Monday, January 08, 2007

A History of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham and its Role in the Civil Rights Movement

The present day Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham, Alabama, has a storied history. Ironically formed during the height of a new wave of conservatism during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term, the church served as a bastion of liberal religious thought. Its formative years, fraught with tension and great upheaval, strengthened a progressive presence in the South and the State of Alabama that ceased to exist before its formation. Moreover, its primarily Caucasian laity remained openly committed to the struggle of Civil Rights in a time where few whites dared to openly oppose a system of racism and oppression existent in the region for some two hundred years prior.

The formation of the church stemmed from the efforts of Mary Aymar Hobart, who had been sent to Birmingham from Boston representing the denomination. She placed a newspaper ad in The Birmingham Post-Herald requesting the formation of a fellowship. “Eighteen persons met at the Redmont Hotel on 18 January 1952 and agreed to organize.” Her husband, Rev. Alfred Hobart, agreed to serve as minister for the gathering. Hobart served the church as full time minister from then until 1964?, when Larry McGinty succeeded him.

Mrs. Hobart had been sent to the South as a result of an American Unitarian Association (AUA, henceforth) program known as “The Fellowship Movement”. “…Flourishing through the early ‘60s, this program attracted thousands of new members to hundreds of new fellowships, some of which are among [the] most vibrant congregations today.” The program was created as a means to encourage the spread of religious liberalism, and in a desire to reach out to disenfranchised liberals throughout the country. Unitarianism, up until that point, had been a primarily New England based religion.

The Fellowship Movement, effectively established in May 1948, was spawned in response to the splitting of the Democratic Party into two rival factions. The incumbent, Harry S. Truman, favored a plank that favored Civil Rights and Integration. In response, the Southern delegates of the party left the Democratic convention in a huff and formed their own party, The States’ Rights Democratic (commonly known as “Dixiecrat”) Party. Nominating then-South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond as their candidate for President, the Dixiecrats strongly opposed Civil Rights and strongly supported segregation. They met in Birmingham in the summer of that year. “Their four day convention was big news in Birmingham”. It was big news across the country as well.

Alabama, in its traditional role as the Patron Saint of Lost Causes, gave its 11 electoral votes to Thurmond. Thurmond also captured the electoral votes of three other southern states: Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

In the upset of the century, of course, Truman defeated Dewey, despite what the Chicago Daily Tribune had predicted. Despite facing not two, but three separate opponents, Thurmond of the Dixiecrats, Thomas E. Dewey of the Republicans, and Henry A. Wallace of the Progressive Party, Truman won with less than 50 percent of the total popular vote. He collected 2.1 million more popular votes than his closest opponent, Dewey, and 114 more electoral votes.

1948 also saw two major events. 2 May marked the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man adopted by the Organization of American States. On 10 December, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was the first document to provide a comprehensive statement of international human rights for the world.

The roots of The Fellowship Movement go back even farther than 1948, of course. “The AUA appointed a layperson, Munroe Husbands, as director of the new program. Husbands was also the appointed clerk of the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF), which the AUA had organized in 1944 to served isolated Unitarians through the mail.” CLF had been established partially in response to a fireside chat by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had stated firmly in one of his radio addresses (but rather obliquely) that future Democratic Party platforms would contain a plank supporting Civil Rights and Integration.

Back to the history of the Birmingham Unitarians.
Almost immediately the fledgling group ran into numerous problems with finding a permanent meeting place. The group originally met at the downtown YMCA but found itself forced out within a few weeks. The reason stated by the YMCA staff to excuse such an abrupt dismissal remains telling. “The stained glass windows of our building certainly would not appeal to a group who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ”. In essence, Unitarians were forced out because they were perceived as heretics. This would not be the first time that charge was levied against the group.

Next, in March 1952, the assembly moved to temporary quarters in Mountain Brook Village. Today, most people drop the noun “Village” when they refer to “Mountain Brook”. They took up residence in a small city owned building that formerly housed an Episcopalian Congregation. Services stayed anchor at this location for the next four years. By this point, the gathering, 50 members strong, dubbed itself “The Birmingham Unitarian Fellowship” (BUF). The American Unitarian Association (AUA), located at 25 Beacon Street, Boston, officially recognized the assemblage that same month.

