The Source for Credit Unions’ Greatest Peril

When concerns are raised about risks to credit unions’ future, the most common threats  are perceived to be “out there.”   The potential for recession,  a continuing rise in rates, cyber threats, technology innovations, or other external marketplace disruptions.

However the greatest challenges may not be external, but closer to home.   In a speech to a major credit union conference, a former NCUA Chairman described his five greatest concerns as:

  1. The combining of the deposit insurance funds;
  2. The possibility of merging the federal regulatory agencies;
  3. Doing away with credit union’s tax exemption;
  4. Abolishing the CLF and having credit unions go into the Federal Reserve bank;
  5. The FFIEC requiring expanding its regulatory disclosures for credit unions comparable to banks.

The concerns are from a speech by Chairman Ed Callahan to the 49th Annual Meeting of CUNA in 1983.  (Source Credit Union Magazine, June 1983, pg 10)

Two lessons.   What Ed describes is exactly the sequence of events that led to the demise of the S&L industry as an independent  financial system.  While the tax exemption was ended in the early 1950’s, the later changes occurred in just ten years beginning in the mid 1980’s due to the system’s inability to transform when facing deregulation.

Secondly,  the five  concerns were being considered  by  entities in Washington D.C.   These included commissions on governmental efficiency and reform,  congressional proposals following deregulation, and both Treasury and opponent’s questioning cooperative’s tax exemption.

These winds are still blowing in DC.   They blow harder every time  terms such as “level playing field” and “parity” are used.

Credit unions can continue to excel in members’ eyes. However, they could  lose in the  political marketplace if their primary goal is to have the same regulatory options as their banking competitors.

Why some in Washington will ask, do we need a separate agency to oversee the same activities?



Two Beauties Arrive for Summer

The Autumn Beauty sunflower is a blend of red, orange, and yellow with a black center. The plant grows up to 7 feet tall.  It can produce as many as 20 flowers per stem. The blooms may reach 10 inches in diameter.

I grew these from seeds and have a dozen more just sprouting that need to be added to the bed.  Here is the summer’s first bloom of an Autumn Beauty.  Big, bold, and brassy.

Along with a lily nearing the peak of its color.

A three year effort to grow a vine on my fence finally resulted in flowers this summer.  I don’t remember the name-can you identify?  Small, delicate, and filigree.

“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.”

The Top 100 Banks and Credit Unions: Risk, Opportunity, and Future Evolution

What do numbers mean?  We often interpret data to support what we believe the future will look like.  This is especially true when the debate is around scale, asset size and sustainability.  What do the largest 100 banks and credit unions suggest about the evolution of both systems?

At December 30, 2022, the largest 100 banks in the U.S. hold a combined $18.8 trillion in consolidated assets with the largest five having half that value.  The industry’s total assets were $23.6 trillion in 4,706 banks.  The top 100 are 80% of total assets. Here are the top five.

Rank Bank / Holding Co Name Consolidated Assets ($ Millions)
#1 JP Morgan Chase Bank $3,267,963
#2 Bank of America $2,518,290
#3 Citibank $1,721,547
#4 Wells Fargo $1,687,507
#5 US Bancorp $590,460


Typically, big banks are have more access to liquidity, greater asset diversity and in many cases are viewed as “too big to fail.” Smaller or  regional banks have narrower margins for error.

Recent bank failures have reinforced both the regulatory and public perception that larger institutions are more secure.

I believe it is important to note that all of the top ten banks were the result  of significant mergers, not organic growth.  These institutions are creations of financial markets and ambitious leaders who are driven to be a dominant force in their markets.   This is not an aspiration limited to financial firms in capitalist markets.

A Forty Year History of the Top 100 Credit Unions

A perspective on today’s largest credit unions is helpful when forecasting how the ongoing consolidation might evolve.  Will the same market forces shape the credit union system similar to banking?

At yearend December 1982 there were 5,036 state and 11,631 federal credit unions in operation.  The top 100 (.5% of the 19,788 total) had total assets of $17.01 billion, or 18.9% of all credit unions.  Only Navy Federal was over $1 billion.

Public employment dominated the fields of membership.  Defense credit unions totaled 28, other federal government were 7, and three served state and three municipal employees.  Educational employees (teachers) were the primary focus of 15 charters.  The total of FOM’s serving public employees was 56.

