The Black Manifesto at The Riverside Church
On Sunday May 4, 1969, black activist James Forman stormed the Chancel 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.
Historical & Societal Context
Prepared by Riverside’s Black Manifesto 50th Anniversary Task Force
1619 – The first African slaves are brought to the English colonies.
Late 1700s-early 1800s – Anti-slavery organizations are founded and movements organized.
1848 – The Free Soil Party, made up of anti-slavery advocates from both major political parties, sends two senators and 14 representatives to Congress.
1860 – Republican Party opposes the expansion of slavery into the Western territories. Abraham Lincoln is elected.
January 1, 1863 – Emancipation Proclamation frees slaves in Confederate states.
1865 – Slavery is legally abolished nationwide, freeing 3.9 million people. “40 Acres and a Mule” assists some former slaves, but then the land is taken away and given to white Southerners.
1863-1877 – Reconstruction. Period of Black freedom and integration into American life.
1877-1950s – Jim Crow. State and local laws enforce segregation, revoke the Black vote, and institute a slavery-like system of peonage and sharecropping. Reign of terror includes lynchings and Klan violence.
1896 –The U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson rules that segregation is not discrimination.
1946 – The G.I. Bill helps veterans with schooling, low-interest mortgages and more, but many of the one million African American veterans are unable to benefit due to school segregation and to “redlining,” which excludes them from the suburbs and refuses mortgages in Black neighborhoods.
July 2, 1964 – U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in schools, employment and public accommodations and prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements.
1966 – The Black Panthers are founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to challenge police brutality against the African American community.
April 8, 1967 – The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers his “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” address at The Riverside Church. He draws ire from friend and foe alike when he expands his usual talking points on civil rights to condemn the Vietnam War and the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”
February 29, 1968 – The Kerner Commission concludes that America is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white – separate and unequal.
April 4, 1968 – Dr. King is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and riots break out in cities nationwide.
April 11, 1968 – President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act).
October 16, 1968 – During their medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City, African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the U.S. national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.
April-May 1969 – African American students hold protests at universities asking for changes such as Black Studies programs and the hiring of African American faculty.
April 26, 1969 – The National Black Economic Development Conference, meeting in Detroit, Michigan, adopts the Black Manifesto, presented by Black civil rights activist James Forman.
The Riverside Church responds
Week of May 5, 1969 – Riverside Church secures a civil restraining order to make interruption of worship by Mr. Forman or others a matter for court action, but declines New York Mayor John Lindsay’s offer of a police cordon around the church.
Thursday, May 8 – Dr. Campbell proposes creation of the Riverside Fund for Social Justice, a special three-year effort to raise $450,000 (equivalent to $3.2 million today).
Saturday, May 10 – Dr. Campbell offers his first formal response to the Black Manifesto on WRVR, Riverside’s radio station.
Sunday, May 11 – Mr. Forman attends worship at Riverside, and sits in the front row. He stands during the sermon but does not speak and is not removed. He also holds a news conference on the church’s Riverside Drive steps.
In a rejection of Mr. Forman’s tactics of confrontation, Riverside’s leadership makes clear from the start that no funds will go to Mr. Forman or to the National Black Economic Development Conference, saying, “We do not accept that Mr. Forman is the legitimate spokesperson for the Black community or that he has the right to add up the bill and decide who should pay and how much to charge.”
In response, Mr. Forman accuses Riverside of choosing “the ‘Negroes’ they want to deal with … that (they) know” in an “attempt to bypass the BEDC while recognizing the legitimacy of our demands.”
Wednesday, May 21 – Riverside’s annual Strawberry Festival suspends its usual agenda in favor of a panel presentation and discussion on the Black Manifesto. This is the first opportunity for the congregation to gather to air its feelings.
Sunday, July 13 – Dr. Campbell delivers his sermon The Case for Reparations.
September – November – A course on “Black Theology” led off by Dr. James H. Cone and a 1970 Lenten lecture series undergird expanded outreach in African American and Spanish-speaking communities.
February 28, 1970 – The Riverside Fund for Social Justice is launched after months of work by a task force, Riverside’s deacons and trustees, and a vote of approval by the congregation. The special fund’s stated purpose is to raise $450,000 over a three-year period to assist the disadvantaged, particularly in the surrounding community. Recipients have to be Manhattan based and show the promise of enabling the powerless in society to acquire power.
Over the next three years, the Fund awards grants to 14 organizations. At the time of the announcement of the third-year recipients in April 1974, $357,242.72 had been raised, with members urged to continue contributing until the $450,000 goal was reached.
Today, through the Sharing Fund, The Riverside Church pledges 10% of its annual offering from its members to finance projects outside the church that are consistent with the church’s commitment to fulfilling its mission. Local, national and international organizations may request grants of up to $5,000.
Requests for grants must:
- reflect the mission of The Riverside Church;
- provide services and/or effective advocacy for underserved and marginalized populations, including but not limited to those adversely affected by racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism, the chronically ill, women, children, the elderly, those suffering the consequences of violence, refugees and internally displaced persons, victims of natural disasters, prisoners, those experiencing the effects of economic hardship such as hunger, homelessness, lack of health care or education; and
- benefit the target population without regard to religious affiliation.
Prepared by Riverside’s Black Manifesto 50th Anniversary Task Force
The Black Manifesto
- Read the Black Manifesto
- Reflect on these definitions of reparations. How would you define reparations?
- The Black Manifesto asks NOT for a cash grant to every African American, but rather investment in Black-owned, Black-oriented infrastructure to redress systemic injustices. Why?
- What judgment did the Black Manifesto make on the white faith community in the United States?
- The strongly worded Black Manifesto calls on African Americans to use “any means necessary” to get their demands met, echoing language used by Malcolm X and others. Other African American leaders (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr.) preached nonviolence. Comment.
- To what extent does the 1969 Black Manifesto continue to ring true in 2019?
- What needs/demands would you want to be addressed today?
The Case for Reparations
- Read The Case for Reparations sermon
- Read Luke 19 (Dr. Campbell’s sermon text – the story of Zacchaeus).
- To what language in the Black Manifesto is Dr. Campbell referring when he cites “the revolutionary talk” and “the Marxist line that marks its opening pages?”
- Comment on Dr Campbell’s rejection of “revolution” and embrace of “reparations.”
- Which of the sins Dr. Campbell cites are still operative today?
- Where – as individuals and as a congregation – do we hear God’s call to us to take action today?
- How are the struggles of Native Peoples, immigrants, women, LGBTQI people similar to the African-American struggle? Different? Where do these various struggles intersect? In which struggles are reparations due?
- If you were to write a Manifesto today, what demands would you make of The Riverside Church? The broader U.S. faith community? The nation?
- Are reparations all, part or none of the answer to racial inequality today? Please specify what you mean by “reparations” and give examples.
For Further Study
- Hartford Courant, Chapter 8: The Debt, September 29, 2002
- Washington Post, March 20, 2019 – How Ta-Nehisi Coates Turned Reparations froma Punchline into a Policy Objective
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014
- The Movement for Black Lives Platform
- Economic Policy Institute, February 26, 2018, Report: 50 Years
- Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation – Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; 2014
- The History of the Riverside Church in the City of New York, New York University Press, 2004
- David Brooks, March 7, 2019, “The Case for Reparations,” The New York Times
- National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA)
- WNYC Studios’ The Takeway, April 3, 2019, Making Reparations Work in America
- Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act
- PBS-TV, The Truth Behind 40 Acres and a Mule
- How African American WWII Veterans were Scorned by the G.I. Bill
- When Slaveholders Got Reparations, The New York Times April 16, 2019