Sinkford Is UUA's First Black President
The General Assembly elected the Rev. William G. Sinkford president of the UUA by the largest margin in a presidential race in UUA history on Saturday, June 23. With 67.7 percent of the vote, Sinkford became the seventh president of the UUA and the first African American elected to lead a historically white denomination in the United States.
His opponent, the Rev. Diane Miller, would have been the first woman to lead the UUA. Sinkford received 2,218 of 3,276 votes; Miller received 1,043.
Delegates also elected Diane Olson of Scottsdale, Arizona, as moderator of the UUA. As moderator, she will chair the UUA Board of Trustees and preside over the General Assembly. Since Sandra Caron's election as moderator in 1977, women have occupied the highest volunteer post in the UUA. Olson defeated Patsy Sherrill Madden of St. Louis with 1,985 votes to 1,213. In an uncontested race, Larry Ladd was re-elected as financial advisor, the UUA's third officer.
Sinkford was director of the UUA's Department for Congregational, District and Extension Services for seven years before his election. After considering the UU ministry as a young adult, he left Unitarian Universalism disappointed by the UUA's handling of racial issues in the early 1970s. After a career as a marketing executive and owner of a housing development business, and after returning to activity in his home church, First Unitarian of Cincinnati, in the 1980s, he enrolled in the Starr King School for the Ministry in 1992 and was ordained in 1995.
Sinkford's election marks only the second time that a new president has emerged with well over 50 percent of the vote. In 1985 the Rev. William F. Schulz, who was then UUA executive vice-president, won with 66 percent of the vote in a contest with then-moderator Caron. The Rev. John Buehrens, by contrast, defeated the Rev. Carolyn Owen-Towle in 1993 by 99 votes—the smallest margin ever.
President-elect Bill Sinkford addresses the media and hundreds of UUs in Cleveland's Renaissance Hotel late Saturday night following his victory. Sinkford called UUs to share a healing message with a hurting world. Photo by Ivan Massar.
Although some UUs may have felt torn between the symbolic value of choosing either a woman or a person of color, the response to presentations the candidates made at Friday's candidates forum seemed much more attuned to their ability to present a compelling statement about the UUA's mission. The audience was audibly more impressed by Sinkford's eight-minute speech about the public role of Unitarian Universalism than they were by Miller's six-minute video presentation and brief speech about the importance of congregational life. Delegates who voted at the General Assembly chose Sinkford 7 to 3. (Sinkford won 58.7 percent of the 947 absentee votes.)
After the election, Miller distributed a statement that acknowledged the disappointment of her supporters. She added, "I pray that we may heed the words of Francis Davíd that 'we need not think alike to love alike.'" She congratulated Sinkford on his victory and "wish[ed] him and the Association we both cherish well in the years of his presidency." The next morning, showing extraordinary poise and grace, Miller led the annual Service of the Living Tradition for the last time in her role as director of the Department of Ministry. In the fall, she will become interim minister at the First Religious Society in Carlisle, Massachusetts.
Newly-elected moderator Diane Olson talks with president-elect Bill Sinkford outside the Renaissance Hotel Saturday evening just after learning the outcome of the election. Photo by Ivan Massar.
In contested races, Tamara Payne-Alex and the Rev. Wayne Arnason were re-elected as trustees-at-large. (Payne-Alex had been appointed to fill a vacancy last year.) Mark Hamilton, Dr. James Casebolt, and the Rev. Linda (Stowell) Weaver Horton were elected to the Commission on Appraisal. Elizabeth Collins, Angus Bramadat, Lillian Anderson, and Carolyn Patierno were elected to the General Assembly Planning Committee.
Running unopposed, the Rev. Katie Stein Sather was elected to a full term as trustee-at-large from Canada. Lorraine Sandoval-Vigil and the Rev. Michelle Bentley were elected to the Board of Review. The Rev. Richard Nugent was re-elected to the Commission on Social Witness, and the Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull was elected to a first term on the CSW. Helen Bishop and James Coomes were elected to the Nominating Committee.
Newly-elected officers were installed in Monday evening's closing celebration. Denny Davidoff presented Olson with her gavel, advising her successor that an instrument that can bring several thousand self-identified leaders to attention can give one a "tremendous sense of power." "But don't mistake courtesy for obeisance," she said. The assembly gave Davidoff and the new "volunteer-in-chief" a standing ovation.
John Buehrens urged his successor to be a prophetic leader. But he asked Sinkford, his former college roommate, to remember that "we are inclined to stand a bit smugly on our righteousness." "Speak truth to power with humility," he advised. Buehrens also told the new president that "stewardship of the spirit means matching what we wish to do with what an honest assessment of our capabilities shows you we might do."
Independent coverage of Sinkford's election was carried on Sunday by CNN and the Associated Press, and appeared in Monday's New York Times, Boston Globe, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, followed by additional coverage by the Cincinnati Enquirer and National Public Radio.
Christopher L. Walton
UU World XV:4 (September/October 2001): 38-39.