The complete list of the largest  100 with additional financial data and growth rates is from the June 1983 Credit Union Magazine and can be found here.

Four decades later the largest 100 credit unions (2% of the 4,863) held $1.0 trillion in total assets, or 46% of the industry’s total $2.190 trillion.  The listing can be found in Callahans’ State of the Credit Union Industry report for 2022.

Concentration: The opportunities and the Risks

Does this four decade increase of asset concentration  from 19% to 46% in the top 100  mean  the cooperative system is going the way of banking with its 80% concentration in the top 100?

Most data show that larger credit unions tend to grow faster, have broader service and product profiles, and develop larger average member relationships.  In some instances, their size supports a market profile that results in naming rights or public partnerships with local sports teams.  To the extent that size also enlarges community roles and political impact, this can be a plus.

In banking, the drive for market dominance through scale is a constant ambition.  Growth increases earnings and a bank’s stock price.  While the FDIC- labelled community banks ($4.3 trillion in 4,258 firms or 90%) dominate by number, their share of total banking assets hovers between 15-20%. Their role focuses on commercial clients that align in financial size with the banks.

A Cooperative Difference

A significant difference  with banking’s top 100 is that  except for First Tech ($16.7 billion) almost all of the other credit unions have relied primarily on organic growth.  Many larger credit unions have had mergers, albeit small.   PenFed has completed over two dozen in the past decade.  But in most instances these have not been a significant factor in recent growth.  A number of the largest credit unions-SECU, Alliant. BECU, Navy, Vystar have had no mergers—all growth has come through internal expansion.

Comparing the two credit union top 100 lists forty years apart, the evolution in fields of membership is clear. Marketplace identity with a local sponsor has disappeared.  Most credit unions today have community (open) charters. Many have moved away from their legacy affiliation name to a generic identity, eg from Teachers to Everwise, or Telephone Employees to Wescom.

The Member Impact

What does this transition to larger firms with expanding market goals mean for the credit union member-owner?

The major downside is the distancing from local knowledge, identity and personal-member affiliation. The goodwill and community support in times of uncertainty becomes attenuated.

As credit unions expand their market footprints, the transition to open membership puts them increasingly on  a par, in members’ eyes, with other financial options.  Credit unions position themselves as full alternatives to their banking competitors.

This transition from member to customer is often accelerated via indirect lending models where credit unions compete for loan via third party originators.

Cooperative Destiny or Fate? Forensic Analysis Helps

Are cooperatives  destined to follow the banking  system’s increased concentration?

The value of the two credit union listings can perhaps shed some insights about this future evolution.

As I review the 1982 listing I find only seven that have merged and no longer exist, and one IBM Mid America, that converted to a mutual savings bank in the 2007.  Most have changed their names reflecting their expanding market reach.  Some have dropped out of the top 100 but are still operating.

A 93% success factor for individual institutions after 40 years of deregulation is a significant achievement. Especially as almost three quarters of the charters active in 1982 no longer exist.

A detail that readers may wish to pursue is how a credit union’s standing has changed within in this top flight. For example Patelco ranked 98th in 1982 and is 28th in size forty years later.  Identifying major changes within the top 100 can lead to examples of superior leadership or a loss of momentum.

A second analysis that may contribute to understanding the cooperative design’s dynamics is who is new to the top 100 in 2022 from decades earlier?  And how did they get there?  For example Apple FCU,  Canvas CU, NASA FCU or American Heritage.

How did these newcomers rise to the top of the industry?   What do their business models suggest for other credit unions?

I would encourage detailed analysis of the two listings and the changes that have taken place as a first step in thinking about how financial cooperatives succeed.

What strikes me is the stability of the largest credit unions especially compared with the banking system over these four decades.  When management’s loyalty is primarily to stockholders return and/or their own personal rewards, these priorities tend to drive one set of outcomes.   When the focus is on the member-owner’s well-being, there seems to be greater continuity in strategy.

The listings also show a wider diversity of business models. For example, Alliant’s one branch, all digital model has evolved into a financial intermediary for credit unions.  While Wright-Patt’s  traditional focus serving members living paycheck to paycheck has led to sustained growth.

This diversity can offer case studies for credit unions seeking options or even just sticking close to their knitting.

One other observation.  If a consumer were to choose from the top 100 credit unions or top 100 banks, which listing would seem more relevant?


