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Tackling civil rights from the pulpit

The Rev. Farley Wheelwright, who now lives in

The Rev. Farley Wheelwright, who now lives in Mexico, was active in civil rights during his tenure as minister at UUCCN from 1962 to 1967. Credit: Jon Sievert

In excerpts from their sermons, the Rev. Farley Wheelwright and the Rev. Hope Johnson, past and present ministers of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau in Garden City, discuss the impact of the Civil Rights movement from two eras and two perspectives:


(Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico)

"I saw firsthand utter black poverty as I marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Memphis to Jackson, Miss. Each evening we were bused back to Memphis until tents were made available. So, of course, the march didn't progress very fast toward Jackson. Six or so days after we started, Martin was assassinated. That Thursday-night murder took place only hours after King put the final touches on a sermon he was to deliver the following Sunday at my installation as minister of the Unitarian Society in Cleveland.

"When we marched through the cotton plantations, we witnessed miserable living conditions: no electricity, no running water, no inside toilets. Before the Memphis-to-Jackson march, I spent two summers in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi doing voter registration and saw firsthand the same poverty, lack of opportunity and white resistance to black voting.

"The testimony to white racism is almost endless and, even with the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the tacit lifting of Jim Crowism, nothing seminal has changed. We can applaud that there is a Black Caucus in the Congress, and, now (as of 2008), a black president. Yet, in our so-called representative democracy there is still no proportional representation of the black United States population. Yet one does not look in vain for signs of progress in race. There is a rising black middle class. We've had a black candidate vying for the Republican nomination for president. There is a Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. And a black president. But the racist stigma still clings to the national persona."

(Excerpted with permission from an upcoming anthology of Wheelwright's sermons, "Twice-Told Tales: A Collection of 21 Sermons," to be published March 31 by Shelfstealers (


(Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau, Garden City)

"UUCCN supported me as I discovered 'the South' and followed the route of the civil rights movement so that I could better understand racism. But here's what matters even more than that! You see, UUCCN does more than support this passion of mine so that racism can be dismantled, for once and for all. The story of now includes each member or friend of UUCCN who has taken the Pilgrimage.

"These are some of the stories that we are living, and sharing, on a personal level, as a denomination and as a congregation. These are some of the narratives that explain the values in this community that lead us to collective action. This is why we, too, stand on the side of love.

"It would be easy to say that we've changed, or that we've come full circle. We might have changed in some ways, but I believe that we've simply become better at making the invisible visible. We're more open. We are willing to be uncomfortable. We participate more fully in the world at large, as a congregation. We've tackled some tough stuff and we've made progress, even though it has not always been easy.

"We are a part of the action. We are a part of all that is going on -- here at UUCCN, here on Long Island, and here in the larger world."


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