Will We Sleep Through the Revolution?

by Sheryl Abrahams, June 10, 2020

Sheryl is a former member of the EUU fellowship in Brussels.

In May 1966, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered the Ware Lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). His title was “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution.”

Dr. King acknowledged that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were philosophically aligned with the US Civil Rights movement and that many had marched alongside its leaders. Yet he reminded them not to assume that words and thoughts were enough, nor to confuse the progress to date with the end of the struggle for a more just society. “To remain awake through this social revolution,” King declared, American UU congregations must reject the “myth” of exaggerated progress in race relations in the US. They must also continue to “engage in strong action programs to get rid of the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination.”

Fifty-four years later, we face another reckoning with our legacy of racial injustice. And UUs in the US and around the world face the same question: Will we sleep through the revolution? What do our consciences and our societies demand of us at this time, both as individuals and as a faith?

I write from Houston, Texas, the hometown of George Floyd, where today thousands of family, friends, community members and national figures attended his funeral service. Mr. Floyd’s killing by a white police officer last week highlighted the abuses that the American justice and law enforcement systems have long perpetuated against people of color. As musician Ne-Yo put it, Mr. Floyd’s tragic death was a “sacrifice” that “changed the world,” igniting outrage and protests around the nation and around the globe.  

This organic movement has gone beyond condemning racially motivated violence. It has called out the very roots of such violence—the insidious role of racism and white supremacy in our societies. On June 2, the UUA declared that “Police brutality is a symptom of white supremacy and anti-Black racism, and as people of faith and conscience dedicated to justice and liberation, we must name this truth.” As Civil Rights attorney and activist Michelle Alexander wrote this week in the New York Times, “In part, we find ourselves here for the same reasons a civil war tore our nation apart more than 100 years ago: Too many citizens prefer to cling to brutal and unjust systems than to give up political power, the perceived benefits of white supremacy and an exploitative economic system.”

Many of us, myself included, hold multiple forms of privilege. Thus even as UUs have joined protests and engaged in public witness against systemic racism, we are called upon as individuals and as a faith to face deeply uncomfortable questions about our own roles in perpetuating and upholding systems of racial and economic inequality. In its public statement from June 2, the UUA officially “calls on Unitarian Universalists, and our siblings in faith and spirituality across other denominations and spiritual communities, to engage in truth-telling, repair, and resistance to challenge the pervasive patterns of anti-Blackness within the United States.” We are called to ask if racism is less about a few violent “bad apples,” and more about centuries-old systems of oppression that are built into the very fabric of our societies and perpetuated, unconsciously or no, by the most progressively minded among us.

These steps towards truth-telling and repair will look different for each of us, though hopefully each case will begin with listening to the voices of people of color within our denomination and our communities. Unitarian Universalists living outside of the US may not find themselves staring into the dark abyss that is America’s legacy of crimes against indigenous people and people of color.  Yet surely UUs in Europe will also call upon themselves to examine the cultural and economic legacy of European colonialism, and how it has shaped their own societies as well as the societies it has touched?

As excruciating as these efforts may be, in the words of UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray “Don’t turn away from the challenge and truth of the uprisings.”