To Hear Each Other With Compassion

In the years just before and just after Martin Luther King's death in 1968, the Unitarian Universalist efforts to address racial justice tore us apart.

We were, and are, proud of our presence and support in Selma in 1965. Five hundred Unitarian Universalists participated with Dr. King in that march from Selma to Montgomery, including over 140 Unitarian Universalist clergy -- 20 percent of all UU ministers in final fellowship at that time. We seemed -- to ourselves -- so clearly to be on the "right" side. The line between us (the good guys) and them (the racists) seemed well-established.

Then, in 1967, two years after Selma, 135 Unitarian Universalists came to New York for an "Emergency Conference on Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion." Therein begins the messy and forlorn tale of the BUUC, the BAC, and the BAWA.

Almost as soon as the meeting was called to order, 30 of the 37 African American delegates withdrew to form a Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC). The BUUC developed a list of what they called "non-negotiable demands" to be submitted to the conference and, ultimately, the UU Association's Board of Trustees. The core demand was that the board establish a Black Affairs Council (BAC), to be appointed by the BUUC and funded for four years at $250,000 a year -- which would have then been 12 percent of the UUA's entire budget. The next General Assembly approved these demands.

Then the General Assembly after that, finding that funds had grown tighter, wanted to spread the million dollars over five years at $200,000 a year instead of four years at $250,000 a year. The BUUC seemed heavy-handed to some, and another group, "Black and White Action" (BAWA), formed -- also sincerely wanting to advance the cause of civil rights. Very hard feelings erupted on the floor of the General Assembly 1969 in Boston. Almost all of the 200-300 black delegates there got up and walked out. The BUUC folks denounced the BAWA folks.

Our denomination, over 44 years later, is still struggling to come to terms with the events of that General Assembly and the issues raised. Yes, it seems the leadership of the UUA had some paternalistic civil rights attitudes. And, yes, the BUUC leaders might have chosen to be content with recognition and funding and not vindictively insisted on "not one penny for BAWA." And, too, the BAWA supporters might not have reacted against the BUUC as if their lives depended on it.

Sometimes, reading the accounts about that awful fighting, I cry. We so wanted to fight for justice – to stand for acceptance and fairness. And we so didn't know how – didn’t have the skills we needed.

How do we learn the skills to hear each other with compassion?

* * *

On the third Monday of January, we honored Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s legacy is most clearly and publicly embodied in The King Center in Atlanta: The Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. It’s not the center for civil rights; it’s not the center for advancement of minorities; it’s not the center for anti-racism and multiculturalism; it’s not the center for civil disobedience; or even the center for justice – though King stood for all of those. It’s the center for nonviolent social change.

Building from King’s life and work, what have we learned about nonviolent social change since his time? King had a dream of peace and justice. Are there resources available to us that weren't available to him for realizing that dream – for effecting nonviolent social change? King would have celebrated his 85th birthday this year -- and it's been almost 46 years since his death. What do we know about standing for justice without the divisions that have torn us apart How do we learn the skills to hear each other with compassion?

In this series, I'll have some thoughts about that.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Nonviolent Social Change"
Next: Part 2: "The Essence of Violence Is in the Heart"

No comments:

Post a Comment