1952 was an election year. Illinois senator Adlai E. Stevenson, himself a Unitarian, secured the Democratic Nomination for President. Interestingly, his running mate was an Alabamian, senator John J. Sparkman. The Republican candidate running against Stevenson was Dwight D. Eisenhower, immensely popular, war hero, and the allied commander of the European theatre during World War II. Stevenson didn’t stand a chance.

Eisenhower trounced his Democratic opponent in a landslide. Not only did “Ike” collect 6.62 million more popular votes, and 55 percent of the vote, he convincingly captured the Electoral College. At the end of election night, the scorecard read 442 electoral votes for Eisenhower and a paltry 89 for Stevenson. In addition, Eisenhower’s Republicans secured control of both house of Congress. Alabama, once again in its traditional role as the Patron Saint of Lost Causes, naturally gave all of its 11 electoral votes to the loser. In an irony lost on no one these days, Stevenson won only the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia.

By 1953, a man named Joseph Volker had come prominently onto the scene of Birmingham politics. His passionate struggles for Civil Rights left an indelible impact upon Birmingham and upon University College, as the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was known at the time. Initially established as the medical school for the state of Alabama, UAB, in no small part due to his efforts, became a world-renowned medical center. A building housing math and science on the campus of UAB is named Volker Hall, in his honor. Volker personally integrated the medical school. The day after he had succeeded in his efforts, a handmade banner prominently swayed over the main medical building on campus. “Joseph Volker. Nigger lover.”

At a May 1953 meeting, Volker spoke in front of his fellow Unitarians, prophetically uttering a statement that remains true to this day. “To be a Unitarian in Boston is almost fashionable, but to be a Unitarian in the Deep South requires courage”. In the Unitarian Universalist archives, located at 25 Beacon Street in Boston, three copies of this address exist in a hefty vertical file, stuffed to the brim with information relating to the history of Unitarianism in Birmingham.

By the end of that same year, 1953, the BUF made an informed decision to apply to the AUA for full church status. Church status, achieved officially 26 January 1954, and served as a sense of great pride to its members. The gathering, now known officially as “The Birmingham Unitarian Church”, comprised seventy-two families and one hundred and six individuals. A number of new members heard about the church from their participation in the Great Books Discussion Group.

1954 was a tumultuous year, both in Birmingham and the rest of the country. On 11 February of that year, the Birmingham City Commission repealed a ban that had formerly refused to allow African-American and Caucasian athletes to compete together in athletic events. It agreed to let the “Say Hey Kid”, Willie Mays, of the New York Giants baseball team play in exhibitions in Birmingham.

The bombshell of the year, of course, occurred when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled for school integration. Chief Justice Earl Warren led a unanimous decision, on 17 May, in which the doctrine of “separate but equal” was forever repealed. Officially, it was known as Brown v. Board of (Topeka, Kansas) Education. De facto and de jure segregation in public schools was ruled officially unconstitutional, overturning a judicial precedent that had existed for 58 years. The case overturned the 1896 decision of Plessy v. Ferguson. Shock waves pulsed through America, the South, and Birmingham. A dismayed President Eisenhower remarked that appointing Earl Warren to the bench had been “the most damn fool thing [he] had ever done”.

The Southern reaction, not surprisingly, was swift. By 25 May, governors and other public officials in Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, and including then-Alabama governor Gordon Persons denounced school integration. They threatened to close all public schools in their states as a result. In Birmingham, on 3 June, ten thousand voters filed a petition to have a vote on the practice of allowing black and white athletes to compete in city-owned facilities. The vote effectively revoked the City Commission action of 11 February.

Three months later, on 24 August, the Communist Control Act went into effect, essentially outlawing the Communist Party in the United States. This reactionary legislation is important to the Civil Rights Movement because it gave segregationist leaders an excuse to baselessly accuse Civil Rights leaders of being Communist in the years ahead. By September, the Southern School News began to monitor and report on the progress of desegregation of previously all white schools. On the 7th of that month, integration of public schools began in Washington, D.C. and Maryland. During the months of September, through October, the Southern Regional Council set up the Alabama Council of Human Relations in an effort to foster inter-racial dialogue and monitor racial changes. In November, at the mid-Congressional elections of that year, the Republican lost their hold on both houses of Congress.

