Charles and Jean MeGehee in Jacksonville
In an novel experiment, today I will read my remarks, so that open captions may be displayed and remain in sync with my words. Perhaps in the future we will use Text to Speech technology, which will allow simultaneous transcriptions of talks, but that may take a bit more effort.
I will preface my historical remembrance of Charles White McGehee and his wife Jean with a few remarks about how I remember them, and to provide you with some idea of why I feel it important to celebrate these two individuals. They arrived in Jacksonville at a turbulent time, both for Jacksonville and the nation. Their tenure coincided with, and Charles preached upon, great issues: the civil rights movement, political assassinations, the escalation of the Viet Nam War and then widespread protests against the war, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the nuclear arms race and a policy of deterrence called MAD, or, Mutual Assured Destruction. Later, Charles was to focus upon the Watergate scandal as a prism through which to view democracy and ethics.
I was introduced to the UUCJ through high school friends who were not members of the church, but who belonged to a youth group associated with the church known as LRY, or Liberal Religious Youth. To understand just how liberal Liberal Religious Youth were, you should know that we had weekend sleepovers at the church which we called Organized Religious Gatherings of Youth, or, ORGY for short. It was all in the spirit of the times, and we did have adult supervision. On ORGY weekends we met and prepared dinner on Friday night, had workshops on Saturday, and usually on Sunday we presented some small part of the Sunday service, often a song or a skit we had developed. Charles McGehee already had white hair, and because his spine had been fused, he could only stand using crutches, he could not bend at the waist. So he stood tall and severe, leaning on his crutches, during the entire service. Frankly, his appearance was a little intimidating to me, although he was always kind and encouraging in his remarks.
Later, when I had graduated from high school, I no longer attended LRY functions but I gradually gravitated back to the church to attend Sunday services, during which time I was undecided about joining. You see, I was not a “joiner”. However, I can tell you the very day that I did decide to join the Unitarian Universalist Church, and why. October 21st, 1973 I had ridden my bicycle from across town, a distance of at least 10 miles. When it was time for his sermon, Charles made his way to the lectern on his crutches, and as he stood there, he waved a sheaf of papers above his head and said he had a sermon planned but it would have to wait, something had come up that must be addressed. What he said that day convinced me without a doubt that I was a Unitarian Universalist. I will come back to that sermon a little later.
The Reverend Charles White McGehee was selected to be the first settled minister to the Unitarian Fellowship of Jacksonville in 1960. You see, the Unitarians and Universalists merged only in 1961. At the time, the fellowship owned and was meeting in a single family home in the Riverside neighborhood, having been kicked out of various temporary venues. After meeting at the YWCA for a while, they had been asked to leave after a University of Florida had spoken about the “Kinsey Report” - research into human sexuality. Two other meeting locations had to be abandoned when the fellowship had been asked to segregate. So Charles fit right in when he became active with the NAACP.
Rodney L Hurst, Sr, then a teenaged member of the NAACP Youth Council, would later write a book about the efforts to integrate the lunch counters in Jacksonville. The book was titled It was never about a hotdog and a Coke, and in it he devotes a chapter to Charles, writing “Few white ministers in Jacksonville Florida supported the Youth Council NAACP and the sit-in movement in 1960. Reverend Charles White McGehee did as the pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Jacksonville.”
And: “When his wife Jeanne, (sic) drove him to various functions and meetings, the back of their van was situated in a way so he could lie at an angle. After he was assisted out of the van and onto his crutches, he would make his way to the function, where he would stand. At NAACP Mass meetings, you could always find Rev. McGehee somewhere near the front of the church standing on his crutches. Many times, he was the only white person in attendance.”
“He courageously and consistently supported the youth council and the sit-in demonstrations.” Charles would also later attend the final two days of the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, which also brought them unwelcome attention from the KKK.
However, Charles was not the only white person present at those NAACP meetings, because wherever Charles went, Jean almost invariably had to drive him! And Jean was not just his driver. When George Wallace was scheduled to speak at the Civic Auditorium, Jean participated in a demonstration of women, dressed in white and standing on the median of the road outside. KKK youths marched, all dressed in black and their parents drove by with confederate flags waving. The church ladies were spit upon, but she later wrote her sign read “Freedom and dignity shall stand in our doorways” and stated of the experience: “My high lasted for hours after I came home that night.”
And it would be fair to say Jean was instrumental in enabling Charles to become a Unitarian minister. Charles had grown up in Mississippi, and had black playmates as a child. Jean wrote that his father defended blacks “against spurious charges”, and also that Charles had seen a black man who had been lynched. As a young man Charles became a journalist, first editing a small newspaper and then writing for a radio station. As Jean described it, he had become uncomfortable with his mother's Southern Baptist Church, and the wife of the radio station's owner suggested to him that he was really a Unitarian. After looking up what a Unitarian was, he became a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship. Later, in Birmingham, they became charter members of what would become the Birmingham church.
The first full time pastor to the church fell ill while Charles was President of the Board, and as a consequence he gave a couple of sermons. She wrote that people told him he should have been a minister, and that during “pillow talk” one night he told her “If I had my life to live over, I'd like to be a Unitarian minister.” She immediately went to speak with their minister, and together they figured a way to make it happen.
Charles and Jean had two sons, Stuart and McGregor, and Jean held various teaching jobs, both to get Charles through school and later. In Jacksonville, she arranged a part time position that allowed her to be free to drive Charles to appointments in the afternoons. So in every aspect of his career she was supportive of him. She records that in the mid-60's they had a “family constitution” in which the responsibilities of each member was spelled out, father the breadwinner, the mother in charge of the household. She observes that at that time “We had not yet had our consciousnesses raised about women's rights.”
