by Benjamin Van Dyne
Most efforts to secure reparations for U.S. slavery and racial subjugation have focused on the federal government—whether Callie House’s organizing among her fellow ex-slaves for taxes on seized southern cotton to be repaid to former slaves,1Berry, Mary Frances, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations (New York: Vintage, 2009). Representative John Conyers’ proposed congressional commission to study federal reparations (which he introduced in every Congress starting in 1993 until his death in 2019),2See Robinson, Randall, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (New York: Plume, 2001), p. 238. author Randall Robinson’s best-selling The Debt in 2000,3Robinson, Randall, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (New York: Plume, 2001). or writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” which succeeded in persuading swathes of the white intelligentsia of the need for some form of reparation.4Coates, Ta-Nehisi, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.
In 1969, however, James Forman led a very different effort. The National Black Economic Development Council (NBEDC) was a group of black churchmen and business leaders who had gathered in Detroit in 1968 to consider how to advance the cause of black economic progress. Forman led them in developing the “Black Manifesto,” which was directed not at the federal government but at the leading mainline Protestant churches and white Jewish synagogues.
After writing the manifesto, Forman and the NBEDC sought for a suitable place to make the first public presentation of the manifesto. They settled on New York’s Riverside Church. Riverside was a cathedral to both U.S. Protestantism and U.S. capitalism. With its Art Deco-Gothic style and deep pockets, both funded by the devoutly Baptist John D. Rockefeller, it had a reputation as a center of political and social action. Just the year before Martin Luther King had announced his opposition to the Vietnam War from its pulpit, and its weekly broadcast of the Sunday sermon was heard throughout greater New York. If the manifesto’s claim that “the white churches are another form of government in this country,” was true anywhere, it was at Riverside.
Though Riverside’s minister, the Rev. Ernest Campbell, had agreed to allow Forman to present the manifesto during Sunday service, he had not envisioned Forman’s disruptive takeover. Forman interrupted Campbell, seized the mic, and presented the manifesto’s demands: reparations of $500 million from white churches and synagogues. Well before Cedric Robinson made a systematic case that capitalism itself was a racializing and racist system,5Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: the Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Forman and the NBEDC made a case that white churches and synagogues owed reparations specifically because they were “part and parcel of this system of capitalism” and therefore owed $500 million in reparations—as the Manifesto drily points out, “a mere $15 per black brother and sister in this country.”6The Black Manifesto, The Church Awakens: African American Struggles for Justice, Archives of the Episcopal Church. In his remarks that Sunday, Forman criticized Riverside’s relationship with Rockefeller, charging that Rockefeller used “money stolen from the poor to build this great cathedral. . . and [his] money is still exploiting people of color all around the world.” Forman then demanded a list of all of the church’s assets. It was at this point, remembered Forman, that Campbell asked the church’s organist to attempt to drown him out.7Forman, James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000).
According to the manifesto, the money was to be used for ten purposes, including black-owned newspapers, television stations, research institutes, and funds for striking black workers. Fully $200 million was designated for a southern land bank and $130 million was to be used to establish a new, radical black university in the south.8The Black Manifesto, The Church Awakens: African American Struggles for Justice, Archives of the Episcopal Church. The NBEDC was to manage the money under the supervision of a committee of black leaders including Forman.
Within a week, black students at the adjacent Union Theological Seminary had endorsed the manifesto, occupied the administration and classroom building, and demanded that the seminary pay up. Seminary president John Bennett at first refused, saying it was outside his legal purview. Bennett relented the next day and requested an emergency convening of the board. The Board of Directors at Union said no to the specific demands of the occupying students, but made several alternative commitments totaling more than two million dollars in funds, to be controlled by black students, faculty, and alumni. The seminary ultimately paid a little more than a million dollars.9“Summary of Responses to the Black Manifesto of the NBEDC.” Board of Trustees Document, Union Theological Seminary Archive. 1972 file.
This proved to be the pattern: Riverside and Protestant denominational institutions, if they responded at all, increased investments in their own programs, but refused to turn any money over to Forman or the NBECD. The total investments made by Union, Riverside, and the Protestant denominations came to about $4 million.10Lechtreck, Elaine Allen, “We are Demanding $500 Million for Reparations”: The Black Manifesto, Mainline Religious Denominations, and Black Economic Development,” Journal of African American History, (Winter–Spring 2012), 39-71. The other $496 million remained unpaid.
The legacy of the Black Manifesto can be seen in recent actions taken by some institutions to atone for the benefits received from slavery and racial discrimination, including at Georgetown University (where the university’s Jesuits once claimed ownership of 272 enslaved persons), Boston University and Princeton Theological Seminary.11Lechtreck, Elaine Allen, “We are Demanding $500 Million for Reparations”: The Black Manifesto, Mainline Religious Denominations, and Black Economic Development,” 39-71. In 2019, Episcopal Diocese of New York set aside a million dollars to make amends for the ways in which it has benefitted from slavery.12Millard, Egan. “Diocese of New York establishes reparations fund, adopts anti-slavery resolutions from 1860” Episcopal News Service, 12 November 2019. The text and story of the Black Manifesto, implicate religious institutions in much larger forces of capitalism and white supremacy—neither making them solely responsible, nor letting them off the hook.