Asking Questions

According to Credit Union Magazine the top 1982 news story was the Penn Square Bank failure that involved more than 130 credit unions. (March 1983, pg 19)

The FDIC closing was over the 4th of July weekend.  NCUA had planned its second on-the-road board meeting for Chicago the following week.  The open board meeting was to coincide with NAFCU’s Annual convention.  For Ed, Bucky and me it was also a homecoming as Illinois was where we had been responsible for regulation of state credit union activity from 1977 until going to NCUA in late 1981.

As NCUA Chair, Ed had always held a post board meeting news conference.

This time the three of us were at the table.  The first question from a reporter was to me,  I think from Larry Blanchard. “With  all the CD exposure from investments over the $100,000 FDIC insurance, would NCUA now propose a rule limiting investments to the insured  amount?”

I had prepared for lots of “what-are-you-doing now?” kinds of questions, but not his one.  I instinctively said no.  Bucky and Ed were quick to describe how the agency would respond with both examiner on site reviews plus the CLF’s lending capacity.

Questions and Democracy

For anyone in authority, whether public or private positions, answering unscripted questions is part of the job.   It is how shareholders, the press, and interested stakeholders hold leaders accountable.

Questions are not always comfortable for the recipient.  They often challenge current happenings.  But the give and take is necessary.  They are part of a leader’s responsibility to a constituency. They help make democracy possible.

Many leaders, not in a public setting (press conference), will ignore these voices, hoping they will go away or grow tired.  Meanwhile the organization’s PR machine fills the airwaves with success stories, announcements and social media posts of positive activity.  Leaders will seek a friendly setting to put out their point of view rather than engage in a public dialogue.

Just Asking

Since February of this year, Jim Blaine the former CEO of State Employees NC has published a daily website challenging the leadership and direction of country’s second largest credit union.

Six initial questions about the credit union’s direction were posed at the 2022 Annual Meeting under new business.   The three motions requesting action  were passed by voice vote of all members.  Jim started his blog when the responses became increasingly different from the reality he was hearing from current and former employees, directors and members.

The Monday, June 26th  post describes his slow conversion to action after six years of retirement growing daffodils and chickens.  He describes his awakening as a matter of trust.

I know of no current CEO or credit union professional who openly supports Jim’s return to the fray.  Their criticisms come down to one principle:  he had his turn, now it is other’s responsibility.  Or specific defenses for the changes underway.

But this is not the Navy where when the officer of the deck takes the con, he alone is in control, unless relieved by the Captain.

Democracy is not just the careful selection of new leadership until they fill out their term and move on.  It is also a system of checks and balances on the exercise of power.   In credit unions, these checks and balances supposedly reside primarily in the board, elected by the members at every annual meeting.

However today most boards are in practice unelected.  The nomination process is controlled by incumbents.   So if a Chairman, as Jim asserts, is trying to implant a new strategic direction for the credit union, how is this plan to be presented to members for their support?

Credit union boards are not places comfortable for minority points of view.   I recall when the chair of the supervisory committee opposed the board’s vote to merge their $350 million firm, she resigned rather than make her position public. When the Chair of Cornerstone FCU overseeing the CEO selection committee nominated himself, no one objected.  Within the year this former chair, now CEO, was seeking a merger of this iconic credit union.

Credit union boards are more and more like country club elections-directors choose their friends and acquaintances to what should be a position of accountability. Marketplace competition while present, is not limiting as it is for a stock traded financial firms where performance affects price.

So when the democratic process is lacking, the one option is revolt, the public raising of questions that challenge both individual actions and direction.  For example Jim in his June 19th post asked about a $6,568,261 payment to Andrews FCU when their former CEO Jim Hayes was selected to run SECU.

The Almost 200 Credit Union Failures

NCUA’s first quarter 2023 data shows 191 fewer charters than one year earlier.   These are charter failures.  But not from the safety and soundness events most frequently believed to be the cause.  These are failures of morale.  Leaders are putting their comfort and well being ahead of responsibility to members.   One need only look at the list of mergers of sound well run credit unions with capital in double digits.

SECU’s situation is an example of leadership shortcomings, not yet a financial problem. It is a situation where democratic accountability was set aside and is now being resurrected in response.

Cooperative democracy is both a process for accountability and respect for member-owners. This public challenge  isn’t the first time this has occurred; it won’t be the last.













