The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described 11 o’clock on Sunday morning as the “most segregated hour in America.” This story is one in a series by Religion News Service about the future of segregation and integration in American religion, produced in partnership with Sacred Writes, a project that helps scholars share their research with a broader audience.
(RNS) — On a Sunday morning in May of 1969, as clergy processed into the sanctuary of New York’s august Riverside Church, civil rights activist James Forman vaulted into the pulpit to demand $500 million in reparations for the mistreatment of African Americans from white churches and synagogues.
At the time, Forman’s interruption represented the high point for the reparations movement. A week before, Forman had debuted a radical proposal for racial justice known as “the Black Manifesto” for 500 black activists gathered in Detroit for the National Black Economic Development Conference.
“(W)e know that the churches and synagogues have a tremendous wealth,” the manifesto stated, “and its membership, white America, has profited and still exploits black people.”
The conference determined, by a 187-63 vote, that it was time for white Christians and Jews to pay reparations and demonstrate a willingness to fight “the white supremacy and racism which has forced us as black people to make these demands.”
Riverside, then a mostly white liberal Protestant congregation whose neo-Gothic landmark building was financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., would be deeply divided over the next few years over Forman’s challenge. As the activist brought his manifesto to other congregations and denominations, Riverside established a lecture series and a “Fund for Social Justice” that aimed to raise $450,000 over three years to help the poor in the local community. It fell short of the goal by almost $100,000.
The Black Manifesto’s demands never caught fire in the broader U.S. religious community. The Rev. Gayraud Wilmore, a black Presbyterian leader in New York City in 1969, recalled 50 years later how religious institutions responded.
“I saw them withering and unable to step forward and say ‘Let’s be the church,’” said Wilmore, now 98. “I saw no bold action taken on our side to go along with the bold action Forman was taking.”
Five decades later, the reparations debate has reentered the national spotlight, with some religious institutions leading the way.
Earlier in December, Reform Jews, declaring that “racial inequity is present in virtually every aspect of American life,” voted overwhelmingly to support a U.S. commission to develop proposals for reparations and urged conversations in their congregations to redress systemic racism.
In recent months, Virginia Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary and Georgetown University have all announced plans to fund initiatives that would benefit the descendants of slaves, while Episcopal dioceses in New York and Long Island made million- and half-million-dollar commitments as reparations committees continued their work.
In May, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland voted to study reparations and urge congregations to “examine how their endowed wealth is tied to the institution of slavery.”
Maryland’s African American bishop, Eugene Taylor Sutton, said tears came to his eyes when the measure passed at the diocese’s general convention with no dissenting votes, and he realized that the assembled delegates, representing a membership that is 90% white, “got it.”
“They get this thing called justice, and when you put it in a frame that there is a basic injustice in this nation of stealing from generations of people and that has a direct effect on today, then people,” Sutton said, “they say, ‘OK, we got to get that fixed.’”
Sutton, who testified before Congress in June with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates to advocate for the idea of a U.S. reparations commission, emphasized that reparations can come in many forms. Starting next month, members of his diocese will begin to consider options such as providing better access for people of color to home buying, job training and faculty positions at seminaries.
It has taken some American religious institutions 50 years to get their heads around reparations. When Forman hijacked that Sunday morning service, two-thirds of Riverside worshippers, including the minister, stormed out in protest. After activists occupied offices in the Interchurch Center of New York, a court issued restraining orders to bar Forman from the building. In Missouri, manifesto supporters in St. Louis carried out a series of “Black Sunday” protests, interrupting local services, which led to confrontations with white church members and arrests.
The manifesto was quite specific in its demands. Black activists would control the distribution of reparations. The $500 million (soon increased to $3 billion) would be spent on programs designed to ensure black self-determination. These included establishing a Southern land bank, publishing industries, television networks, job training centers, labor unions and a black university.
The manifesto’s rhetoric was just as controversial. Written by Forman, a former member of the civil rights group known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the preamble framed reparations in Marxist terms. “Time is short,” Forman wrote. “(N)o oppressed people ever gained their liberation until they were ready to fight, to use whatever means necessary, including the use of force and power of the gun to bring down the colonizer.”
Prominent black and white religious leaders diverged on how to interpret Forman’s call for revolution. The Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, who succeeded the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, compared Forman to biblical prophets who spoke truth to power. Writing in The Christian Century, he asked, “Was there not even a physical resemblance between Amos, the dusty-road-weary prophet in his desert garb, and Jim Forman in his dashiki?”
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Source: Religion News Service