Landmark desegregation ruling at fifty
On May 17, 1954, a headline inside the Charlotte News in North Carolina announced, “Race or Color No Bar to Church Admittance.” The story began, “Members of the Charlotte Unitarian Church have adopted a philosophy of membership that 'neither race nor color of skin nor previous religious affiliation matters at all' for admittance to the church services.”
That small article about racial integration was not the only one in that day's News. On the front page—and on front pages across the country—was news of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down the doctrine of “separate but equal” in public education. Half a century later, both the nation and Unitarian Universalist congregations have taken long strides toward racial justice, but the path still stretches toward the horizon.
Fifty years ago many Unitarian congregations supported the idea of integration, and the American Unitarian Association had strongly endorsed desegregation in the churches and in American society, but an AUA study published in the April 1954 Christian Register identified only twelve Unitarian congregations “with five or more legal voting Negro members.” The Universalist Church of America's Biennial Assembly in 1953 had urged Universalists “to extend a warm welcome to both potential members and potential clergy regardless of race or color,” but news of only one congregation's active response appeared in the Universalist Leader in all of 1954.
A handful of Unitarian congregations, including Charlotte, officially abandoned segregation just as the Court did. Less than a month after Brown, the Unitarian church in Houston, Texas, also voted—104 to 12, with some 40 members walking out in protest—to end its practice of segregation. Gains in integrating congregations were slow, yet that didn't deter Unitarians and Universalists from working to end segregation in other ways.
In 1966, Dr. Carlton Watkins, who had opened his pediatric practice in 1946 with a nonsegregated waiting room, was elected to the Charlotte school board. He was an insistent voice for integration as Charlotte's school desegregation case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, made its way to the 1971 Supreme Court. Also in 1966, fellow Charlotte Unitarian Sue Riley helped start the Open Door School in the church's classrooms. It was the first nonsectarian integrated preschool in Charlotte and it still “encourages enrollment of children of all races, religions, economic levels, ethnic origins and abilities.”
This kind of Unitarian Universalist story was replicated across the South. Augusta, Georgia, is one of several congregations that started racially inclusive preschools in the 1950 s and 1960s. In 1965 the Jackson, Mississippi, congregation housed the only biracial Project Headstart classes in the city. In New Orleans in 1960, the Rev. Albert D'Orlando and the First Unitarian Church received more than $25,000 from Unitarians across the continent for their Freedom Fund, which helped support teachers and parents of students who came under economic pressure for participating in the first steps of school desegregation there.
Now, exactly fifty years after the Brown ruling, on May 17, 2004, comes another justice milestone—the date set by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Unitarian Universalists have taken important roles in the struggle for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and gains in our churches have come more easily this time: More than one-third of Unitarian Universalist congregations are designated “Welcoming Congregations” today—actively committed to embracing people with diverse sexual and gender identities.