- Unitarian Universalism Connection
Total Funds Needed: $20,320
Goal for the Faithify Campaign: $4,000
Bending the Arc to Justice:
One Small Church’s Role in the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama
Summary of Project: Bending the Arc to Justice will examine the Civil Rights movement in Alabama and the role that the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham (UUCB) played from the church’s establishment in 1952 through the 1960s. The film is a project of UUCB, the UUCB Film Committee, and producers Pam Powell (a UUCB member) and videographer David Brower. The goal of the film is to document the activism of UUCB in the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama, as well as the implications of how a small group of committed individuals can effect positive change. The film includes interviews with those who remember the church’s role—both white members of UUCB and members of the African American community in the city—capturing their firsthand accounts of the culture of segregation in Birmingham in the 1960s, their memories of the activism of members of our small church during that time, and their impressions of the legacy that it created. Capturing their stories now is critical due to the advanced ages of the witnesses who are still living. This film will add to the limited body of evidence that some white citizens in Birmingham were willing to risk much and give much to see the Civil Rights movement succeed. The current social justice crisis that is being waged against American values, minority citizens, and Democracy itself by the 45th President of the United States magnifies this film’s purpose. The message that Civil Rights activism has for us today in 2017 is that people of conscience must act, and that their actions can help create powerful change. To claim the history of those who have fought and prevailed is to create a legacy that calls us to do our best today.
History of UUCB and its role in the Civil Rights Movement: UUCB is not different from other UU churches in the nation in that it is a predominantly white congregation, and that was certainly the case in the 1960s. The church was founded by Dr. Joseph Volker, then Dean of the School of Dentistry at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, to be a beacon of liberalism in an otherwise conservative city, in the hopes of attracting and retaining high quality faculty. Since it’s inception, the church membership has been largely composed of white, highly educated transplants from other states, although Alabamians represent a significant percent of members today.
A strong sense of justice has traditionally been an important part of the identity of Unitarians everywhere. Toward that end, Birmingham Unitarians not only worked through their church and as individuals, but also joined with other liberals in the community to achieve even greater gains in racial justice. In 1960, the total estimated number of these social and political liberals was no more than 400 (.0006 percent) of a total Jefferson County population of approximately 600,000; Unitarians (members of our church) were well represented in these progressive groups.
The Unitarian Universalist Principles, which are ratified by the Unitarian Universalist Association and its member congregations, include two principles at the heart of UUCB’s motivation to be involved in the Civil Rights movement: the dignity of every person and the right to Democratic process. From the time the church was founded in 1952, it was clear to members and UUCB’s first minister, Rev. Alfred Hobart, that they must assist the movement.
In the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when separation of the races was written into law in Alabama, the church hosted interracial meetings and events; AfricanAmericans were also invited to attend church services, and AfricanAmerican ministers were invited to be guest speakers during church services. After the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court ruling on integrating the public schools, Rev. Hobart led the congregation in taking a stand for the integration of the Birmingham public schools. Alone among the local White clergy in speaking out in support of Brown, he wrote hard hitting articles for the church bulletin in defense of integration and in opposition to all forms of social discrimination.
In the 1960s, the church regularly organized activities to promote the integration of schools and public facilities, including a class to help prepare students, both black and white, for integration of the public schools. (Note: Two of the four little girls who were killed in the September 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16 th Street Baptist Church attended these workshops at our church and were planning to attend a workshop on the afternoon of the bombing.)
Throughout the 1960s, church members participated in interracial activities, including mass meetings to plan protests, boycotts, and demonstrations, and the church continued to host interracial activities, despite countless bomb threats to the new church building; there were so many bomb threats that some church members often kept overnight vigils at the church to protect the facility.
Also in the 1960s, church women founded Friendship in Action, an interracial women’s group, organized interracial play groups for children, and hosted interracial social occasions in their homes. Two church women formed a dance company with integrated classes and performances. Church women also participated in “sitins” at local lunch counters to show their support of integrating local restaurants, dining with African Americans in the face of menacing protests by other white customers.
After the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in 1963, church members called on the families of the girls who were killed and offered their assistance; some went to the hospital to give blood; a delegation, including the minister and his wife, attended the funeral services for the girls; still others wrote letters to the editor, calling for a relentless search for the murderers; and on the Sunday following the bombing, Rev. Hobart memorialized the four girls and two boys killed in separate incidents with a sermon entitled “Requiem for Six Children.”
