Racial equity and the early A.A. experience – “justice for all”?

Photo from Pinterest.com (Faces are intentionally blurred in respect for Twelve Step tradition of anonymity.)

Last week’s post celebrated the wedding anniversary of Bill and Lois Wilson, co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (Bill) and Al-Anon Family Groups (Lois). We looked at their life and legacy from the point of view of our national aspirations of “liberty and justice for all”. We explored how many people today are free from the hell of alcohol, drugs, and other addictions because of the Twelve Step movement the Wilsons and others pioneered.

This week we’ll explore the 2nd part of our aspiration – “justice for all” – from the same perspective of recovery from addictions. To explore the question of “justice for all,” let’s look at the experience of Blacks who attempted to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) in its early years.

One of the first documented experiences occurred in 1940, five years after A.A. was founded. Co-founder Bill Wilson spoke at a prison outside New York City about his own near-fatal alcoholism. He recovered through what was becoming the Twelve Step program of A.A. Then as now, prison populations had a high proportion of Blacks. As he did wherever he spoke, at the conclusion of his talk, Bill encouraged anyone who thought they had a problem to come to an A.A. meeting.

Several weeks later, Bill was pleasantly surprised when two Black men who were at the prison, now out on parole, came to an A.A. meeting in Manhattan, NY. Bill saw immediately the negative reaction of some of the all-white group to the presence of the two Black men. He was confronted with two competing values for him and ultimately A.A. – a belief that “the only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking” (Tradition Three) and the right of each A.A. group to be “autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole” (Tradition Four).

Bill Wilson took what he believed to be the best stand at the time. He asked those objecting to the Black men’s presence whether these men had the right to receive help getting sober. The objectors agreed that the men should stay.  However, the “compromise” with the objectors was that Black people were not allowed to attend as equals, but only as “guests”.

Two years later, as reported in the A.A. history Pass It On (p. 216), Bill deplored this reality: “Along with you, I feel very deeply about this race business. Save this question, I suppose A.A. is the most democratic society in the world. All men should have an equal opportunity to recover from alcoholism – that is the shining ideal. But unhappily, it may not be achieved in our lifetime.”

And Bill was right. Blacks in St. Louis came together in January 1945. They were, however, afraid to let their meeting place and time be public for fear of conflict with white members of A.A. This meeting eventually disbanded.

Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., a Black physician who had ceased practicing medicine because of his alcoholism, Dr. James Scott, was more successful in getting help. A friend introduced him to a white member of A.A. who became his sponsor and guide through the 12 Steps. Small meetings with other Blacks with drinking problems occurred in their homes for a few months. Eventually, the white sponsor suggested Dr. Scott start a public meeting for Blacks. Local churches declined to open their spaces to this first Black A.A. meeting. They eventually met in April 1945 at a YMCA. This meeting became known as the Cosmopolitan Group. While there was a Black meeting that started around the same time in Chicago (the Evans Avenue Group), this Washington D.C. Cosmopolitan Group was considered by Bill Wilson and A.A. the first Negro A.A. meeting.

A.A. preferred “separate but equal” for a number of years. Many Black meetings had white people involved in their beginning; many like the Cosmopolitan Group, still exist and are integrated meetings today. A.A. and other Twelve Step meetings now are open to all, so in terms of availability there is “liberty and justice for all”.

However, in my experience of having visited Twelve Step meetings across the country, and in the experience of others I’ve spoken with, communities of color are not accessing Twelve Step meetings to the same degree as the white population.  I believe that in order to reduce the impact of addictions everywhere, more effort is needed to explore how to ensure Twelve Step meetings are equally available to all in communities in the U.S. and around the world. In this way, the Twelve Step movement can fulfill Bill Wilson’s aspiration that A.A. be “the most democratic (and inclusive) society in the world.”


  1. Horace Grinnell

    tom, I found the history of Black’s participation in AA quite interesting. I hope in our February racial Justice conversation you share this history with people.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Tuck, appreciate your taking a look and the encouragement to share about this at Racial Justice Conversation Wed the 7th on zoom. All welcoem – contact Tuck or me for details. Will do, Tom