A Timeline of the Black
Empowerment Controversy in American Unitarian Universalism*
Compiled by Julie Kain
Oct 1967 — Emergency Conference
Biltmore Hotel — New York City
The Dept. on Social Responsibility of the Unitarian
Universalist Assn. with its Director, the Rev. Dr. Homer Jack,
sponsors an Emergency Conference on Unitarian Universalist
Response to the Black Rebellion. This follows racial rioting
in Newark, NJ and Detroit, MI.
There were 135–140 participants, 37 of whom were African
American. Almost immediately, 30 of the 37 African Americans
withdrew upon suggestion from Black members of the Los Angeles
church’s organization called Black Unitarians for Radical Reform
(BURR) including Louis Gothard, Jules Ramey and Althea Alexander
to form a Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC). They
were joined by Hayward Henry (later Mtangulizi Sanyika), board
member of Boston Second Church, microbiology doctoral candidate
and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
organizer. Henry had attended the National Conference on Black
Power in Newark, NJ, three months prior to the Emergency
Conference and would become national chair of BUUC.
BUUC’s list of “non-negotiable demands” was presented first to
the Conference and then to the UUA Board of Trustees. The core
demand was to establish a Black Affairs Council (BAC) to
be elected by BUUC and to be funded for four years at $250,000
per year (12% of UUA annual budget) with a program
designed for Black self-determination. The Black Caucus
recommendation of proposals carried a two-thirds majority at the
“The people who led the Black UU Caucus were at the vanguard
of the Black movement in America — bright, articulate, educated,
—Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice,
Commission on Appraisal
UUA Board of Trustees Meeting
From the onset, the UUA Board is divided in response and takes
several actions that counter the endorsement of BAC. A delegation
from BUUC attends the meeting and after the delegation leaves,
instead of considering each of their proposals with an up or down
vote as was requested, the Board passes a resolution. The
Commission on Religion and Race will be reorganized to include
more non-Whites, inviting Black Caucus participation. Out of a
sense of insult and betrayal, BUUC recommends financial
withdrawal of churches from the Annual Program Fund until the
next General Assembly can meet.
UUA board member and attorney Samuel Beecher writes to the
Moderator three days after attending the Emergency Conference: “I
do feel, however, that we are faced with a new situation in the
Civil Rights Movement which is different than that with which we
have had to deal, or had an opportunity to deal with in the past
. . . For my own part, although some of the proposals show the
usual lack of understanding of the financial position of the
Denomination, I have come to believe that their desire for
‘self-determination’ is a valid one and deserves serious
consideration by our Denomination. . . . One last comment, and
that is that this is a situation which will not improve by
temporizing and trying to put it off to a later meeting of the
Board. This is a matter which needs to be dealt with promptly in
order that it may be handled creatively long before the May
meeting of the General Assembly where, I believe, if it came up
for the first time it would cause very serious divisions within
the Denomination because of the lack of understanding on the part
of persons of good will on both sides.”
During a meeting of about 50 members of Pacific
Southwest District societies, Louis Gothard, chair of BURR,
reports that the UUA board has “bypassed” the proposals adopted
by the Emergency Conference. The primarily White group
constitutes itself as Supporters of BURR (SOBURR) and urges
societies and ministers nationally to support BAC, including
financially, and to withdraw financial support from the UUA until
the next GA. Ministers Stephen Fritchman and Roy Ockert from LA
are among the supporters.
Nat’l Conference of Black Unitarian Universalists
All Black UUs are invited to attend (the term
‘Black’ is just beginning to be used with pride). The 207
delegates represent 600 Black UUs. In attendance are Ben Scott
from Boston, Richard Traylor (later Mjenzi Traylor) from
Philadelphia, Renford Gaines (later Mwalimu Imara), a theological
student from Meadville Theological Seminary, who led worship, and
George Johnson from Oakland. The Reverend George Johnson had been
hired by the UUA to develop congregational participation in civil
rights activities. In his report, he described “the Negro dilemma
as a choice between integration and developing pride and power
through Black unity.” He concluded that White Unitarian
Universalists could best help the process with suggestions in the
areas of housing, education, and employment. The Black Affairs
Council (BAC) is established with six Black members and three
White members elected by BUUC.
UUA Board of
The Board has become divided between
pro-empowerment, pro-integration and those who see valid
positions on both sides. BAC is invited to have affiliate status
with the UUA. The Commission for Action on Race replaces the
Commission on Religion and Race. The previous Freedom Fund which
was formed with voluntary contributions is replaced with the UU
Fund for Racial Justice, now with a budget of $300,000 per year
($50,000 more than the BUUC/BAC request).
Another group of Whites, patterned after SOBURR,
forms to support Full Recognition and Funding for BAC (FULLBAC)
with leadership from two Philadelphia ministers — David Parke
and Rudolph Gelsey. Among the list of eventual supporters are
James Luther Adams and Homer Jack. During this meeting, the
assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. is announced.
