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Home » Biographies » Lee, Alfred McClung and Elizabeth Briant (1906-1992; 1908-1999)

Lee, Alfred McClung and Elizabeth Briant (1906-1992; 1908-1999)

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The Lees’ professional careers are best captured, according to Betty Lee, by the Italian phrase, tutti e due insieme, or both together in everything.

Betty observed in an interview that: “Al did most of the initial writing and I do the editing.”

Al’s profound gratitude to Betty was reflected in 1966, when he dedicated a book (as he often did): “To my closest associate, collaborator, and fellow sociologist, my wife, the spirit of my Pierian spring.”

Al was born August 23, 1906, and Betty, September 9, 1908. They first met on a so-called “blind” date at the home of friends in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, in 1926. They then wandered around in the quiet of a local cemetery. A year later, after Betty had finished her sophomore year of college and Al had graduated, they were married. Both Betty’s and Al’s parents were deeply committed to higher education, although it was not an easy task for them because both families struggled financially. After Al’s father graduated from the state normal school at Indiana, Pennsylvania, he decided to become an attorney, as had two of his uncles and his older brother. While attending the University of Pittsburgh law school, he supported himself by working as a newspaper reporter.

Both Betty’s and Al’s fathers were opposed to militarism and were active Christians. Betty was reared a Baptist. As a child and young man, Al sang in the choir at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. Al recalled that one attraction for the younger members of the choir was that they were given a small weekly allowance for singing. His life was made all the richer by the love he found at home. For example, Al remembered “wonderful experiences with the horse my father bought for my brother and me, a mustang named Bess. ”

Al’s father was a Pittsburgh attorney who was known in the area for his defense of African Americans, immigrants, and other powerless people. Al recalled that on one occasion his father learned that the local Ku Klux Klan planned a raid on a local black church during the Sunday evening services. His father asked the minister if he could be the featured guest speaker that evening. When the KKK arrived, his father confronted them in the center aisle of the church and pulled off the leader’s mask, thus identifying him. Perhaps as a result of this surprise they left without a word. Later, however, reflecting the KKK’s special brand of cowardice, a cross was burned in the front yard of the family’s home.

Marginality and DissentFueled by the democratic spirit of his family, as a boy Al organized his own scout troop, number three, as an alternative to the one he had initially joined. His troop was intentionally non-militaristic and had no salutes or any marching. The excellence of the group is reflected in the fact that 28 of the 32 boys in the troop achieved the Eagle rank. Al’s father was the scout master.

Betty’s father was a part of middle management in a steel plant, but in the depression of the 1930s was replaced by a relative of the owner. He then spent his last years as a farmer and an “agitator for socialism.” While Betty’s family was one of modest means, unlike many families of the time they insisted that all of their children, including their daughter, go to college.

Betty and Al ascribed great importance to the influence of their childhood homes. Betty was an outstanding high school student and graduated as the salutatorian of her senior class. Early on Betty demonstrated a keen awareness of art, and in her June 1925 graduation address to her classmates, she urged them to make homes for themselves filled with art, a practice she followed herself.

“By the end of my sophomore year in college Al and I had decided to get married even though none of our parents liked it at all. I was 19 and Al was 21. Al’s mother didn’t care for college women.” Even so, she and Al were married in the Episcopal Cathedral in Pittsburgh.

In 1945 Al and Betty left the Episcopal church over the issue of racism in the church, after Al’s having been a vestry member in a Detroit congregation. Al recalled that “the clergy did not like a talk I gave at a church meeting on racism in the church. We gradually left and put our kids in a Unitarian Sunday School.” After that time the Lees remained active Unitarians and also participated in Friends’ Meetings. Al served as president of the American Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice.

With the funds from Al’s scholarship, Betty and Al were off to Yale. To help make ends meet while at Yale, Al also worked as a reporter (as had his father before him). Al worked for the New Haven Journal-Courier and also handled public relations for a political campaign.

Betty Lee completed her dissertation in 1937, the second woman to complete graduate training in sociology at Yale. The dissertation, titled Eminent Women: A Cultural Study, is squarely placed in a feminist tradition. Unlike Betty’s dissertation, Al’s dissertation, The Daily Newspaper in America, was published as a book in 1937 and was still in print in 1991.

At this early stage in their careers the deep vein of egalitarianism that would come to characterize them was more apparent in Betty’s dissertation than in Al’s. Yet Al’s dissertation has been very important, in that its analysis of the significance of wire services “helped in the Supreme Court decision to break up the Associated Press news monopoly.”

The Fine Art of Propaganda was published originally in 1939 and, like Al’s dissertation, was still in print during the 1990s. This book was based on an analysis of Father Charles Coughlin’s speeches, which were filled with anti-Semitic utterances. In retrospect it seems unlikely that two very junior sociologists, with so few sociological role models to follow, would have attacked a figure who at the time had great prominence through his nationally syndicated radio program.

The audience for this book by the Lees was primarily the general public. The Lees felt it necessary to challenge Coughlin among the general public, for this is where he had attracted considerable support. The enduring quality of this book, which explains why it was still in print in the late 20th century, is that it is as relevant as it was during the 1930s. For example, television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart argued during the 1980s that Jews themselves were to blame for the Holocaust, saying that whenever a person “does not accept Jesus Christ, he takes himself away from God’s protection . . . [and] places himself under Satan’s domain.” Betty was a co-author of The Fine Art of Propaganda.

