“Nearly a UU”
Aaron McEmry documented the following story in his Martin Luther King day sermon “The Almost Unitarian” in January of 2011. It was news I had heard rumors of before. The news that Martin Luther King flirted with Unitarian Universalism is something many of us have thought about. That rumor was confirmed in my mind by another colleague Rosemary Bray McNatt.
What follows are taken from Rev. McEmry’s sermon.
“Some years ago UU minister Rosemary Bray McNatt was being considered as a possible co-writer of Coretta Scott King’s autobiography. When they sat down to get to know one another, and Rosemary mentioned that she was in seminary, training for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry, Mrs. King’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin,” she said, “And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston.”
McEmry notes that Rosemary couldn’t believe what she was hearing, but was brought quickly back down to earth when Coretta Scott King said… “We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”
Ugh! Why not? Aaron asks. “Why couldn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. be a Unitarian?”
Although as Aaron McEmry conveyed in his sermon, “King was initially thrilled, liberated even, by religious liberalism, especially by our unflagging faith in the essential goodness of human nature and by our use of reason in religion.” However, “as the Civil Rights Movement began to pick up steam, he noticed that a reasoned, rational approach was great for developing opinions and intellectual positions – but when white-robed men with torches rode through the streets or lines of policemen waded in with Billy-clubs – reason often proved too brittle to stand its ground.”
Ugh! That is my own. Not Rosemary’s or Aaron’s.
Seemingly, as King revealed in a few prior interviews, King’s most serious reservation about becoming a Unitarian Minister was that he feared that mostly white, mostly well-off Unitarians would never rise up, risk their privilege and lay it on the line when the make-it-or-break-it moment came. Ow! Or as the kids say “snap!” That is hard to hear and probably true.
MLK’s own personal experience with Unitarian Universalism began when he was a student at Boston University, back in the early 50’s. While getting his PhD in town he attended services at a few of the local Unitarian churches, and somewhere between occasionally and frequently attended the Arlington St. Church to listen to Rev. Dana Greeley. He claimed that Greely was “of inestimable value in the continuance of our humble efforts.”
(‘Witnessing for the Truth’ Martin Luther King Jr., Unitarian Universalism, and Beacon Press 2014)
That’s a cool and painful ‘what if’. Isn’t it?
An even better question is; would he have accomplished all he did had he actually become a UU?
King was invited to be the Ware Lecturer at the Hollywood Florida General Assembly in 1966. In that speech before the gathered UU, less than two years before he was killed, he delivered another speech titled “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution,” compelling us as a movement to live up to the church’s responsibility to be the moral guardian of community and society.
I (SW) think we both are, and are not, fulfilling that call. However, what a time better than now to heed it?
What a time better than now, with a new administration entering the white house, and the end of pandemic, if not close, at least in sight, now is the time for transformation. What a time to follow every good instinct and intention to do all we can to fulfill that potential?
What a time to prove King wrong that from out of our reason and prudence and privilege as a predominantly white denomination, we just might be capable of being that moral guardian?
 Rosemary Bray McNatt, “To Pray Without Apology” in the UU World, November/December 2002.