New York City
The two months leading up to the Cleveland
General Assembly see an intense dialogue throughout the
denomination in publications, magazines and sermons. A group of
Blacks and Whites, first called Black and White Alternative,
later changed to Black and White Action (BAWA), organize
in response to the formation of BUUC and BAC, and bring a new
element of confrontation. Cornelius MacDougald, board chair of
the Community Church in NYC and chair of the Commission on Race
and Religion at the time of the Emergency Conference, and Donald
Harrington, minister of Community Church, provide leadership
based on an integrationist model. BAWA opposes the tactics of
BUUC which they consider separatist and undemocratic.
Cleveland General Assembly
On the third day, in an atmosphere of
“extraordinary emotion and tension,” with BAC and BAWA struggling
for support and funds, and amidst a debate that included
recommendations from the UUA Board, the Resolution was passed
by a vote of 836 to 327 to commit one million dollars over four
years to the Black Affairs Council.
UUA Board of Trustees Meeting
BAC’s affililiate status with the UUA is challenged due to
restricted membership on the basis of race, but then granted as a
special interest group.
It is discovered and announced that all of the UUA’s
unrestricted endowment funds had been spent and there is not
sufficient money to fund the Association’s current operations and
First Meeting of Black Affairs Council
Elected officers are: Dr. James Clark, Chair; Rev. Jack
Mendelsohn, Vice Chair; Richard Traylor, Secretary; and Benjamin
Almost immediately over 60 proposals are submitted. Proposals
for grants generally fell into three categories addressing 1)
political repression 2) economic exploitation and 3) educational
and cultural development. Eventually there was a shift towards
comprehensive models over individual projects with emphases on
Black Education, Community Organizing, Corporate Responsibility,
Black United Funds and Voter Education.
BUUC Second Annual Mtg.
BAC presents its first annual report to a delegation of 165,
representing 900 Black Unitarian Universalists. The report
includes funding guidelines and details on four programs in
Cleveland, Syracuse, Philadelphia and Chicago which operate in a
peer relationship with BAC.
UUA Board of Trustees Mtg.
Despite huge financial strains, the administration recommends
to not reduce funds promised to BAC. A motion is passed, without
administration’s support, to include in the proposed budget
$50,000 to fund BAWA.
During this same period, Homer Jack, UUA President Dana
Greeley and Donald Harrington have various responses to the Black
Manifesto issued by James Forman and the issues of confrontation
and reparations. BUUC is credited for innovative reparational
investments rather than reparational grants.
Boston General Assembly
Controversy over BAWA funding and agenda procedures leads to a
microphone possession by members of BUUC/BAC, FULLBAC and LRY
(Liberal Religious Youth) and failed motions to alter the agenda
despite close votes. There is an unceremonious walkout by
delegates with BUUC.
Jack Mendelsohn, BAC vice-chair and minister of Arlington
Street Church (a block away from GA), finds Black delegates at
the nearby Statler Hotel. He asks them to return to GA, as he was
going to ask for the right to speak and invite anyone who wanted
to address the issues to leave GA and meet at the Arlington
Street church, which they did.
After his announcement at GA, over 400 (out of 1379 voting)
Whites, delegates and visitors joined Blacks, and assembled at
Arlington Street Church threatening a denominational split,
afterward painfully referred to as the Walkout.
Some participants in the gathering known as the Moral Caucus
organized into the Fellowship for Renewal (FFR), which
incorporated FULLBAC, and supported a redistribution of power in
the UUA. FFR continues to be active through 1971.
On the following day, after outgoing President Greeley
persuaded delegates to return, the vote is taken to fund BAC
and not BAWA by a narrow majority.
Rev. Robert West is elected president, defeating the BAC/FULLBAC
supported candidate Rev. Aron Gilmartin.
Earlier that year, FULLBAC, in coalition with other Boston
agencies, successfully pressured the Statler Hilton Hotels to
improve their employment practices towards Blacks.
Ad Hoc Directions Committee
Retreat — Michigan
BUUC delegates called to form a committee to assess concerns
voiced at the Second Annual Meeting in Detroit and problems of
the Boston General Assembly and to recommend corrective actions.
The report by committee members Richard Traylor, Kenneth Gibson,
Hilda Mason, Winifred Norman, Gwendolyn Thomas and Harold Wilson
detailed six problem areas and recommended solutions. The
September BAC meeting approved the report and began to address
the recommendations in the six areas: 1) Communications —
internal and external 2) Lack of programs in local caucuses 3)
Insufficient funds 4) Lack of commitment (respect among members
and sufficient human resources) 5) Dependence on Whites, and 6)
Confusion about BAC and BUUC.
BAC Bond Program
BAC traveling workshops began being offered by Richard
Traylor, Ben Scott and Hayward Henry, who approached churches to
convert 50 percent of their investment portfolios to BAC bonds
for Black Humanistic economic development of Black communities.
The New York Community Church and minister Donald Harrington
did not permit the workshop, based on its policy on groups with
racially restricted membership (referring to BUUC), but did host
a BAC/BAWA debate later in the spring of 1970.
