Reconciling Racial Differences

NOTE: The Rev. Edward “Ed” Brown was a pivotal figure in arranging the union of bodies that became the Southeast Conference in 1966. Two years after the UCC’s formation, Brown left ecumenical youth work in Europe in 1959 to help bring about non-violent solutions to racial problems in the southern United States. The UCC Board for Homeland Ministries employed Brown as a full-time “consultant on race relations” who was assigned to the Southeastern region to help reconcile racial differences between the Southeast Convention (white) and the Convention of the South (black) of the Congregational Christian Churches. 

While the names and faces of some civil rights leaders became familiar to the nation in the early 1960s, Brown worked quietly within the UCC and in the South to create a climate of peace and acceptance. “He was a genuine Southerner who came up with all of the prejudices and anxieties of the South, but he worked through them and was comfortable in any situation, black or white,” said the Rev. Andrew Young, UCC pastor, former ambassador, and former mayor of Atlanta. “He was one of those bridge personalities, I say, that in a time of crisis, helped each side understand the other side.”

The following is an excerpt from an interview Mike Stroud, director of the Project 66-16 history initiative, conducted with the Rev. Mr. Brown on June 16, 2009. Brown died on May 23, 2012. Read the full obituary on the UCC website:

Edward Brown

I was asked by Galen Weaver of the national office (of the) United Church of Christ if I would accept a job of being located in the Southeast Conference and help the Southeast Conference work out the problem they had with churches who were not ready to be interracial, or inclusive, as we preferred to call it. And I traveled around for 10 years, visiting churches who had leadership problems or conflicts between members or the community in which they were located and I did conflict resolution and different ways of trying to help them work through their problems. I lived in Atlanta with my family and I was assigned to be a cooperative member to some other conference. I was on loan to the Southeast Conference and worked with conference minister James Lightbourne, whom I learned to respect and appreciate, and it was mutual.

I remember in the early days when we would go to meetings together, that one of them that stands out in my mind was when the first sit-in occurred in North Carolina, we happened to have been in the car together when they announced it on the radio. As part of my job within the Southeast Conference, or Convention, at that time it was called, I would go to every association meeting and, then, I would be on call from ministers or Superintendent Lightbourne, as we called him. When churches were interested in having me be a casual visitor at their annual meeting or their association, or especially, if they were having a problem-solving meeting, that’s where I was expected to be kind of a friendly, pew-sitting resource, if they felt like asking me anything, and if they didn’t feel like asking me, I would know how to use in-between times to ask indirect questions to help out what I sensed was the decision-making process. So I was (a) very active participant in the structured life of the associations as well as the Convention, and especially the annual meetings.

In Tennessee and Kentucky—we had only one or two small churches in Kentucky; it was basically Tennessee—the Tennessee churches of our denomination were much further along, and I happened to know Reverend Clyde Flannery quite well, and he was the pastor in Nashville (at Brookmeade Congregational Church), and we worked together for quite some time—I guess it was a year or two—and eventually, we—I mean by “we,” Clyde Flannery and myself—taking the organizational initiative, we could help that association vote to become inclusive. That’s when I had a strong difference of tactics with the conference minister, Mr. Lightbourne, because he wanted to be in charge of the time when the whole conference voted to become inclusive and not to have it done an association at a time. He actually used the phrase, “If you persist in doing this, I can have your job.” I don’t take to threats, anyway, but I know how to bide my time and be patient when it’s for a good cause. So, we let up on our determination to be the first association in the Southeast Convention to vote to be inclusive, and I considered it a defeat in one sense, organizationally, but a victory in terms of where the people and the membership were.

Andrew Young

Now, in Alabama, it was more difficult, and I think (of) Ray Berry, who organized, and I was part of the first few meetings of, that church group in the farmhouse on the edge of Huntsville (now known as United Church) before they eventually built their church. I was a great admirer of Ray Berry’s, and his wife, and their adopting children from different countries to show what they were made of. To me, Huntsville remains a source of both pride and humility, as I think about the work that I was able to take part in. I didn’t do the main work; Ray Berry did it. Ray and I arranged to have Andy (Young) come up and speak to the association meeting, and Andy Young was the first black Christian that they had met on equal terms. I know that it influenced them in that situation. But it wasn’t an easy victory.

I worked a lot with the black churches in Birmingham, and I had a very close personal friend, a minister who had gone to Yale Divinity School, as I did, but he was in a class later than mine. But he was a very close friend of Andy Young’s, and when I’d go to Birmingham, I would stay at his home and, in those days, segregation was in order as a law, and we just deliberately neglected it and were ready to take consequences, but we didn’t have any because the neighborhood he lived in was primarily for black residents. But there was a minister who was a member of First Congregational Church, the black church in Birmingham, Harold Long, and I was able to introduce him to the white minister. I helped orient, at the conference minister’s request, the white minister who had been a Baptist like I, and, later on, I tried to help the First Congregational Church and the Pilgrim Church have joint meetings.

It was interesting that, I think out of the years that I was around, there were three or four efforts to have the congregation vote to have a joint meeting on Race Relations Sunday or some similar event. And the congregation voted it down, all except for the last time, but I was impressed that they were very near to accepting First Church as equals, and there were already some existing friendships between certain members, but the totality of it was governed more by fear of people’s reactions in the neighborhood, and so it failed, if we can consider that failure. I think it was really an effort to be Christian, and it didn’t work out at that time.

There were other churches in Montgomery, and I related actively to them, and the black church was very influential legislatively, and I know that they liked to have me come meet and preach and be with them. The Alabama situation, I think, was kind of difficult to assess. I think about that time, my job was changed, nationally. I had been attached to the Department of Evangelism and Church Extension, which was run at the national level by Dr. Purd Deitz, who was a famous minister known throughout the nation, and he had been part of the Evangelical and Reformed side of our church, and I was on the staff with several well-known national leaders, and I was the least known among them, but I think I was as well-prepared for race relations as any on their staff. And I think that’s why I was part of it.

When they changed chairmen, and (Deitz) had decided I had done my part in helping bring the Conference to a positive vote, they assigned me to work with one of the men, Dr. Shirley Greene. Shirley Greene and I had the responsibility of trying to influence political structures in Alabama, and Mr. Greene asked me to arrange for an interview between him and Governor Wallace, and I did it with some reservations, because I didn’t have too much respect for Wallace, and I wondered about his religious conviction. But when we went to his office, we were sitting in the office and it turned out to be the Governor of Alabama wanting to have a conversation with some prominent leader, and it was a new experience to sit there and realize that, here was a Christian minister of our denomination talking to George Wallace, and Wallace was talking to his own bishop on the telephone. And I’ve wondered how many time I would have wanted to know what they were talking about, but, on second thought, I didn’t think it would have made any difference. That was my attitude at the time about relating to George Wallace. But, politically, I had good relationships with representatives and senators (and) did send them materials that the denomination was using to promote integration and inclusive religion.