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Southern Witness

Southern Witness

Unitarians and Universalists in the Civil Rights Era

Copublished with the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society

Also available as an eBook in the Amazon Kindle Store and on Google Play.

An engaging account of the roles that UU individuals and congregations played in the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and '60s.

Author: Gordon D. Gibson

Price: $16.00

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At last, here is the largely untold history of Unitarian and Universalist involvement in the civil rights movement in the South. Covering congregations in nearly thirty cities and towns and spanning ten Southern states, this extensive study sheds new light on the often heroic efforts of laypeople and clergy in confronting segregation. Author Gordon Gibson witnessed some of this history firsthand, as the only UU minister in Mississippi between 1969 and 1984. His interviews with dozens of other activists from the 1950s and 60s has produced many stories, some never before recorded. We learn about Rev. Donald Thompson, shot in the back and run out of town by segregationists in Jackson, Mississippi; Rev. Albert D'Orlando, whose parsonage and church building in New Orleans were firebombed by the KKK; Robert Williams, the Black Power pioneer and radical, and many more. Southern Witness explores institutional history as well, revealing patterns in the way these congregations faced the challenges of racial injustice—patterns deeply influenced by the fellowship movement, which planted scores of small, lay-led congregations in that area. Many Southern UUs were radicalized by the movement. These pages tell their tales, as well as the sadder accounts of some who resisted change.

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A Note on Language vii
Preface

Genesis: The Context 1
Genesis: A Typical Story 7
Norfolk, Virginia 17
Lynchburg, Virginia 21
Charlotte, North Carolina 27
Monroe, North Carolina 37
Charleston, South Carolina 47
Columbia, South Carolina 59
Atlanta, Georgia 63
Elsewhere in Georgia: Savannah, Augusta, Athens 79
Jacksonville, Florida 87
Miami and Other Cities in Florida 93
Knoxville, Tennessee 97
Oak Ridge, Tennessee 113
Chattanooga, Tennessee 117
Nashville, Tennessee 121
Memphis, Tennessee 133
Huntsville, Alabama 139
Birmingham, Alabama 149
Montgomery, Alabama 163
Tuscaloosa, Alabama 173
Mobile, Alabama 177
Jackson, Mississippi 181
New Orleans, Louisiana 201
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 213
Little Rock, Arkansas 219
A Summary of Disparate Gifts 229
Revelation: What Can We Learn From What We Did 241

Abbreviations 245
Index 249

Eugene Navias, consultant from the UUA Department of Education, visited the Jackson, Mississippi, fellowship on April 23-24, 1964. In his report about the visit, he wrote,

The consultant arrived in Jackson on the morning after a night of great decision in the life of the Fellowship. It would be easy for those of us who live far away to regard the debate here as a minor one, but to this small group of liberals in Mississippi, it was of paramount importance.
On Easter Sunday, the Fellowship was astonished when a woman Negro college student signed the Membership Book. The fact that she had never visited the Fellowship previously and was not known by a single person in the group complicated the feelings of the membership. It is to be noted that the Fellowship has had Negro visitors for a long time. Now, however, the group reacted with understandable fear. It is no exaggeration of the facts of life in Jackson to say that having admitted a Negro to membership could plunge this group into a reign of terror involving the loss of jobs, economic and social pressures, and even the loss of life.
The police, the Citizens Council and the State of Mississippi have infinite means of maintaining segregation. At the membership meeting, with the Negro member present, the group aired its fears and ideals and rose to the challenge in voting that membership be open, that such be stated openly, and that the membership book be kept out in the open. It is to be noted that the Negro member has attended regularly since joining and seems sincere in her choice of this church. It would also appear, however, that as an active member of CORE, she was making a test case.


On the evening of August 23, 1965, after a church board meeting, Don Thompson drove Johnny Frazier home. Frazier, a Black college student, had become an active member of the congregation and hoped in September to begin seminary studies in preparation for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. After dropping off Frazier, Thompson drove to the apartment building in which both the Thompsons and Roland Toms lived. As he walked toward the back door of the building, a car pulled into the parking lot, and two shots were fired at him. Thompson was not a small man; although of average height or less, he weighed well over two hundred pounds. The first shot missed him completely. The second shot hit his left shoulder with buckshot and probably would have been lethal had he been significantly thinner. He suffered at least two broken bones and considerable trauma to various body parts, but he survived and slowly recovered strength.


In 1960, a federal court order began school desegregation. The New Orleans and Baton Rouge congregations placed newspaper ads advocating keeping the schools open (in opposition to legislative efforts to close the schools rather than desegregate). When the schools did minimally desegregate, members of the New Orleans church helped with driving White students to school in the face of hostile mobs. And the church appealed to Unitarians far and wide to help set up a special fund to aid integration efforts.
These special funds, sometimes doled out in small amounts, helped a variety of people. One White Methodist minister and his wife who kept their daughter in school were driven out of their parsonage for doing so; and Unitarian money helped with several months' rent for alternative housing. Other White families sticking with the public schools were also aided. The church disbursed $115.75 to house Freedom Riders before they boarded buses or trains north through Mississippi. Attorney Bill Higgs of the Jackson, Mississippi, congregation received aid when he was forced to leave that state. Some of the legal expenses while desegregating Tulane University were covered. The fund also paid for some of attorney Ben Smith's legal expenses while taking on Mississippi civil rights cases.

Gordon Gibson has a light hand, and lets history speak to us in this rich and necessary resource. Although he clearly spent more than a decade clambering through old boxes and abandoned files, his work reads like a series of conversations with old friends. He has given us primary resources—the oral histories of many Unitarian Universalists in the south of the 1950s and 60s—but he has also created an impeccably researched history of every congregation involved in the struggle for civil rights. It is compellingly readable, and will certainly be the go-to resource for future work. His introductory and concluding chapters are interpretive, and Gibson's clear moral and humane center shines through. He is sensitive to context and awake to the contributions of all.
—Rev. Andrea Greenwood

In the 1950s and 1960s, no part of the country challenged liberal religious values more than the South. Gordon Gibson gives remarkable examples of conflict and courage as religious liberals confronted race hatred in their own communities. This is a landmark study of Unitarian Universalism all over the South, as each city evokes diverse stories of practical applications of a lived faith, sometimes fearless and sometimes fearful.
—Rev. Mark Harris, author of Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History

Gibson asserts that while one can write the history of the civil rights movement without mentioning Unitarian Universalism one cannot exclude the individuals who were Unitarian Universalists and give a full account. During that era it took courage to be a UU in the South. This book captures the heroism, trepidation, and wavering of congregations and people committed to live out liberal religious values in a ferociously inhospitable climate.
—Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, author of The Selma Awakening: How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalism

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