Who's In Charge Here? The Historical Context : the Empowerment Controversy
As predictably as House Republicans assuring us that tax cuts for the rich will solve whatever problem is at hand, UU writers assure us that empowerment controversy is deeply relevant to whatever problem is under discussion.
I confess that I wasn't there, having left UUism about that time, because I had concluded that UUism made a lousy political organization. It was a religious institution that couldn't make up its mind about anything; meanwhile, there was an actual movement available at the time. (Snark alert! We have solved that problem by now, by calling ourselves a movement too, although motion is sometimes hard to detect.)
But I get it; it's an important story for understanding who we are, we think. Unfortunately, it is a damaging and inaccurate story.
The story we tell is that after the Civil Rights Movement, liberalism failed the test. As the COA writes " unable to engage in the more radical action needed to move civil rights from legal charter to reality." We liberals were hypocrites.
1968 and 1969 was indeed a crisis for liberalism.
The urban uprisings after Dr. King's assassination showed that urban black communities were far more angry and ready to move than all the bodies of that made up leadership of the liberal coalition: the unions, the churches, the civil rights organizations, the non-Southern Democrats, the moderate Republicans. All across this Civil Rights Coalition, African Americans created separate formations and caucuses, creating their own "Black" leadership, which was not as enmeshed with white liberals as the established "Negro" leadership. Their charge was the white liberals did not really have the interests of the full black community at heart. White liberals were hypocrites. What was happening in the UUA was not unique, but part of a pattern.
At the same time, Nixon and the emerging rightwing, was perfecting its mobilization against liberalism. Liberals seemed to hold the high moral ground, but were attacked for hypocrisy. Liberals might oppose the war, but it was just because they did not their kids to be drafted. They were for school integration but sent their kids to private or suburban schools. They were for affirmative action for public universities but went to private schools themselves. They talked about the poor, but were middle-class themselves.
From both the Right and the Left, liberals were called out as hypocrites. And a vast silent majority of people were hostile to us. That is the way it seemed.
1969 was the beginning of a 40 year period of aggressive conservative dominance in the political and cultural life of the country. Liberalism in every form became the enemy. Liberalism became a dirty word that people ran away from. White Liberals were hypocritical, silly, and ineffectual and deeply inauthentic.
It is not surprising that this 40 year narrative of hypocritical, silly and ineffectual white liberals has become a part of our self-conception. To younger UU's, this is narrative that they have grown up with.
This was the historical context of the empowerment controversy. By ripping it out of its historical context we make it a foundational story of our hypocrisy and failure. Which is useful, in a way, because it counteracts the Selma story we tell ourselves. The two stories go together like before and after pictures. What was in between, what turned the inspiring before into the dispirited after, were the riots and Nixon. Our inability to name the external reality of what was happening is like a post traumatic stress response, internalizing what was external, ending in self-blame.
As I have said before, the 40 years between 1969 and 2008 was a wilderness time for us. The UU movement was traumatized by the bitter and ugly end of the period of liberal ascendency in which we had been founded in our current form in 1961. UU's exhibited all the signs of a traumatized and highly anxious group: hiding away, herding together, exaggerated responses to internal conflicts, self-blame, sometimes grandiosity and sometimes compete pessimism, a relentless self-focus on our own comforts.
I urge you all to read Mark Morrison-Reed's summation of the empowerment controversy in Darkening the Doorways.