Ukraine Update From the Weekend

On Sunday I heard two presentations by Dr. Ivan Rusyn, President, Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary in Bucha.  The seminary sends help throughout the front lines.  Over 20 military chaplains have been killed in the war.

The country has adopted a policy that the men will not wear ties until the war is over-no politicians, no businessmen, no diplomats.   So he began wearing a priest’s collar so his vocation can be immediately identified.  “Our role is not just spiritual but to serve the whole person.”

Assistance-medical, meals, transportation- is extended to all persons regardless of any religious affiliation, a ministry he calls responding to the “unfamiliar neighbor.”

“Democracy is now a global affair.  It is tested everywhere if it fails anywhere.”

Meanwhile In Russia

Uneasy lies the head of an authoritarian government.  The Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin relationship changes quickly.

Putin’s Fixer:

A Big Deal: The 990’s Are Here for State Charters

Candid, the company which publishes the 990 IRS returns for non-profits, announced that it has loaded over one million returns for the filing years 2020, 2021 and 2022.  Candid includes the previous service provided by Guidestar.

Because state chartered credit unions receive their federal tax exemption from an IRS ruling, they must file this report annually with the IRS. The form is due  on the 15th day of the 5th month following the end of the organization’s taxable year. For most credit unions whose fiscal year ends in December, the Form 990 is required by May 15th of the following year.

Credit unions and other nonprofits with gross revenue  of less than $50,00 or total assets of smaller than $500,000 are not required to file.  A firm failing to file for three consecutive tax years will automatically lose its tax-exempt status.

In addition to the balance sheet and income statement, the report also contains details of financial, governance/compensation, business relationships and donations available nowhere else.  For credit unions some of this new information includes:

  • Officers and directors total compensation. All current and former key employees who earned over $100,000 must be listed in Part VII with the total number who were paid more than $100,000. Schedule J Parts I and II gives much more detail of compensation policies and benefits including first class travel, club fees and gross up to cover tax expenses.  Compensation is shown in multiple categories of benefits.
  • Political contributions and lobbying expenditures in Schedule C.
  • Statements with the number of directors, affirmations of policy oversight and questions of family relationships in Part VI.
  • Section C sets out how the 990 filing will be publicly disclosed.
  • Section B of Part VII lists the names of the five highest independent contractors paid $100,000. Examples would be PSCU, MasterCard, Fiserv, and Microsoft along with the total number of all firms paid more than $100,000.
  • Part IX shows expense details, not in the 5300 report, such as compensation by category of employee, travel and conference expenses, even taxes paid.
  • Schedule I provides a listing of grants to individuals, organizations and the total number of all such grants.

Transparency and Accountability

The 990 information is much more comprehensive than the financial data NCUA collects primarily for safety and soundness monitoring.   It tries to pull back the covers on a nonprofit’s use of funds both internally and with external parties.

The form runs almost 40 pages.   The additional schedules listed above provide greater details for the summary  information first shown.

Every member would be much better informed about their credit union’s operations and use of funds from this report versus the 5300.

There are two areas where the current process could be improved.

  1. The 990 filing is almost a year and a half old by the time the form is published. At the moment the latest filings are for the year ending 2021.
  2. There is only one form per year, so that multiple years are necessary to see trends, rather than just a single point in time disclosure.

Why This is a Big Deal

The following is from the June 15 Candid press release about the availability of this recent data:

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Candid received comprehensive IRS 990 data about 1.5–2 years after the end of a given calendar year. But IRS extensions, process changes, and delays during the pandemic slowed this timeline to a frustrating crawl. We’ve dubbed this the data/crisis catch-22—the fact that the pandemic made up-to-date data more critical to access and yet also more difficult to come by.   

In fact, between August 2022 and April 2023, the IRS released very little 990 data at all. Because of this, we have been considering 990 data for fiscal years 2020 onward “incomplete”i; research leveraging 990 data for years 2020 and on required the caveat that data collection was ongoing.

Between May 5–18, 2023, the IRS released around a million 990 files. To put these numbers into perspective, in April 2023, Candid could only account for about 60k 990 filings for fiscal years 2021 and 2022 combined. 

Here is one link to either login or subscribe to look up information.  The basic look up is free.

A Baby’s Cry

The following is a lightly edited story from the Imaginative Conservative on June 15, by John Horvat.

This is a shared  experience of hearing a baby’s non stop crying during the frantic period while boarding an airplane.   It shows how one person’s voice can change the outcome of an unsettling event.

