Webinar explores The Black Manifesto

Event helps to mark 50th anniversary of the Committee on the Self-Development of People

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

James Forman, author of The Black Manifesto, argued more than 50 years ago that white churches and synagogues should pay $500 million for injustices against black people. (Photo courtesy of Presbyterian Historical Society)

LOUISVILLE — When African American activist James Forman presented The Black Manifesto in 1969, calling for $500 million in reparations for injustices against black people, he made it clear that he thought Christian churches were partly to blame for the oppression of his people.

“We know that the churches and synagogues have a tremendous wealth, and its membership, white America, has profited and still exploits black people,” the Manifesto stated. “We are also not unaware that the exploitation of colored peoples around the world is aided and abetted by the white Christian churches and synagogues.”

The Manifesto, which was the subject of a recent webinar by the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP), demanded $500 million from white churches and synagogues and outlined how the money should be used, from creating a Southern Land Bank and a Black University to establishing a National Black Labor Strike and Defense Fund.

“We call upon all black people throughout the United States to consider themselves as members of the National Black Economic Development Conference and to act in unity to help force the racist white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues to implement these demands,” according to the Manifesto.

The webinar focused on the Manifesto because the document is credited with being a catalyst for the creation of SDOP. The anti-poverty ministry is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year in multiple ways, including hosting the Journey to Justice SDOP 50th Anniversary Webinar Series.

“One of the things we thought would be very important is to talk about the Black Manifesto and talk about it in light of what we’re experiencing today and how the Black Manifesto has been an incredibly formative document for us as Self-Development of People but also for us as Presbyterians,” said the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, SDOP’s coordinator.

The Manifesto also has implications for understanding the impact of slavery and other “cataclysmic” practices, such as land grabbing, Johnson said.

“One of the legacies of the Black Manifesto and the concerns expressed is that there would be an acknowledgement and understanding” of slavery “and what it meant and what it means,” he said.

In May 1969, Forman brashly took over the podium at Riverside Church in New York City to present the Manifesto. He also presented the document at the General Assembly of what was then known as the United Presbyterian Church.

In addition to requesting reparations, Forman’s Manifesto highlighted the interconnectedness of the problems of racism and economic, political and cultural degradation of black people. It also called for the liberation of black people, both in the United States and abroad, and supported using force.

“We live inside the United States, which is the most barbaric country in the world, and we have a chance to help bring this government down,” Forman stated in the Manifesto. “Caution is fine, but no oppressed people ever gained their liberation until they were ready to fight, to use whatever means necessary, including the use of force and power of the gun, to bring down the colonizer.”

From left are James Forman, Gayraud Wilmore and J. Oscar McCloud. (Photo courtesy of The Wilmore and McCloud Collections: Keeping the Common Memory Alive, Presbyterian Historical Society)

The Manifesto was offensive to many white liberals back in 1969, said the Rev. Dr. J. Oscar McCloud, a veteran of the Presbyterian Church (USA) who shared his thoughts during the webinar.

Plus, “they were frightened by the language,” McCloud said. With recent events involving the Black Panthers in Oakland and New York, whites “saw an expression of what they thought the Black Manifesto was calling for.”

Although Forman was largely unsuccessful at securing reparations, the Manifesto sparked substantive discussions about economic equity and its intersections with race and class in the United States, according to webinar materials.

One of the ways the Presbyterian Church responded was by creating SDOP, said McCloud, associate pastor emeritus at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.  The program, which thrives today, issues grants and enters into partnerships with people who want to change their lives and communities.

“The Presbyterian Church, in its own way, was the most responsive of any of the denominations to The Black Manifesto” in that it started programs like SDOP and the Presbyterian Economic Development Corporation (PEDCO), McCloud said.

While SDOP continues to thrive to this day, it has faced some obstacles over the years, a webinar participant noted.

Elona Street-Stewart, the PC(USA)’s first Native American synod executive, said it’s important to remember “how difficult it was for SDOP to continue to survive these 50 years” despite opposition from within the denomination.

There were critics who “didn’t want us messing with poor communities and people who’ve been oppressed and who might actually have strong reactions that we would call violent, even though these people had been oppressed to the point of death and lynching and involuntary relocation and removal,” she said.

SDOP plans to hold a 50th anniversary celebration in Rochester, New York, Sept. 18-19.

Meanwhile, Johnson said some churches are displaying interest in learning about the intricacies of systemic racism by studying books and attending conferences.

Another way to learn is through a resource for Self-Development of People Sunday, which is this weekend. The day is an opportunity for churches (who choose to meet) to give to the One Great Hour of Sharing, pray for the ministry and celebrate SDOP’s work.

“As Self-Development of People prepares to celebrate SDOP Sunday I echo the words of former SDOP National Committee member Sam Appel: ‘The Self-Development Program has made it possible for all Presbyterians to enter into unique partnership with poor, oppressed and disadvantaged people who have organized and have initiated their own projects to change their lives and communities,’” said Margaret Mwale, Associate for Community Development and Constituent Relations for SDOP.

The next webinar in the Journey to Justice series will be 12-2 p.m. May 26. It will be on a different topic. You can register by emailing nina.lewis@pcusa.org.

If interested in attending SDOP’s 50th Anniversary, you can email sdopevents@pcusa.org.

Support Self-Development of People and help transform the lives of people through gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

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