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50 years after 'Black Manifesto,' religious groups again take up reparations

Matthew J. Cressler and Adelle M. Banks/Religion News Service | 1/10/2020, 6 a.m.
On a Sunday morning in May 1969, as clergy processed into the sanctuary of New York’s august Riverside Church, civil ...
Activist James Forman walks in New York’s Riverside Church on May 11, 1969. Mr. Forman returned to the church after interrupting a service there earlier that month to deliver The Black Manifesto. Associated Press

“I remember I said it’s not a time for us to feel either blamed or shamed and certainly not a time to feel futile,” Rev. Peabody, now 73, said in an interview. “Our denomination, in his eye, did indeed have the power to play a part and we should accept that as almost a commissioning of the denomination to indeed step up to the plate and get involved in more focused and proactive ways.”

Like other denominations, the RCA didn’t accede to Mr. Forman’s demand that reparations be handed over freely. Instead, the synod voted to create a $100,000 fund “to be disbursed according to the decisions” of a newly formed Black Council. The council then rejected the money.

“We just basically wanted to be at the table where decisions are being made and not considered an auxiliary or an offshoot or a secondhand portion of the denomination,” said the Rev. Dwayne Jackson, a Hackensack, N.J., a pastor who was a panelist at an RCA event commemorating the manifesto in October, titled “Unfinished Business.”

Rev. Jackson, who knew some members of the council from his childhood church in the Bronx, said the staffer hired to oversee the council was the church’s first black executive. Today, people of color comprise a third of the RCA’s executive leadership team.

Other denominations acknowledged the grievances raised by the manifesto but rejected the solutions it proposed and even the language of “reparations.” Instead, they created or continued programs aimed at helping poor black people and others. The Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, the Evangelical Covenant Church’s Fund for Disadvantaged Americans of Minority Groups and the Episcopal Church’s General Convention Special Program all were created around the time of Mr. Forman’s action.

The Rev. Dominique DuBois Gilliard, the current director of the Evangelical Covenant Church’s “racial righteousness and reconciliation” ministry, recently reflected on how this kind of response “enacted a very problematic erasure of the black freedom struggle.”

Met with the manifesto’s demands, “the Covenant found it more palatable to shift the conversation to marginalization in general,” Rev. Gilliard wrote in the May/August edition of its Covenant Quarterly, which focused on the 50th anniversary of the manifesto. “This response has strong parallels to proclamations that ‘All Lives Matter’ in response to the declaration ‘Black Lives Matter.’ ”

There has been a shift in recent years, however, which Rev. Gilliard has helped encourage. The ECC Resolution on Racism, passed in June, insists that “the time is right for white clergy to attend to the sins of our own community and make a public commitment to prioritize antiracism work within our ministerium.”

Nell Braxton Gibson, a member and former chair of the Episcopal Diocese of New York’s Reparations Committee, recalled that in the wake of Mr. Forman’s declaration — which resulted in the Episcopal Church’s $200,000 donation to the National Committee of Black Churchmen — members of her Manhattan church created a Black and Brown Caucus. After receiving the $30,000 they demanded from their St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, they developed a free breakfast program for children, a summer “liberation school” that taught minority children their ancestors’ history and a prison law library.

Fifty years on, reparations often are framed as spiritual tests as much as financial ones. The year 2019 was designated the “Year of Apology” by the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and each Sunday Ms. Gibson’s congregation has said a prayer that includes this sentence: “For the many ways — social, economic and political — that white supremacy has accrued benefits to some of us at the expense of others, we repent.”

Soon, the diocesan reparations committee will consider a number of possible next steps, such as a truth and reconciliation commission or education and health care initiatives.

Likewise, Bishop Sutton said the Episcopal diocese in Maryland is moving methodically after years of conversation about reparations to figure out how that will be lived out financially and otherwise.

“We don’t have all the solutions. We don’t know everything that’s going to fix the problem and so we’re going to be humble in even what we think we can accomplish,” he said. “But, by God, we’re going to do something.”