Bringing out the Humanity in US

“Air travel today might be considered the triumph of individualism. It involves people in their own bubbles rushing to destinations with little human contact. . .

“This inward self-absorption turns airports and planes into sensitive places where delays can cause outbursts. The slightest disruption can give rise to nasty incidents that add to the stress of air travel.

Rare Moments of Relief

“However, something extraordinary occasionally breaks the isolation, and people come out of their worlds and communicate with others. Such rare moments give a glimpse into how interesting people can be.

“The particular incident related here is hardly extraordinary. It involved a normal boarding process with its mad rush to secure seats and overhead bin space. Each person was absorbed in finding a bubble inside the crowded economy section of the plane.

“During this routine process, something human happened that lifted everyone out of their self-concern.

A Desperate Situation

“The main character in this drama was an unassuming baby at the back of the plane. For a full ten minutes during the boarding process, the poor terrified infant could not stop crying at the top of his lungs despite the mother’s desperate attempts to calm him.

“As the time came to close the cabin door, the flight attendant in charge was worried. He had seen situations like this degenerate into unruly incidents with loud, complaining passengers. He had to make a call quickly. If the crying did not stop, the mother and child would have to leave the aircraft.

“He discussed this option openly with another flight attendant. She tried to convince him that perhaps the baby would eventually stop and asked for some time to try to calm him down. Her motherly efforts failed miserably; the baby only cried louder.

“As the two flight attendants discussed the matter, those in the section front heard the dramatic debate unfold. The passengers were silent in their isolation, wondering what would happen. Yet none dared intervene. Meanwhile, tension mounted inside the cabin as the crying and schedule clashed.

An Unlikely Rescue

“It seemed all but certain that the mother and child would be expelled as the minutes ticked by when something unexpected happened.

“About a dozen rows from the front, a voice rang out.

“Miss, give the poor baby a break! We can take it! It’s no problem.”

“That first lone voice unleashed a chorus of support from all over the plane. The cabin erupted in cries to let the baby stay. Everyone offered to put up with the crying. There was a certain joy in their offers of sacrifice.

“We can take it, don’t expel them,” said one. “If there are those in the back with problems, let them come up here where there are empty seats.”

Humanity Triumphs

“Even the most introverted person seemed to awaken and get involved in the rescue mission. . . For five short minutes, the plane was abuzz with interaction. It became interesting.

“The outpouring of support for the small child ended all vacillation. The flight attendant perceived he had the backing of the passengers. If anyone caused an incident, the unruly traveler, not the baby, would be the target of hostility.

“The cabin door was closed, and the plane pushed away from the terminal. As the aircraft positioned itself on the runway, the baby stopped crying. Peace returned to the cabin, and all returned to the isolation of their bubbles. Humanity had triumphed over the rigid mechanical rules.

Self-Interest Destroys Human Solutions

“There is a lesson in all this. The disappearance of the human element in daily interactions makes life sterile. Everything is designed to minimize human contact and lock people into mechanical processes. No one is disposed to sacrifice.

“The self-service mania ensures that people stay in their self-imposed bubbles. This isolation creates a mentality that tends to disregard and resent anyone who interferes with one’s life. It does not allow the human element to act . .” (End)

My take: A baby’s cry.  One voice spoke up.  The community’s goodwill is awakened.  That is how I understand the credit union spirit–offering “human solutions” to everyday needs.  “We can take it! It’s no problem.”



Powerful Member Stories Show a Credit Union’s Heart and Soul

Translating the credit union difference into an effective message is hard.  When done with stories of members serving their communities, the messages can be inspiring.

Whitefish Credit Union in Whitefish, MT has created a series of imaginative, colorful, “hometown” videos of their members’ special efforts.

These personal examples would cause almost any viewer to consider  1. moving to Montana and 2. joining the credit union.

The first example features skateboarding enthusiasts in Whitefish and the people who use and support it.  A story for younger members and those forever young.


This second video is how a veteran with a military injury found his meaning in life in Plains, MT. “Life doesn’t always go in the direction we think it will go.”


This is the cooperative difference portrayed as a form of art.  The theme: What we do, pays dividends. 


Two NCUA Chairmen Report to Congress on the State of the Credit Union Industry

Following are excerpts from two NCUA chairmen on the state of the credit union system.

