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The Black Manifesto

On May 4, 1969, The Riverside Church itself became the location of a civil rights protest when James Forman interrupted Sunday morning services to present a document titled “Black Manifesto,” enumerating a series of demands for the white Christian and Jewish communities. A prominent former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer, Forman crafted the Black Manifesto in Detroit at the National Black Economic Development Conference (NBEDC), held in late April 1969 by the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization. NBEDC’s more radicalized call for racial and economic justice arose in the context of the publication of the Kerner Commission report on urban civil unrest and just after the turbulent election year of 1968. By the end of the 1960s, many Black civil rights leaders and organizations had decisively turned towards antipoverty work, Black Power, and a broadened national conversation on reparations and persistent structural racism.64

Forman had brought the Black Manifesto to the attention of the Episcopal bishops of New York on May 1, 1969, and the National Council of Churches on May 2. Forman then met Riverside’s Rev. Ernest Campbell on the evening of Saturday, May 3, with a copy of the Black Manifesto and asked if he could read it to the congregation the next day. Campbell agreed that it could be distributed outside to those arriving to church, but asked that the service itself not be disrupted. The next morning, disregarding Campbell’s request, Forman and a group of supporters halted Dr. Campbell’s entrance to the Riverside chancel – during the live broadcast of morning services – and began reading aloud their document, which named among its concrete demands $500 million in reparations from white churches to atone for racial injustice. Forman called out John D. Rockefeller’s money that had established The Riverside Church as “money stolen from the poor to build this great cathedral … whose money is still exploiting people of color all around the world.”65

In the ensuing disruption, Campbell halted the service and dismissed the congregation, leaving Forman and his group inside the church with those who remained in their seats, about five hundred people. WRVR aired a special report later that evening with a recording of the events. Campbell returned to the pulpit to acknowledge the “ferment” of the interruption and said, “I’d like to believe … that in a way this could be one of Riverside’s greatest mornings … [in which] the hearts of many of us were revealed.” Campbell said he agreed with much of the substance of the Manifesto and wanted it heard and shared with the community in a spirit of open-mindedness and dialogue, though he disagreed with Forman’s tactic that morning. Campbell spoke of white complicity and the need for penitence, saying, “Payday has come. What the price should be, and how and to whom it should be paid, are questions properly before the house.”

On May 9, on the steps of the chancery of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Forman was served with a court order obtained by Riverside barring him from further church disruptions, which he burned.66 On May 10, Dr. Campbell responded to the Black Manifesto in a statement read on WRVR, saying, “While we have no intention of allowing him to exact extortion from the church and find his demands upon The Riverside Church absurd and fanciful, we will not make him a villain and thus artfully dodge the truth that underlies his cause.”67 Plainclothes policemen were in attendance at Riverside Sunday services which Forman peacefully attended the next Sunday, May 11. Campbell preached a sermon urging the congregants to listen to God’s voice found in the “turbulence of our time.”

After the May 11 service, Forman and Campbell spoke – and sparred – at a joint news conference in Riverside’s Assembly Hall, the same day as the start of a student occupation of nearby Union Theological Seminary over these issues, which was rebroadcast as that week’s WRVR Urban Affairs Report hosted by Harry Joseph. Both Forman and Campbell conceded the failure of white-dominated churches to recognize their role in racism and injustice, and called for reparations as a step towards racial reconciliation, though they differed in how to reach those goals.

Campbell developed these ideas further in a sermon on July 13, 1969, titled “The Case for Reparations,” and later in a book, The Christian Manifesto.68

As part of Riverside’s response, Black congregants and lay leaders formed a Black Christian Caucus, and the Church established a Fund for Social Justice.69 Even as he continued to confront and meet with leadership of the major American Christian denominations over the next few weeks and months, James Forman’s initial reading of the Black Manifesto at Riverside has been described as a “moment of ritual revelation”70 and the symbolic equivalent of nailing a list of demands to all majority-white church and synagogue doors. (In fact, he actually did attach it to the door of the Lutheran Church of America’s headquarters.)71 The Manifesto represents a key moment in the ongoing social justice movement for Black equality, and through WRVR’s coverage of the event, The Riverside Church represented both a symbol of the white establishment and a site for constructive struggle and dialogue over these important issues in the late 1960s and beyond.

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