The full text of The Manifesto of the Black National Economic Conference has not until now appeared in any national publication. It deserves to be printed not for the chance that it will alter our present history but with the hope that it can illuminate it. We speak of it generally as James Forman’s demand for $500 million from the churches as reparations for the black community, and pretty fairly so as such summaries go: Forman created the Black Manifesto and is the coup de théâtre’s almost single instrument of its propagation among the communions of the National Council of Churches.
The Black Manifesto had its genesis at the April conference of the Interreligious Foundation of Community Organizations, Inc., “a unique coalition of Roman Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Black and Methodist organizations” formed, in the words of Dr. J. Edward Carothers of the Board of Missions of the Methodist Church, “by religious bodies to help disadvantaged people to help themselves.”
IFCO seems to have been blessed by the pieties and burdened with the penuries of the churches since its formation in September of 1967. “All the denominations are lagging,” complains the Rev. Mr. Lucius Walker, IFCO’s executive director. “We requested $300,000 from the Episcopalians and the Episcopal Executive Committee voted $120,000.” The Presbyterians promised $70,000 and gave only $20,000.
“I’m not going to be a house nigger,” Mr. Walker says. “Churches have gotten a hell of a lot of mileage out of IFCO, pretending they are doing something. A $1.5 million response to the urban crisis is like a drop in the bucket.”
We may not unkindly assume that, from this sense of being neglected, IFCO called its Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit last April because it had nothing much else to do, and that James Forman was drawn there for very much the same reason. Forman has been much criticized for the vagaries of his life since the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee lost its faith in us. The existence of the black revolutionary, of course, is only too often the business of making do between the time he is noticed and the time he is shot. Forman’s arena, then, is those forums which have agendas and no purpose; his function is kicking down doors to empty rooms.
The mechanics of his capture of the National Black Economic Conference are obscure; the most plausible inference seems to be that it was an open city; by its second day, he held its platform and could present the Black Manifesto he had brought with him. The Manifesto itself was preceded by an introduction which said, in part:
…We shall liberate all the people in the United States…. It follows from the laws of revolution that the most oppressed will make the revolution, but we are not talking just about making the revolution. All the parties on the left who consider themselves revolutionary will say that blacks are the Vanguard, but we are saying that not only are we the Vanguard, but we must assume leadership, total control, and we must exercise the humanity which is inherent in us.
…We talk of revolution which will be an armed confrontation and long years of sustained guerilla warfare inside this country…let us deal with the arguments that we should share power with whites. We say that there must be a revolutionary black Vanguard and that white people in this country must be willing to accept black leadership.
Racism in the United States is so pervasive in the mentality of whites that only armed, well-disciplined, black-controlled government can insure the stamping out of racism in this country. And that is why we plead with black people not to be talking about a few crumbs, a few thousand dollars for this cooperative, for a thousand dollars which splits black people into fighting over the dollar. That is the intention of the government. We say think in terms of total control of the US….
This is not language which lends itself to acceptance or rejection by ordinary rules of discussion, being not so much argument as incantation, and thus in a special sense language not of this world. How is one to deal, for example, with some of these sentences? “We have always resisted attempts to make us slaves and now we must resist the attempts to make us capitalists. It is in the financial interest of the US to make us capitalists….” “We work the chief industries in the country and we could cripple the economy while the brothers fought guerilla warfare in the street.”
Certainly we cannot think of them as descriptions of the real world. They seem in fact almost deliberately the opposite of description: the Negro, whose recent history is condemnation to the margins of the economy, is portrayed as so central as to be able to cripple it; a country which has not yet allowed the Negro full freedom to work is accused of now threatening to make him a capitalist. The indictment is not of a genuine deprivation but of a totally fancied reward: what is rejected is not a real poverty but an imaginary affluence, not the nation which breaks its promises but a non-existent nation which might keep them.
