Who's In Charge Here? The Historical Context : the Empowerment Controversy

If "Derp" is defined as the unreflective repetition of previously held opinion, the events of 1969 in the UUA, the empowerment controversy, are the mother lode of UU derp.

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.


  1. You know I love you, but I think the "Empowerment Controversy" is not the example to use.

    Do I think how we talk about that time period is productive? Not particularly. But if we're going to talk about hypocrisy when it comes to race and the AUA/UCA/UUA, then to only talk about the "controversy" period is a way to make ourselves feel better. Because the story can be presented as, "hey, look at what we did during the early 60s, then things got a little crazy." (I have other words for it, but I'm trying to be nice)

    While the UCA side of the story has brighter parts, the AUA side is full of hypocrisy and missed opportunities---going all the way back to the 1830s. And need I go into Ethelred Brown???

    Anyway, back to the "controversy". Were you in Plenary Hall in Minneapolis when they were getting ready to vote on the compromise about Phoenix? After reading from "Arc of the Universe", Gini asked everyone for whom this was new information to raise their hand/placard. 3/4 of the room did. Which showed me that the "controversy" period isn't talked about at all in most UU churches, much less the complexity of that period.

    Do I think the COA report should have even brought up the "controversy"? No. But since they did, I think they did it as a way to not talk about the real history.

  2. Kim
    -- feeling the love, thx --
    I don't think that empowerment controversy is evidence of hypocrisy -- I think people were incredibly sincere then, but overwhelmed by the historical situation.
    I think that we choose to tell the story of the empowerment controversy as one of our hypocrisy -- our great failing -- a telling which dovetails nicely with the rightwing's critique of liberalism. I ask why we keep internalizing rightwing criticisms of liberalism like they were God's honest truth.


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