In the 60's Jacksonville was considered a possible target during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a child in the public schools, I remember taking what were then new, empty plastic bleach bottles to school. We were each required to have two gallon jugs, to be filled with drinking water in the event we were to be evacuated before a nuclear attack. This was all a part of the nuclear arms race, principally between the US and the USSR, and this was a topic Charles would return to again and again. In a sermon titled The Winds of Protest, delivered June 8, 1969, after enumerating the numbers of nuclear devices and their delivery systems, he said:
“We have come to think that our survival depends on our ability to make war better than the next nation—rather than to erase the conditions that make war.” And he further goes on to contrast the costs of the Viet Nam War, and the then proposed Anti-Ballistic Missile system with domestic needs here in our own country – hunger, housing and medical care.
He concludes this sermon by asking:
So the big question—Is our government preoccupied with life or with death?
What do these things have to do with religion, you ask?
And I reply, Can there be a valid religion
which is not concerned with these things?
Religion is both praise and protest.
It is the priest—who praises life,
Celebrates the events of its cycle,
Hails the wonder of its universe,
And deals with its frustrations and fears.
But it is also the prophet
Who raises his voice against injustice,
Who protests the conditions
Which bring hunger, pain and war,
And incites men to survival
And to the building of a world
Where peace shall reign in the hearts of men
And for ever more.
In early September of 1973 Charles McGehee announced that he would preach a series of four sermons concerning the Watergate Scandal. For those of you present today that were not yet born in 1973, this was a scandal that involved some political actors caught in the act of burglarizing the Democratic National Committee's offices in the Watergate office complex, and President Nixon's attempt to cover up the administration's involvement.
Carl Hermann Voss, in a forward to the collected Watergate sermons, wrote that the congregation and friends wondered aloud whether there could possibly be enough material to sustain four sermons? But people came to hear the sermons in greater and greater numbers as the scandal grew in scope. His four proposed sermons grew to be eleven.
The one I will share with you, and the one which I mentioned as the cause of my becoming a UU is number four, presented October 21, 1973, the Sunday morning after the “Saturday Night Massacre” in which President Richard Nixon ordered his then relatively new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, to fire Archibald Cox, the Special Prosecutor investigating the Watergate Affair. Elliot Richardson resigned rather than do so, as did his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus. Solicitor General Robert Bork, now appointed as acting Attorney General then fired Mr. Cox, an act that was later found to have been illegal as it did not meet the legal criteria of “for cause” as required by law.
Enter Gently 1984
McGehee begins by introducing Winston Smith, the protagonist from the George Orwell novel, 1984. In his first paragraph he mentions “A helicopter of the Thought Police skims down between the roofs, hovering for an instant, snooping into people's windows, then darting away.” There is a total intelligence program, Big Brother knows everything, and anyone can fink on anyone. Total loyalty is demanded.
McGehee continues: “My thesis in these sermons is that the Watergate incident and its spinoffs have alerted us to dangers already existent. Watergate is the problem in microcosm. It shows us that instead of serving as guardian of human rights and a collective means for common security—our government has become a Big Brother, demanding above all else loyalty. Concurrently in corporate industry, similar factors prevail. Less oppressive, more sophisticated.”
Later, as he nears his conclusion, Charles writes: “For too many centuries, organized religion has told the western world there can be no utopia in our time. It must come in the midst of a future and indeterminate fantasy. I say unto you, it must come in our time, or else. The negative utopias described by Orwell and Aldous Huxley show us what will happen if we do not act. They are prophecies truly revealed by the developments of Watergate.”
“We must act upon them. We must build our governments on the higher intelligence which espouses the sacredness of each individual life. Our hope must be in our powers of reason. No government must ever declare to us that two and two equals five. And if it does, we must say “That's a lie!””
Charles White McGehee's words still resonate with me today. When I read his writings from a distance of 40 and 50 years the words sometimes seem a little curious, even dated. But he definitely, and by extension the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville, was at the cutting edge of social change. And a force for education and enlightenment.
Were the sixteen years the McGehees were in Jacksonville the “Golden Age” of Unitarian Universalism in northeast Florida? Within two years of their arrival the church was making plans to build a new building, a plan which came to fruition in 1966, when they dedicated the new sanctuary on the Arlington Expressway. By 1970 the Religious Education program had an enrollment of 220. Certainly by certain measures of growth, they were golden years.
However, as I prepared this talk, as I read the words of Charles and Jean, as I've reflected upon my experiences as a UU here in northeast Florida, and as history has unfolded around us this fall, my thoughts are not what I expected.
Charles and Jean I discovered are human, and products of their times, who worked, as we all must, to improve themselves and their relationships with others. I was saddened to read that their older son McGregor was estranged from the family after he went off to college. The younger son Stuart, who had become a college professor, apparently took his own life not long after his mother's death.
Here in northeast Florida we no longer have a single large influential church – we have three. The flagship remains the UU Church of Jacksonville on the Arlington Expressway. But after Charles and Jean had left, the Jacksonville church spawned two baby churches, the one you sit in today, the UU Fellowship of St Augustine, and the Buckman Bridge UU Church, both of which help serve the greater Jacksonville area and northeast Florida.
And lastly, this talk was first proposed for October, but had to be rescheduled. In the meantime, history has swept us forward into a new period of uncertainty, a period which will no doubt challenge us, and the US, in ways no less than did the Civil Rights struggles of the sixties, than did Viet Nam, or even the Watergate Affair. I feel Unitarian Universalism will remain a bastion of rational thought and a champion of small “d” democracy, in a world awash in irrational thought, fake news, Troll Armies, foreign influence and a venal administration.
For these three reasons I have now let go my belief that those 16 years represent “the” Golden Years of Unitarian Universalism here in northeast Florida. Of necessity, and forever, I believe the Golden Years are Here, and Now. Let us get on with the work to be done.