Both presentations came following severe economic disruption.  In one case the events included double digit inflation and unemployment levels, plus the highest short term Fed Funds rate ever-in the mid teens.

In the second,  the economy had emerged from a post covid shut down with inflation rising to 9% and a Fed once again tightening.

The two updates were in May before Congressional banking committees, but 40 years apart: 1983 and 2023.

One statement expressed confidence in credit unions, with sufficient agency capabilities and a pragmatic approach for the future.  The primary concern was including credit unions in any potential banking regulation.

The second statement suggests inevitable failures, insufficient agency resources and the desire for “parity” with any  changes to banking oversight.

The question for readers:   Two assessments 40 years apart: Which understanding of NCUA’s relationship with credit unions is most likely to enhance the movement’s future?

We know the answer to the first approach.  What will be the outcome of the second?

From May, 1983: Chairman Callahan’s testimony before the Senate Banking Committee:

The overall condition of FCU’s is “quite good” thanks to the grassroots strength of the CU movement and to the freedom CUs have been given to adjust to local market conditions, NCUA Board Chairman told the Senate Banking Committee.

The committee which is conducting oversight hearings into the conditions of the financial system was told by Callahan that “few if any changes should be made in the existing  CU operational and regulatory environment.”

Reporting on 1982 financial performance Callahan said that savings at FCUs grew by 17.2% and assets rose by 16%.  As a result, CUs increased their share of the overall consumer savings market from 4.25% to 4.5%.

“I’m pleased to report that deregulation really works,” Callahan said.  “It’s time to leave the credit union system as it is for a while and observe the results.”

The committee is considering  potential changes in the financial industry and Callahan warned against the tendency to apply these changes to CUs.   “CUs, he said, “come from a different mold.  The biggest threat to the movement is not competition, but homogenization to the financial services industry.”

(Source:  Credit Union Magazine,  June 1983, pgs 19-20)

Excerpts From: Chairman Harper’s Written Statement to the House Banking Committee, May 16, 2023:

Legislative Requests

The recent failures of Silicon Valley, Signature, and First Republic banks are a reminder of the dangers of concentration risk and the need for effective risk-management policies and practices to manage capital, interest rate risk, and liquidity risk. These fundamentals have remained true throughout all economic and regulatory cycles and have recently been areas of supervisory focus for the NCUA. Credit unions that fail to manage these core issues can and will continue to fail. . .

Accordingly, to better manage such liquidations in the future, the NCUA requests amendments to the Federal Credit Union Act to provide more flexibility to the NCUA Board to manage the Share Insurance Fund, bringing the fund’s operations more in line with those of the Deposit Insurance Fund administered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Likewise, as Congress considers amending federal deposit insurance requirements, the NCUA supports maintaining parity between the Share Insurance Fund and the Deposit Insurance Fund. . .

Specifically, the NCUA requests amending the Federal Credit Union Act to remove the 1.50-percent ceiling from the current statutory definition of “normal operating level,” which limits the ability of the Board to establish a higher normal operating level for the Share Insurance Fund. Congress should also remove the limitations on assessing Share Insurance Fund premiums when the equity ratio of the Share Insurance Fund is greater than 1.30 percent and if the premium charged exceeds the amount necessary to restore the equity ratio to 1.30 percent.



A Perspective on Juneteenth

This past  week Joan and I shared varied experiences tied together by our new National Holiday, just two years old.

The events were not coordinated.  Rather they showed some of the many gifts of black Americans in our country’s ever evolving quest for democratic freedom.

A New Cantata

On Tuesday we participated in a summer sing of Adolphus Hailstork’s cantata I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes.  The third movement is based on the 23rd psalm.

A New Book

We attended a Thursday evening interview at the National Cathedral of author Jonathan Eig’s book King:  A Life.

The author believes that we have made King’s basic message too sanguine.  A gentle, romanticized  vision of  “I have dream.” Rather King sought a restructuring of America’s political and economic system.

He described King’s insights:  we can’t do everything, but we can all do something.  . .we don’t have to be perfect to make a difference. . . Progress will create a backlash . . . America does not have a deficit of resources, but of imagination. .. human progress is not inevitable; it requires the discipline of hope over cynicism. . .

Eig believes we have hallowed King and thus hollowed his message  of the fundamental change he sought.  To rediscover his vision we must  read his words, especially the last sermon he preached before his death: Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.

