Stories From Our Faith

From the Rev. Gordon Gibson

“The ministers who served [some of our southern] congregations in [the Civil Rights] era are heroes of mine. They stood tall when it would have been easier to keep their heads down. They lived and mostly thrived in places that most of their colleagues avidly avoided. They grew vibrant congregations.

… Donald Thompson served the First Unitarian Church of Jackson, Mississippi, 1963-65. In August of 1965 he was shot by the Ku Klux Klan and critically injured. A few weeks later the settlement director in the UUA Department of Ministry wrote inquiring whether “you think the time is now for you to move to a more comfortable situation or a different climate.” Don replied from his hospital room:

Thanks for your offer of assistance in placement. If any of the Miss. congregations feel that my presence is a danger to them, I’ll take advantage of your offer. Otherwise, I feel that I ought to try to stay here for the next seven or eight years. (“I should live so long.”) I realize that the same night riders may be out to finish the job, but why have a successor who would also be a target. The Klan probably is quite upset because, for once, their execution didn’t take. Maybe they’ll do something about it. Yet one cannot live on the basis of fear… It takes courage in Jackson to join a liberal church. Yet I believe that my continuing after the shooting incident might attract some worthwhile members.

As it worked out, a couple of months later Don accepted the advice of local friends, corroborated by the FBI, and left the state of Mississippi on a few hour’s notice before the Klan again attempted to kill him.

… (Stories like this) do not mean, “Unitarian Universalists led the civil rights movement.” The Movement was a movement of, by, and for African Americans, only some of whom were Unitarian Universalist…. Although the overwhelming thrust of the Movement was the liberation of African Americans, there was a secondary effect, and that was the liberation of European Americans. Unitarian Universalists were among the first liberated, and… often provided an early crack in the “closed society” of the white South. In response to an ideology allied with religious fundamentalism, we were religiously open and tolerant. In response to an ideology that depicted some people as of great worth and others as of little worth, we proclaimed the worth and dignity of all persons.

We were a crack in the “closed society,” but not without cost. What was done was often at a high price for some. Those of us who are white were often too radical to have much of any support from other whites. But we were also too white to merit much support or attention from African
Americans. There were psychological scars. There were family ties sundered. There were jobs lost. There were sometimes physical attacks. Those are very real costs.

But there were benefits as well. The benefits were less tangible, but they were real. At base, I think the benefit obtained by Unitarian Universalists, young and old, lay and clergy, was the sense that they were in fact living out their faith. Their integrity was intact. They were making real some small part of the ideal world that they imagined.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email