Rev. Hobart’s support for racial justice made him the object of public scorn. The KKK stalked his house, and abusive telephone calls threatening death often made sleep impossible. As pastor, he bore the burden of seeing church members harassed, arrested, expelled from school, and ostracized in the community. Everyone—the minister and the membership—learned to live with threats of death and the bombing of the church and their homes.
A key goal of the film is to document the courage of these outspoken, activist members of our church throughout the challenges these difficult times. Members of our church who stood up for racial justice faced very real threats to their homes, their families, their businesses, and their lives for supporting integration. Despite these risks, they persisted.
On March 6, 1965, the day before the Selma voting rights march was scheduled to begin, a group of liberal white Alabamians, the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama—more than half of whom were members of our church—staged a rally in Selma and read a letter on the steps of the Dallas County Courthouse, asking all public officials to use their power to help stop the open intimidation of African-Americans attempting to vote.
After the tragedy of the March 7 (“Bloody Sunday”) Selma march, hundreds of clergy from throughout the nation—largely Unitarians—responded to Rev. Martin Luther King’s call for clergy to join a second march on March 9. The marchers were again turned back—and that evening, four local White supremacists, using clubs and a steel rod, attacked three Unitarian Universalist Ministers as they were leaving a restaurant, mortally wounding Rev. James J. Reeb. When Dr. King learned of Rev. Reeb’s injury, he called a personal friend, UUCB member Jack Zylman, to tell him of the attack and that Rev. Reeb had been refused admission to the Selma Hospital and was en route by ambulance to Birmingham for medical treatment. Jack immediately called UUCB founder Dr. Joseph Volker, now Vice President for Health Affairs at UAB, who arranged for Reeb’s admission to University Hospital. News of the minister’s serious injury reached Birmingham Unitarians, and another UUCB member, physician Dr. Robert Hogan, alerted University Hospital of Reeb’s imminent arrival and called Alabama’s top neurosurgeon to prepare for emergency surgery. Dr. Volker, in his official capacity, ordered that every needed resource of the hospital be employed for the treatment of the minister. Another UUCB member, Dr. Thomas Sheffield, was at the hospital when Rev. Reeb arrived and remembers that his injuries were too grave to survive.
After Rev. Reeb died on March 11, many of the UU ministers who had marched with him in Selma came to Birmingham, and UUCB members provided hospitality for these griefstricken ministers. Later the same month, on the nexttolast day of the final, successful Selma march (March 24), members of our church arranged the hosting, feeding, transporting, and lodging of numerous marchers from other states, as well as arranging buses to take them to and from Montgomery for a premarch rally. Then on March 25, UUCB volunteers were at the church to assist with the early morning departure of the marchers and there again that evening to provide a meal when the buses returned. During the course of those two days, UUCB members handled more than 225 guests and chartered seven buses to transport them to their destinations.
The commitment of UUCB to racial equality was remarked upon by the denomination at large. Even before the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March, The Leader, a national Unitarian journal, published an article, written by Rev. Ed Harris with help from Rev. Hobart and others, “Our Unitarian Church in Birmingham—It Has Not Kept Silent,” in its November 1964 issue. Additional information on UUCB’s activism during the Civil Rights movement is included in Southern Witness: Unitarian Universalists in the Civil Rights Era by Gordon D. Gibson (Skinner House Books, 2015) and in Miracle in Birmingham 19541965: A Civil Rights Memoir, by Rev. W. Edward Harris.
Today, the UUCB congregation takes pride in its Civil Rights history. The collective memory of the church being a small harbor of interracial meeting is maintained though the stories being told at new member orientation classes, church dinners, and referred to in the pulpit regularly. The church’s activist history and belief in social justice is one of the main reasons that new members say they join the church. The knowledge that UUCB played a small but noteworthy role in the Civil Rights Movement is inspiring to social justice minded members, and the church’s Social Justice Committee is its largest and most active committee. Today members feel a mandate to live up the legacy of those who came before.
Film Concept: The film will be a documentary, approximately 40-45 minutes in length. We expect to interview a total of 10-15 members of UUCB, as well as 8-10 members of the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir. The UUCB members, mostly in their 80s now, will recall their own experiences and activism during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the contributions of other UUCB members who have passed away. The members of the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir, an AfricanAmerican choir that was started in 1959 to serve as the musical voice of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, will comment on life in the city during segregation and during the fight for racial justice in the 1960s; we hope to interview all of the surviving original members of the choir.
