Civil Rights & Fellowship Movements

Yesterday, I was assisting Mid-South District’s Eunice Benton to rendezvous with the Civil Rights Tour, that Rev. Gordon Gibson and Meadville Lombard Theological School has sponsored the past several years.  The tour travels to various key sites in the deep south where historical civil rights events took place. 

We were reflecting on the congregations in the deep south and the effect that the era of the civil rights movement had on their development.  The Fellowship Movement era occurred concurrently with the civil rights movement. 

In Rabbi Friedman’s work on systems theory within congregations, there is a belief that events that happen within a congregation can and will continue to be played out in varying ways decades and longer after the event.  We see this in congregations that have suffered a serious ministerial breach of conduct that if never fully dealt with within the congregation, will show up in how the congregational relationship with future ministers are played out.  Sometimes without the current congregation or current minister ever fully understanding what or why this  is happening. 

There were many Unitarian fellowships that began in the 1950’s and early 1960’s in the deep south.   These fledgling congregations formed in the midst of societal turmoil.  The two fellowship era congregations that I am most familiar with, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa have their own intimate story of events in their early days of existence.  

In Tuscaloosa, the fellowship began in September of 1954 with a charter membership of 100 members. They met on the University of Alabama’s campus in the Hillel Building, the Jewish Student Union.  Eighteen months later, two African American women were enrolled at the school.  One of the students was expelled before even starting classes.  The other student did attend classes.   Ms Autherine Lucy was also invited to attend the new fellowship’s services, which according the the church archives she did.  However, riots broke out over her presence on campus and she barely escaped with her life.  The KKK roamed the campus in red hoods and baseball bats, stated in a conversation I had with one of the fellowship’s  founders.   Some members of the fellowship started a petition to try to keep her enrolled in the school. But she was also expelled.  The event of these early days in the life of this congregation were harsh.  Membership plummeted to 11 after an 18 month growth to 120 members.  The trauma on the fellowship has left deep scars.   When Governor Wallace stood on the steps of the university some ten years later to block the entrance of another two African American students from attending, this congregation was still struggling to maintain sustainability.

The congregation in Jackson, MS had a different kind of traumatic event.  They were the first integrated congregation in Mississippi.  And when their first extension minister, Rev. Donald Thompson arrived in 1963, things were looking up.  Under his leadership, the congregation started the first Headstart program for under privileged children in the state.  It too was integrated. Rev. Thompson was an outspoken advocate for civil rights.   His work was being noticed by the KKK.   He received death threats.  And then one night, a few months after Rev. James Reeb was killed in Selma, AL,  Rev. Thompson was shot in the back.  He survived and was resolved to remain in Jackson,which he did until death threats began to surface not against him but against his congregants if he remained.   This was the time period that congregations that spoke out against racism were being firebombed.  The title for the movie Mississippi Burning is no exaggeration.  When the fellowship decided to build their new church home, where it is today, the architecture they chose is one of a fortress.  There are no windows in the structure except for some skylights and the doorway into the church is protected by a wall.  Now, I am told this was coincidental and that many congregations were building similar type structures across the south.  My comment to this is, yes, this is how pervasive firebombings and sniper shootings were across the south, so build buildings that would be harder to attack in such manners.   A few years before this congregation was built, the Synagogue in Jackson was firebombed and razed to the ground by the KKK.  

This is the environment these fellowships were born into in the south.  Many fellowships that began in the south did not survive the civil rights era.  And my two examples is too small a sample to make any firm conclusion on the affects of trauma on fellowship congregations forming in this time period.  However, I would bet that there is this unresolved trauma in many of our southern fellowship era congregations that needs to be talked about, examined, and healed. 

I close with this observation. When the tragic events of the shooting at the Knoxville, TN congregation occurred last summer, the impact in congregations I am serving in AL and MS was visceral, almost like a body memory wafting through their being.  Perhaps this was true in other congregations in other locations of our nation.  But I wondered how do we affirm the bravery of these people who stood by their faith for justice during the civil rights era and honor and heal their wounds from the trauma they experienced.   Blessings,