In 1941, Al was elected executive director of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis which had published the book. That same year two university professors who were members of the board of directors of the institute resigned, “because they believed the institute was too critical of the defense policies of the Roosevelt Administration.” One of these professors was quoted: “I am all out for intervention.”

Aside from publishing Betty and Al’s book on propaganda, the institute had other activities: “One million children in 3,000 public and private high schools of this country are being taught to develop critical, questioning attitudes of what they read in the newspapers, hear on the radio or see in the motion pictures through monthly bulletins, teaching guides and other materials prepared for classroom use by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis.”

Race Riot by the Lees and Norman Daymond Humphrey is an analysis and a detailed chronology of events leading to and including the Detroit race riots of June 1943, hurried into print that same year. Living in Detroit at the time, the Lees and Humphrey were ideally suited to tell this story. According to the book, these riots were at least partially a consequence of the massive immigration of southern blacks and southern whites (with the southern white traditions of racism) into the city of Detroit during the years immediately prior to the riot. But the book also noted how fascism and American demagogues such as Father Charles Coughlin, Huey Long, and the Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith contributed to the problem, and how those demagogues in turn were autocrats similar to Hitler and Mussolini. The authors also noted that such riots soil the international reputation of American democracy and, most significantly, represent a real danger to democracy itself.

Fraternities without Brotherhood is another example of clinical sociology. A junior colleague of Al Lee’s at Brooklyn College asked him why he was studying fraternities and Al replied that, although often overlooked, they were important social and political institutions. Although usually not considered integral parts of institutionalized racism, college sororities and fraternities in fact serve as training grounds for racial prejudice and discrimination. Fraternities without Brotherhood could have been written yesterday as a description of the racial and class discrimination of fraternities and sororities.

Terrorism in Northern Ireland, published in 1983, is another example of clinical sociology, as it explicitly addresses the common good through an examination of government policy. The sectarian dispute in Northern Ireland between the Catholic and Protestant communities was of special interest to Betty and Al Lee as a prime example of how a racist ideology can be used to justify political oppression.

In Sociology for Whom?, published in 1978, the Lees observe that one thing many sociologists lack is intimate and varied field-clinical experiences.

Sociology for People: Toward a Caring Profession, published in 1988, asks how sociology can aid the “rank-and-file people” and help emancipate them from the manipulation by elites.

Through nearly 60 years of research, Al and Betty generally have funded their projects themselves.

Al’s retirement in 1971 marked the time when Al and Betty began the development of an explicit sociological humanism. Retirement seems to have created an intellectual environment for Al and Betty that gave them greater freedom, and certainly more time for writing. Yet even Al’s retirement was not without controversy and conflict. For many years the Lee’s sent out a photocopied Christmas letter to friends. The 1970 edition noted that during Al’s last month of teaching at Brooklyn College a general student strike was triggered by the Vietnam war and that Al was involved in helping students finish course requirements in unorthodox ways. The 1972 Christmas letter noted that Al was forced to bring suit against the city of New York to collect his full pension. The 1974 letter listed 13 professional presentations that Betty and Al had made either jointly or individually. The 1986 letter mentioned that their “vacations” that year had consisted of trips to eight professional association conventions and the presentation of seven papers.

Shortly after Al retired from Brooklyn College he became a visiting scholar with an office and secretarial support at Drew University.

For some time sociologists have been intrigued by the nature of human commitment to both ideas and to a course of action. What is beyond dispute is that the Lees displayed an early and continuing commitment to each other, to their sons, and to a sociology that could serve the community.

The Lees worked at the margins of the sociological mainstream, their efforts animated not just by Chicago sociology but also by investigative journalism—Al’s first career. Their style of muckraking, investigative journalism made them outsiders to the sociological establishment. The ideas and activities of these “outsider” sociologists represent at the least an implicit criticism of the mainstream of contemporary sociology. Histories of sociology often neglect all but the dominant themes in a given era. For example, the period after World War II has been characterized as an era of widespread “optimism and satisfaction” both in society and among sociologists, with other themes going unmentioned. The lives of Betty and Al Lee demonstrate, however, that throughout this period there were other sociologies representing a deep-seated resistance to this self-satisfied perspective. Organizations founded by the Lees tapped intellectual dissatisfactions that were in turn tied to intellectual traditions. The Lees’ organizational abilities, more than their research, tapped resistance to dominant trends in the discipline.

— By John F. Galliher and James M. Galliher, University of Missouri. Abridged from Marginality and Dissent in Twentieth Century American Sociology.

A Note on Unitarian Connections

When Alfred McClung Lee served as chairman of the Commission on Unitarian Group Relations, a report by him in the Christian Register, December 1954, concluded: “Ideally, the liberal church is a family of families, a place to find rich, meaningful community, infused with spiritual and educative purposes conducive to human growth. Within its walls the individual should be able to find both the security and comfort of warm intimate friendship and the sense of participation in a microcosm of the world community, the adventure undivided by nation, race or creed.

“What applies to our churches applies equally to our ministry. As our churches would be immeasurably enhanced by becoming genuinely inclusive, interracially and culturally, so also would our ministry be enriched if we could say to black and yellow as well as to white: ‘The doors of opportunity to a life of service are open. As a Unitarian minister you will be judged solely as an individual; you will be weighed upon merit alone. Our people are color-blind. What you are matters tremendously; the pigmentation of your skin matters not at all.'”

Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Galliher, John F. and James M. Galliher. Marginality and Dissent in Twentieth-Century American Sociology: The Case of Elizabeth Briant Lee and Alfred McClung Lee. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

The Papers of Alfred McClung Lee