Challenging the Church: Reflections on the 1969 Black Manifesto

I first met James Forman in 1962 when I was a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. At the time, we students were protesting segregated seating in the Georgia State Capitol. Eleven of us got arrested and taken to jail, where we spent the better part of a week. Forman’s role at that time was to be an observer to our demonstration and then call the headquarters of the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights (the group in which the 11 of us were members) to let leaders know what had happened, so that the wheels could be put in motion to obtain legal counsel for us.

James Forman

James Forman was a strong presence in those days, but also a team player. So I was taken by surprise when, following the creation in late April 1969 of the Black Manifesto by the National Black Economic Development Conference (NBEDC), he entered both The Episcopal Church’s national headquarters in New York City as well as The Riverside Church in uptown Manhattan to forcibly present its demands.

By that time I was married and living in New York City. I was intrigued and captivated by the Black Manifesto, but wondered why Forman was acting alone rather than as part of a group. Nevertheless, the stand Forman and the NBEDC took encouraged a small group of us to make similar demands of our local church in downtown Manhattan.

In June 1969, nearly a dozen members of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery formed the Black and Brown Caucus with the intention of making demands upon the congregation toward many of the issues addressed in the Black Manifesto; namely, the establishment of church programs that included our sense of self-determination and self-respect as well as the eradication of injustice and poverty. We also wanted our cultural heritage to be reflected in the worship service at St. Mark’s alongside the heritage of White congregants, and we wanted a greater stake in the governance of our parish.

So on a Sunday morning in the early fall, after a summer of preparation, members of the Black and Brown Caucus rose from our pews as the rector was about to begin his sermon. We walked toward him, and when we reached him turned to face the congregation and read a list of demands. In his book, This Time, This Place, Michael Allen, then-rector of St. Mark’s, writes:

“A few months before [the confrontation at St. Mark’s] we had discussed James Forman’s confrontation at Riverside Church. We knew it could not happen here, because this church had been deeply involved in the civil rights movement, and the blacks had always been free at St. Mark’s. And now they were telling us this was not so. They were destroying our illusions about ourselves, and we were afraid and some of us were angry. … The blacks and browns were telling us something about ourselves, something we had not heard – that no matter how liberal you may be, you are part of a racist system, and you reflect that system and act it out in everything you do. … The blacks were accusing us of plantation mentality, of racist practices, and they were making demands, hard demands, real demands, not symbols.”

Our manifesto that morning demanded that the congregation seat three Black persons and a Puerto Rican member on the vestry immediately; that the church turn over $30,000 to the caucus to be used at its discretion; that the worship of the parish be made relevant and meaningful to Black and Brown people; that a Black and Brown arts program replace or coexist with the White arts program; and that the rector begin to serve the community through the Black and Brown Caucus.

The altar at NYC’s St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery Church in 1969, following the Black and Brown Caucus’ demands for reparations.

Despite the upheaval that followed, in the end the church honored each demand. Black, Brown, and White members of the congregation slowly began to work together toward healing and reconciliation to become the diverse, all-empowering congregation we are today. It took years to develop a level of trust and true cooperation. Members of the caucus used the $30,000 to begin a liberation school, to serve free breakfasts to children on the Lower East Side, and to open the first prison law library in the state of New York at the Bronx House of Detention. That was the immediate effect of Forman’s Black Manifesto on my congregation.

Long range, the Black Manifesto inspired the work of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and The Episcopal Church nationally to pass resolutions (in 2006) on reparations for slavery. Since that time, New York Episcopalians have been meeting consistently to discuss reparations and imagine what those reparations might look like in our diocese. In 2018, we entered into a year of lamentation. This year we are participating in a year of apology, which will lead to a year of reconciliation in 2020.

Members of the Episcopal Diocese of New York’s Reparations Committee and the playwright and cast of A New York Lamentation address the diocesan convention on November 9, 2018.

Perhaps my Christian faith and upbringing have led me to believe that the church, rather than broader society, is the vehicle most likely to come to grips with reparations for slavery. Former Congressman John Conyers’s HR-40 legislation has lain dormant in the House of Representatives for decades, and I see very little movement toward getting politicians to even discuss it, let alone consider reparations.

Beyond The Episcopal Church, I don’t know what other religious groups are doing to address reparations, but Episcopalians, based on General Convention resolutions, have been asked to consider the role the church played in the transatlantic slave trade and its aftermath of segregation and discrimination.

Nell Braxton Gibson

Our hope here in New York is that, at the very least, we are able to accomplish in our diocese what The Episcopal Church has failed to do at the national level. That is to honor General Convention resolution A-123 (“Study Economic Benefits Derived from Slavery”) which called on the denomination to acknowledge “(a) the complicity of the Episcopal Church in the institution of slavery and the subsequent history of segregation and discrimination and (b) the economic benefits The Episcopal Church, USA derived from the institution of slavery…and to hold a service of repentance at the National Cathedral…”

The resolution further states that, “each Diocese is requested to hold a similar service.” In New York, we hope that at the end of 2019, our year of apology, our bishop will lead a service of repentance and will apologize (on behalf of the diocese) for the pain African Americans in the Diocese of New York have experienced since the time of the slave trade.

This story was produced by Fellowship Magazine

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