President Eisenhower would have to work with a Democratic controlled Congress the rest of his term.
But perhaps what was the most important, but little noted event of the year occurred in September.

An African-American man, formerly from Atlanta, took a position as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. His accomplishments would inspire a world, a nation, a denomination, and a group of religious liberals in Birmingham, Alabama.

Meanwhile, in Boston, according to a unpublished AUA department memo, dictated the following year, 1955, the Birmingham Unitarian Church was stated to contain 136 members, but its unknown author noted with no small degree of annoyance that many of its key members had moved out of state. “This has been a pattern throughout the church’s life”, the document seems to sigh. Unfortunately, this is a pattern that continues to plague the church even to this day. Yet, it is not an unusual problem at all by UU standards. The present day Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham seems to gain as many members as it loses. This is a fact of UU culture, not just Birmingham culture.

The nature of the Fellowship Movement, combined with the tendency of southern culture and southern liberals to circle the wagons, ensures that each UU church or fellowship in the Deep South remains an oasis of liberal thought, but an impenetrable fortress of liberal thought as well. Only sporadic communication between each individual church and fellowship in the Mid-South District (which comprises the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and the extreme western panhandle of Florida) exists even to this day. As noted above, this is due to the nature of both insular southern culture and insular UU culture. Interestingly enough, the Birmingham Unitarian Church was originally part of the Thomas Jefferson District, which today comprises most of the state of Virginia, as one would expect from such a name.

Still, the church had no permanent home, which was desired strongly by all members. By 1956, a building had been proposed, land purchased, and an architectural firm contacted to construct the home of Unitarianism in Birmingham. This building, designed in the shape of two A-frames, was located at 2365 Cahaba Road, Mountain Brook, Alabama. It remained in place until mid-2004, when it was razed to make way for garden homes.

According to the Birmingham Post Herald of Wednesday, 13 June 1956, the building would cost $65,000. Construction on the structure would presumably begin in the fall of that year. The paper noted that services prior had been held at 50 Oak Street, Crestline Heights.

The dream was becoming a reality, but it would take over two years before it came to total fruition.

Meanwhile, 1956 was another election year. Once again, the Democrats nominated faithful Unitarian Adlai Stevenson as their choice for President. This time, however, his running mate was Estes Kefauver, another southern senator. Kefauver was from Tennessee. Once again, the Republican nominated their incumbent, Dwight D. Eisenhower for a second term. Eisenhower’s margin of victory was even greater this time around.

Eisenhower collected 9.5 million more popular votes than Stevenson, and won overwhelmingly in the electoral college, again. This time, Eisenhower collected 457 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 73. Yet again, in its role as Patron Saint of Lost Causes, Alabama voted for the loser. Yet, only ten of its electoral votes went to Stevenson. One vote went to Walter B. Jones. Stevenson won the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Four years before, Stevenson had won nine states. This time around, he won only eight, and seven outright, if you take into account Alabama’s split electoral college vote.

However, in Congressional Elections, the Democratic party maintained their control over both houses of Congress. Two years later, in 1958, at yet another mid-Congressional election, The Democratic party won enough seats in Congress to effectively override Eisenhower’s veto power. Clearly, the Republican Party and Eisenhower were deeply wounded.

Meanwhile, back in Birmingham, the members of the BUC were abuzz with ideas and enthusiasm for their cause. According to a Birmingham Post-Herald article, dated 22 February 1958, the church at Cahaba Road was to be a shared worship space with the local Reform Judaism congregation. As both religious groups shared the same essential doctrines and worked towards establishing Civil Rights, this generous decision is not at all surprising.

Everything came into focus on 12 October 1958. All of the dreams, aspirations, desire, hopes, and prayers of a small group of religious liberals culminated on that day in early fall. Rev. Alfred Hobart preached his first sermon preached in a new, partially completed building on Cahaba Road. The members of the Birmingham Unitarian Church were justly proud of their accomplishment. So it was that the church was dedicated on 2 December 1959 at eight o’clock in the evening. The culmination of five years of hard work and steady progress had paid off handsomely.

1 comment:

Robin Edgar said...

That was half a century ago Comrade Kevin. . . What are they up to now?