs Council (BAC) “as a vehicle to express the interests, feelings and aspirations of Black Unitarian Universalists for power within the denomination.” BAC, we explained, would become an affiliate agency with a clear majority of Blacks on its board. We also called for increased representation of Blacks on all of the UUA’s policy-making boards and committees and urged it to “make a real financial commitment to Black people” by releasing $250,000 a year to BAC for the next four years to fund community and economic development projects in Black America. Out of the ensuing debate came FULLBAC, a White group which campaigned with us to secure full funding for BAC. Meanwhile, a more conventional, integrationist-oriented group, BAWA (Black and White Action), emerged to compete with BUUC, and branded its members as militant separatists.

The conflict escalated at the 1968 General Assembly in Cleveland when the UUA Board and President Dana Greeley urged delegates to substitute voluntarily raised funds for the million dollars demanded by BUUC and to accept both BAC and BAWA as affiliate members. However, GA delegates voted 836 to 326 to form and fund BAC while BAWA received neither funding nor affiliate status.

The 1969 General Assembly in Boston proposed to allocate the second quarter million to BAC and $50,000 to BAWA. But BAC insisted that move would be contradictory. Either the UUA would or would not support Black empowerment. In either case, BAC would reject UUA funding if BAWA received a single penny. Once again, the delegates voted to fund BAC solely. However, the unprecedented Cleveland General Assembly vote to fund BAC for four years was altered by the UUA Board when it decided that the BAC appropriation would have to be reaffirmed and voted annually at each subsequent General Assembly. Angrily, BUUC/BAC and FULLBAC accused the UUA leadership of failing to honor and uphold its commitment to Black empowerment. After subsequent parliamentary maneuverings failed to revive the Cleveland Assembly’s intent, BUUC members silently walked out of the Assembly to meet at a BUUC/BAC hotel suite.

Returning to the Assembly as it concluded other “business as usual,” the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, then pastor of Boston’s Arlington Street Church, was allowed to address the delegates. He complained that the spirit of Cleveland had been diminished, that White UUs had watered down the BUUC agenda, that BUUC members had not only left the room but also the UUA. Then the ministerial warrior announced a personal decision to walk out of the Assembly and persuaded about 400 others, as an act of conscience, to join him at his church a block away.

Later, Mendelsohn, his followers and BUUC/BAC accepted invitations by President Greeley and others to return to the General Assembly. I vividly recall BAC Chairman Haywood Henry speaking briefly, then leading the gathering in a rousing singing of the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” I repeated each refrain as loudly as anyone, but my brain kept whispering in despair: If the White man lets us.

Faced with a substantial deficit by November 1969, the UUA Board cut one-third of its budget, voted to reduce the BAC allocation by $50,000 and meet its million-dollar obligation within five years rather than four. Consequently, BAC voted to disaffiliate in order to raise money, since affiliate groups were not then allowed to do so on their own but instead were funded solely by the UUA. Finally, the 1970 General Assembly in Seattle defeated a motion to restore full funding to BAC. By 1971, not only BAC but FULLBAC and BAWA ceased to function. That was reason enough for me and an estimated 1,000 other disgruntled African Americans to leave the UUA. I remained absent about 18 years, returning in 1993 primarily to support Norma, who had chosen not to quit the struggle.

UUs are only beginning to understand how to use an anti-oppression lens to discern what they are called to do. Clearly, the commitment rests firmly on foundations laid by parties to the Black Empowerment controversy more than three decades ago. Proudly, they can say, that struggle—which among other consequences led to the massive empowerment of women and gays in the UUA—was not in vain.

Alex Poinsett


Copyright 2006 Alicia McNary Forsey.  Last edited on Monday 30 October 2006.


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