A Timeline of the Black Empowerment Controversy in American Unitarian Universalism*

Compiled by Julie Kain

1967    1968    1969    1970    1971    1972    1973

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 Emergency Conference.

“The people who led the Black UU Caucus were at the vanguard of the Black movement in America — bright, articulate, educated, passionate.”

—Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice, Commission on Appraisal

Nov 1967
    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.”

Nov 1967
    Los Angeles

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.

Feb 1968
    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.

Mar 1968
    UUA Board of
    Trustees Mtg.

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).

Apr 1968

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.

May 1968
    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.

May 1968
    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.

June 1968
    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 programs.

June 1968
    First Meeting of Black Affairs Council

Elected officers are: Dr. James Clark, Chair; Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, Vice Chair; Richard Traylor, Secretary; and Benjamin Scott, Treasurer.

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.

Feb 1969
    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.

May 1969
    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.

July 1969
    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.

Aug 1969
    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.

Dec 1969
    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.

Jan 1970
    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 contributions.

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.

Feb 1970
    BUUC Third Annual Mtg.
    Washington, DC

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 Institution Building.”

Apr 1970
    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 empowerment.”

—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.

Oct 1970
    “How is UUA Functioning in Area of Social Responsibility?”

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.

Feb 1971
    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 chair.

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 fiscal accountability.

Mar 1972
    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.

Feb 1973
    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
    BAC/BHF Litigation

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 agreement remained.

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.”



*This timeline is based on overviews provided by various sources, and may not reflect the perspectives of some participants in the events outlined.

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


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