By Rev. Dick Leonard. All Souls, like most Unitarian Universalist churches and fellowships in the 1960s, ran noteworthy social service programs, but had also allowed itself to become a backwater of white privilege, almost insensitive to the upheaval sweeping the world, as people of color everywhere demanded long-overdue fair treatment.
The Community Church of New York, by contrast, led the denomination in its degree of racial involvement and integration. Its Social Action Committee listed more than 100 active members. As its Minister of Education, it was natural for me to answer the call of Martin Luther King, Jr. to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. To my knowledge, All Souls did not send anyone to the march.
One highly-educated Afro-American family with two beautiful children arrived at All Souls Church only to discover that Blacks made up less than 1% of the church's membership. They had bought a home in a "white-only" area on the edge of the city and were undergoing some hostility from a few neighbors. They were ready for something else.
At All Souls, the couple was taken aside and advised that they would probably be happier at the highly-integrated Community Church further downtown. They felt the advice had been offered without hostility and with their own comfort in mind. Nevertheless, they also felt rejected. They switched to Community Church, and became powerhouses in the life of that church, teaching in the church school, heading the Religious Education Committee, and helping develop a vibrant youth program at the church and its summer camp.
But Community Church was having problems too, coping with the rising demands for racial justice. With the Unitarian Universalist Association reeling from black members’ demands for $1 million to form a Black Affairs Council, Community Church leaders proposed forming an integrated group, Black and White Action (BAWA), as an alternative. Delegates at the 1968 UUA General Assembly in Cleveland thought Community’s idea was an insufficient response. They voted to give the Black Affairs Council its $1 million grant, payable over four years. A year later, however, the UUA withdrew its promised funds for the last three years, citing financial difficulties.
There were hard feelings all around, with walkouts and defections of both black and white UU members. It was a time of intense turmoil, in every church and family, as values had to be examined and reexamined in the light of religious traditions and inexorably changing world. All Souls continues to try to catch up with the vision of a more just world order.
New Amsterdam Boys and Girls Choir and the All Souls Children's Choir performing in 2015 at the commemoration of the Selma to Montgomery March.