On Sunday May 4, 1969, black activist James Forman stormed the pulpit of The Riverside Church, demanding that white churches and synagogues pay $500,000,000 in reparations. Forman, the former Executive Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was one of the key leaders of the 1964 Freedom Summer, a project to register as many black voters in Mississippi as possible, as well as the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, infamously put down with billy clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an event now known as Bloody Sunday.
On the morning of May 4, as ministers processed through the nave to the hymn “When Morning Gilds the Skies”, Forman climbed the steps to the chancel and began to read The Black Manifesto, a series of demands endorsed by the National Black Economic Development Conference. The Black Manifesto argued that white churches and synagogues of the United States must pay for their part – direct and indirect – in the historical subjugation of black people if they wished to maintain their moral authority. It cited their reliance on the patronage of wealthy whites enriched by slavery and the violent expropriation of resources from communities of color.
Before Forman could begin to explain the reason for the service interruption, the organist drowned out his words with the hymn “May Jesus Christ be Praised”, as preaching minister Rev. Dr. Ernest Campbell led a silent walkout of the majority of the congregation.
This event threw The Riverside Church and the concept of reparations into the national spotlight. The Riverside Church and other faith groups struggled to respond. The intellectual struggle over reparations continues today.
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