Hayward Henry first articulated the BUUC leadership’s
philosophy of empowerment as “Black Humanism” in the
February 1970 issue of the group’s newsletter, BUUCVine.
UUA Board of Trustees Mtg.
Faced with serious budget deficits, the new administration had
proposed adjustments to BAC funding, cut to $200,000 for five
years (instead of $250,000 for four years). It had also been
suggested that the remaining $750,000 be raised through voluntary
Robert West had opened the regular sessions to observers, so
that a crowded and emotional climate was present as the Board was
faced with budget cutting. The response to the decision to reduce
BAC funding by $50,000 immediately brought harsh criticism.
BUUC Third Annual Mtg.
In bitter frustration over the $50,000 reduction as a failure
to honor the General Assemblies’ decisions by the delegates, BUUC
members discuss disaffiliating from the UUA so that fundraising
can be pursued independently. The vote succeeds and the May
26th Fund (commemorating the Cleveland decision to fund BAC)
is created as a new fundraising effort.
C. Eric Lincoln speaks on the topic of “Black Humanism in
UUA Brd. of Trustees Mtg.
The BAC Statement of Disaffiliation is received and BAC
is removed from the official list of affiliate members and
becomes eligible to raise its own funds.
Seattle Gen. Assembly
BUUC/BAC officially boycott GA but workshops and seminars on
the BAC bond program to fund economic development are presented.
The May 26th Fund is to be used for community development and
institution building programs.
BAC criticizes the 1969 resolution to require audits of
affiliates, as designed to over-scrutinize Black operations, yet
provides the required information.
With fiscal stability a priority for the UUA, the motion to
restore full funding to BAC is defeated and one phase of the
Black Empowerment controversy comes to an end.
“We were the first denomination to act on behalf of black
empowerment; we were the first to turn our backs on black
—Henry Hampton, producer of “Eyes on the Prize,”
UUA Director of Information 1963–1968, and chair of the Greater
Boston UU Caucus
“The majority of White Unitarian Universalists did not accept
the responsibility to understand, nurture, and own the program
they had dared to embrace in Cleveland in 1968.”
—Unitarian Universalists and the Quest for Racial Justice,
Commission on Appraisal.
“How is UUA Functioning in Area of Social
Presented to the UUA Board by the administration, the 14-page
document makes no special emphasis on race relations among other
aspects of social concern.
BUUC Fourth Annual Mtg.
Prior to the meeting, Hayward Henry announces his interest in
relating with the larger Black movement and plans not to continue
as national chair. Reverend Harold Wilson is elected national
A position paper prepared by the Greater Washington, DC Black
Caucus is among a set of briefs also distributed prior to the
meeting. It states concerns about the illnesses of the
organization and the need for restructuring, collaborative local
and national leadership, and commitment to open expression and
UUA Board of Trustees Mtg.
Successful negotiations that included BAC and
BAWA with the Board and with North Shore Unitarian Church of
Plandome, NY (home of the Veatch Fund and now called the UU
Congregation at Shelter Rock) had created the Plandome Special
Grant as a source for the UUA’s Racial Justice Fund. $250,000
was allocated over 18 months with $180,000 designated for BAC and
$45,000 to BAWA. Associate status is voted for BAC.
BUUC Sixth Ann. Mtg., Philadelphia
Major disagreements lead up to the meeting, over the future
identity of BUUC and over BAC assets, between two factions under
the control of Richard Traylor and Ben Scott. There is a
recommendation to change the name from BUUC to the Black
Humanist Fellowship (BHF) in solidarity of closer ties with
other Black liberation movements, including the Congress of
African People (CAP), which was organized by Hayward Henry,
Richard Traylor and Imamu Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), and to
sever ties with the UUA.
Despite challenges to the legality of meeting procedures, and
a group who decided to meet separately, constitutional changes
are made to create the Black Humanist Fellowship. Charges of
conflicts of interest are made.
Mar 1973–Jun 1976
Suit was filed charging absence of a quorum, among other
things. The judge ruled in favor of the defendants (BHF-Traylor,
et al.) since BUUC had not adhered closely to the quorum
definition in meetings previous to the contested one of February,
1973. The plaintiffs (BUUC – Scott, et al.) called for a hearing.
Assets and investments of BAC corporations were frozen while
waiting for a court decision. By late 1975, it became apparent
that funds under both factions had diminished. A petition was
filed by All Souls, Washington, DC on behalf of bondholders. A
settlement was signed in June, 1976, and a meeting was called for
bondholders to designate control of their bonds . Shortly
afterward the court ruled in favor of BUUC, but the settlement
From a concluding paragraph of a letter from the BHF group
presented to the bondholders at the meeting:
“As most of you know, we have been involved in the building of
BAC from the inception. It was a difficult experiment which
required much by way of personal sacrifice. We believed strongly
in what we were doing. The litigation has proved to be personally
devastating and frustrating — not only because we were no longer
able to serve Black people as we had been before, but also
because the litigational issues seemed so far removed from the
problems we were supposed to be working on.”
timeline is based on overviews provided by various sources, and may
not reflect the perspectives of some participants in the events