The film will include three parts, each approximately 15 minutes in length. Part One will capture memories of segregation in Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s, including discrimination against African Americans and personal experiences of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham during the 1960s; this part of the film will include clips of both UUCB members and members of the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir.
Part Two will capture UUCB members’ memories of the church’s activism in the fight for racial justice in Alabama in the 1960s. (See section above on the history of UUCB’s role in the Civil Rights movement.)
Part Three will include clips of both UUCB members and members of the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir, commenting on progress that has been made in human rights and racial justice in Birmingham, as well as comments on how far we still have to go, given the hateful and frightening rhetoric and actions that threaten the human rights of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women, members of the LGBTQ community, and other groups.
The film will end with images and music that convey hope for the future, featuring many photos of UUs and UUCB members participating in the 2015 50th anniversary Selma march and crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with video of the UUCB Choir and the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir singing “Amen” together. (See Outline of Film below).
Film Specifics: Much work has already been donated by the producers to the film, including 15 interviews (about two hours each), a full weekend of photography in Selma and Birmingham during the 50 th anniversary of the Selma March (three photographers for two full days), 12 hours of audio recording of the UUCB Choir singing three civil rights anthems for music for the film, and 2 hours of audio recording of the UUCB Choir and the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir singing “Amen” for the finale of the film.
In addition to donating their time as noted above, the producers have contributed their own audiovisual equipment to the project and have covered significant out-of-pocket expenses for the film, such as music arrangements/usage fees, travel costs of out-of-town interviewees, and many supplies (memory cards for cameras and audio recorders, bulbs for lights, gaffer tape, etc.)
The remaining work that will be required to produce the film is outlined in the proposed budget for the film in Appendix below. The most significant remaining work will be post production—extensive video editing, audio editing, and preparation of the film for screening, as well as exporting and archiving the film and preparing DVDs for distribution.
Marketing, Publicizing, and Screening the film: We plan to premiere the film at UUCB in early March of 2018, as close as possible to the next anniversary of the 1965 Selma voting rights march. The event, which will be part of the church’s “On Topic” film series, will be free and open to the public.
We will market and publicize the event extensively, with posters distributed throughout the city, multiple emailings to our extensive film series mailing lists, heavy social media promotion (especially on Facebook and the church’s web site), announcements in weekly church newsletters and during Sunday services, and networking with local print and broadcast media.
The event will consist of the screening of the film, followed by the UUCB Choir and the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir joining together again for a reprise of their performance of “Amen.” We also hope to feature a special speaker (to be determined). The event will conclude with a reception.
Long-term Use and Value of the Film: This film is intended to contribute to the body of literature about the role of white activists in the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, as well as the contributions of Unitarians to progress in human rights. Copies of the completed film will be distributed (at no cost) to area public libraries, universities, and high schools; the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute; the Southern Poverty Law Center; the Unitarian Universalist Association and individual UU churches (and other churches) and civic groups desiring copies; and others.
We will also submit the film for consideration to Alabama Public Television and will offer it to other local entities for possible additional screenings. In addition, we hope to submit it to Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival and other independent film festivals.
About the Producers: Pam Powell is a Birmingham native and a longtime member of UUCB. After a 32 year career as a feature writer and university magazine editor, she began telling stories via video, audio, and photography in 2009; she has produced several multichapter biographical videos (life stories captured in film) and has produced numerous short video features, including a retrospective on UUCB. Since 2014, she has conducted some 60 full lifestory interviews with members of UUCB and others. Bending the Arc to Justice is currently her greatest interest, and she hopes to continue producing documentary films on human rights issues. More info at www.p3productionsllc.com.
David Brower has spent four decades filming, directing and producing commercials, documentaries, narrative shorts and feature films, accumulating many awards. Growing up in Chicago, then living and working in Phoenix, he moved to Birmingham 25 years ago. He has been involved with the UUCB through the years (for his children and for social justice issues), without ever joining the congregation (“It’s against my religion to belong to a church.”), giving him both a familiarity, and an objective perspective on the church. He hopes this film will inspire people to continue to fight for equal justice for everyone. Resume, credits and work at www.browerdp.com.
Fundraising Efforts: As noted above, the producers of the film have demonstrated their commitment to the project by donating many hours and significant out-of-pocket costs to the film already, and they plan to donate many more hours to complete the project. (See proposed budget below). Following fundraising efforts within UUCB and among other UU congregations using Fathify.org, the film committee will seek the support of grant funding.