The Black Manifesto is most sweeping, most presumptuous, if you will, not for its claim to exclusive control by Negroes of the overthrow of America—a property right seldom valuable enough in this country to excite litigants—but rather for its assertion of a unique power in Negroes to redeem America. “We are the most humane people within the United States.” It is the redemptive, the “soul,” not the revolutionary claim which is especially not-of-this-world.
What ought finally to interest us in this language is not so much that James Forman could conceive it as that 600 Negroes could hear it out and that 90 percent of them could accept it, mostly in silence to be sure, as somehow descriptive of their prior experience and their future purpose.
Most of these delegates work in the real world, being church and community “leaders,” which, since they are Negroes, means that most of them are employees of white boards. They work among a poor who do not even have a property right in their own poverty, but have to watch even that appropriated as an economic use object by sociologists, politicians, and advertising agencies. They have learned, living with these pieties and neglects, that nothing is noticed unless it is outrageous. But it is much too little to say that their response to Forman came only from that learned lesson in tactics. What has been outraged in them is, least importantly, their vanity, and, most importantly, their sense of purpose.
The Black Economic Development Conference accepted the Black Manifesto by a vote of 187 to 63. The rest of the 600-odd delegates seem to have constituted themselves a church of silence. It is unlikely that much more would have been heard of BEDC’s commitment if Forman, armed with this mandate, had not acted almost alone to implement Demand 6 of the Manifesto: “On May 4, 1969, we call upon black people to commence the disruption of the racist churches and synagogues throughout the United States.”
His descent upon the Riverside Church to halt its communion for delivery of BEDC’s demands was clamorously reported; and ever since the denominations have been responding with a tone that has increasingly settled into one of satisfaction with the whole affair: it is strenuous, of course, to wriggle through the postures of self-examination, but it is gratifying also to be noticed after so long.
The Southern Presbyterians invited Forman to address their General Assembly, and afterwards adopted a resolution, deeming it “appropriate to have invited to our Assembly spokesmen from the brown and black minorities, that through voices such as theirs, however angry the tone, we might better appreciate the depth of their plight…and hear through their pleas the call of Christ.”
“As in Biblical times, God spoke to his people through strange prophets,” the Assembly decided, adding that it did not “agree with all their methods, ideas and programs.” This interest among the owners of the John Foster Dulles Memorial Library in a program which demands $300 million to train the young violently to over-throw the state would have seemed curious if the general tone did not otherwise convey the conviction that the Assembly intends to do nothing about it.
Dr. George Sweezy, Moderator of the United Presbyterian Assembly, explained that to invite Forman “doesn’t mean recognition of the reasonableness of his demands. It does mean that he is one of the most talked-of figures on the religious scene today.” Forman indeed was proving to be as unexpectedly agreeable in his occupation of the empty room as he had been noisy in his intrusion upon it. The Rev. Dr. Ernest T. Campbell, rector of Riverside Church, and Forman’s first victim, took the ordinary business precaution of getting an injunction, placing under contempt of court any member of the congregation “who would rise to speak without prior arrangement,” and thereafter felt safe in saying that Forman had done Riverside more good than harm. It was noticed that Riverside, in response to revolutionary pressures, had added to its annual Strawberry Festival a panel on “The Meaning of Confrontation.”
Forman was last seen at St. George’s Church, where he was invited to preach on Sunday, June 8, brought down the aisle by St. George’s splendid choir, the kente he had worn at Riverside now put away for cloth that could have been worn by an usher, still carrying his cane but otherwise absorbed as one interesting variety of the national religious experience.
Still there is one sign that the Manifesto is important for something more than its place in the history of publicity: the manifestations of an enduring anger among the Negro clergymen in the integrated denominations, which are as clear as the enduring indifference of so many of their white colleagues. So along with the Black Manifesto, the comments of the Reverend Mr. Robert C. Chapman, director for Racial Justice of the National Council of Churches, are printed here, because these seem to us an important indication of the sympathy which Forman’s demands evoke even among Negro churchmen who have made their way in the structure and of the anger which separates them from their “white brethren.”
July 10, 1969