The failure to achieve his goals in his lifetime, does not diminish King’s heroism in America’s long line  of citizens fighting for human freedom.

The Legacy of Birmingham

A CSPAN recorded talk by  Paul Kix reading from his book:  You have to Be Prepared to Die before You Can Begin to Live:  Ten weeks in Birmingham, That Changed America.  It is a detailed account of the SCLC’s Project Confrontation. He provides a five point  summary of  this incredible story of the courage required to break, once and for all, the city’s segregation in 1963.  The story  is both frightening in its cruelty and uplifting in the young people’s commitment to make historical change

Excerpts: Birmingham, in those days, wasn’t so much a city as a site of domestic terror. The Klan castrated Black men. The cops raped Black women. The city’s public safety commissioner, Bull Connor, gleefully and often publicly referred to Birmingham as Bombimgham, for all the Black businesses and residences that were dynamited. CBS’s Edward R Murrow reported from Birmingham prior to King’s arrival and told his producer he hadn’t seen anything like this place since Nazi Germany. . .

In early May 1963, Bevel (SCLC’s operations head) led a campaign within the Birmingham Campaign which he called, D-Day. It was thousands of children skipping school on May 2nd and 3rd and descending on Kelly Ingram Park, across from the 16th Street Baptist Church. The objective was to get to the white-owned and white-run downtown and stage massive protests for civil rights there.

But on May 2nd and 3rd, Bull Connor and the Birmingham Police Department stood with guns and German Shepherds and fire-hoses that could tear mortar from bricks or dislodge bark from trees at a distance of 100 feet. Bevel had children march right into those guns and dogs and firehoses anyway.

The result was savage, apocalyptic, the worst thing war photographers present that day had ever seen. Children were mauled by dogs, as if the dogs were feasting on them. Children backflipped in the air from the firehoses, their clothes just disintegrating on their bodies, their hair scalped as the firehoses hissed across their skulls.

The children knew this might happen. Bevel had prepared them for it. And because they had known they would likely suffer, they did not turn their suffering into victimhood. They did not stop marching. By the dozens and then hundreds and ultimately thousands the children continued to march in early May.

A Play of America’s Conflicting Ideals

The play is August Wilson’s, Radio Golf.   The two protagonists are both successful black leaders.  One is running for mayor of Pittsburg and the other, his partner in a redevelopment in which the goal is to revitalize a worn down section of the city.  And in doing so lift himself up to a spectacular level of financial success.

Both men have a vision for their community and lives.   The drama comes is the conflict of these competing views.  This is a story of every American trying to balance economic success and social equity in  their lives.

A Sunday Sermon

Senator Raphael Warnock’s sermon at the National Cathedral drew upon the familiar words from Isiah Chapter 40.4 we all know from Handel’s Messiah:

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.

He used this familiar promise to describe what he called the moral topography for America.

Equity—the leveling of the hills  and valleys to have the same playing field for all.  Equity built on  integrity- the crooked shall be made straight.   Warnock said: We cannot have a criminal justice system with the rich and guilty alongside the poor and innocent.

Democracy is the necessary check and balance on the human capacity for injustice.    His vision is one where we will be  a country where “all people shall see it together.

The  meaning of this  June Day  is that freedom is a blessing for all. . . no matter a person’s faith, gender, race, economic status, or lived heritage.  This gift can happen when all can see it together.

A Sunday Prayer

Lest we get too narrow on the history of emancipation, the prayer of confession reminds that evil corrupts  in other forms of personal bondage.  (See Radio Golf’s message of conflicting ambitions)

A Prayer for Juneteenth from the National Cathedral:

God of freedom, you have made your faithfulness known from generation to generation.  We celebrate Juneteenth which commemorates the announcement in Texas on June 19, 1865, of the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Let us reflect on the jubilation that filled the hearts of women and men of African descent as they learned of their deliverance from the bondage of slavery, even as we mourn that the true promise of freedom has yet to be fulfilled.  We pray now for all whose lives have been traumatized  and remained threatened by the legacy of slavery and institutional racism in our country.

As people of hope, we know that the arc of history is long and that it bends towards justice.  Help us to commit to the work and ending racism by building he beloved community where all are judged not the color of their skin but by the content of their character, in Christ’s name. 


An American Spiritual Sung in the Current Quest for Freedom

From the Kiev National symphony and Chorus-Down by the Riverside.