Proposed budget for Bending the Arc Toward Justice
- Travel and lodging (bringing people to town for interviews (already donated: $567 to Carolyn Fuller for Jan. 14-15 trip)
- Sheet music for choirs and usage fees for song arrangements
- To come: 2 years of streaming rights from the Lorenz Corporation = $120 (already donated: $101.07 and $71.95 to Sheet Music Plus and $30 to the Lorenz Corporation for first six months of streaming = $203.02)
- Printing and mailing costs (for obtaining old photos, papers, etc.) $200
- Scanning (old photos, papers, etc.) $400
- Lighting (bulbs) $100
- Video and still cameras (memory cards) $200
- Audio recorder (memory cards) $100
- Production supplies $200
- Videographer @ $150/hour
- To come: six 2-hour interviews = $1,800 (time already donated by videographer: two 2-hour interviews plus one 3-hour recording session and one 2-hour rehearsal = $1,350 value)
- Sound consultant @ $100/hour (already donated: two hours of consultant’s time = $200 value)
- Catering for recording session (already donated: pizza for choirs = $60)
- Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir for performing and recording (already donated: $1,000 private donation to the choir’s scholarship fund)
- Interviews @ $100/hour (research/preparation, set-up, conducting the interviews, take-down, downloading, archiving video) (already donated/to be donated, for 25 two-hour interviews @ $100/hour = $5,000 value)
- Primary video editor @ $100/hour (already donated and to be donated for 120 hours of video editing = $12,000 value)
- Secondary video editor @ $100/hour for 50 hours of video editing = $5,000
- Audio editor @ $100/hour for 20 hours of audio editing = $2,000
- Library music = $400
- Hard drives for archiving $1,000
- DVDs and labels for printing $200
- Graphic designer for DVD labels @ $100/hour for 4 hours of design work = $400
- Transcription of interviews for civil rights archives (local and national) @ $100 per hour of video for 20 two-hour interviews (total of 40 hours) = $4,000
- Premiere Event at UUCB:
- Travel and lodging for special speaker/s (TBD): $1,000
- Performance by Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir: $500
- Catering for an estimated 200 people: $1,500
- Publicity (posters, flyers, programs, including graphic design & printing): $1,200Outline of Bending the Arc Toward Justice
- Part 1: Segregation in Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s (about 15 minutes)
- TOTAL FILM BUDGET: $40,700 Total already (or to be) donated by the producers: $20,380 Total still needed: $20,320
Part 1: Segregation in Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s (about 15 minutes)
- Life in the South through the eyes of children, black and white
—clips of childhood memories
(Mamie Brown Mason, Virginia Volker, Eloise Gaffney, Charlie Cleveland, Carolyn Fuller, Nims Gay, Ingrid Kraus, Cleopatra Kennedy, and others)
- Early impressions of segregation and experiences of discrimination, including separate water fountains and restrooms, discrimination in public transportation, restaurants, and public parks, and also obstacles to voter registration (same people as above)
The Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham in the 1960s (overall, i.e., not specific to UUCB)
—clips of memories of personal experiences, as well as memories of milestone events and major figures such as Dr. King, Rev. Shuttlesworth, and others
(same people as above, plus Alice Brown, Eileen Walbert, Jim Hobart, Phyllis Benington, and others)
Part 2: UUCB’s Activism in Fighting for Racial Justice in Alabama in the 1960s (about 15 minutes
- The church’s openness to all people and embrace of integration at a time when separation of the races was written into law in Alabama
- Church members’ participation (at great personal risk) in:
— sit-ins at lunch counters
— interracial meetings to plan protests, boycotts, demonstrations
— activities promoting integration of schools and public facilities
— inviting African Americans to attend church services (despite bomb threats)
— hosting African American ministers as guest speakers at the church (despite bomb threats)
— participating in protests promoting integration
— expressing solidarity with and supporting African Americans who were the targets or victims of racist threats and bombings
— marching alongside African Americans, especially the 1965 Selma March (including hosting, feeding and lodging 200 marchers from other states, as well as arranging buses to transport them to Selma for the march)
(Virginia Volker Charlie Cleveland, Carolyn Fuller, Ingrid Kraus, Eileen Walbert, Walter Luft, Jim Hobart, Gordon Gibson, Jackie Mazzara)
Part 3: We’ve Come So Far—and Have So Far To Go (about 10 minutes)
- How things have (and haven’t) changed
- Threats to human rights today (call to action)
- Possibilities and progress: the 2015 anniversary of the Selma March
(photos of participation of UUs and many people from UUCB, with music and video clips of the UUCB Choir and the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir singing the final song together)