When the National Committee of Black Churchmen (NCBC) looks at the power levels of the National Council of Churches, it sees white. Therefore, by “whatever means necessary,” militant blacks aim to take over general secretary R. H. Edwin Espy’s job and many other top NCC executive posts—now. If they are defeated at the NCC triennium at Detroit this month, they intend to preside at the NCC’s funeral.
That is the gist of an ominous eight-page “message to the churches” issued several weeks ago at Berkeley, California, by the NCBC at its third annual convocation. Of 350 registrants, fewer than fifty remained at the end to vote on the paper. The NCBC is an ecumenical coalition of militant black churchmen, mostly ministers.
Blacks must now “resort to unusual forms of pressure,” the document declared, because “months of fruitless negotiations” have failed to enlist church funding for the Black Economic Development Conference (BEDC).
Most denominations to date have officially shunned the BEDC because too many church members see red at the mention of James Forman’s Black Manifesto, the BEDC’s program guide. It was at Detroit eight months ago that Forman seized control of the first BEDC meeting and read his manifesto, which outlines nine major black programs with a price tag of billions of dollars in demanded “reparations” from white churches.
The NCBC “message” condemned the NCC as “a sorry example of institutionalized white decision-making power.” It continued: “If … racism and white negativism are … so vital a part … of the NCC that it would choose to destroy itself before acceding to these just insistences, then … the NCC is incapable of becoming relevant to blacks, and, being thus irrelevant, would serve a more Christian purpose in its demise than it would in a continuation of its present disguise.”
But, say veteran observers, wholesale capitulation by the NCC to black demands would touch off a great grassroots backlash. Thus either way the NCC is in serious trouble.
Delegate Calvin B. Marshall, BEDC chairman, warned NCC enemies not to take comfort in the NCC’s plight. “We’ve got a lot of churches to spank. We’ll get around to the Southern Baptist Convention and to the Church of God; we’ll get them all.”
Newsmen were barred from most NCBC sessions. Participants described some meetings as factious, marked by loud arguments and parliamentary chaos. A few local ministers complained privately that the NCBC establishment had brought the paper from New York and had undemocratically rammed it through. Not so, said NCBC executive director J. Metz Rollins, Jr., who attributed the statement to “many hands.”
In another NCBC development, Marshall won agreement from the black caucuses of the major denominations to press for more no-strings-attached money and to channel these funds into the NCBC and BEDC. This will doubtless result in fresh strife and defections in churches that have sought to ignore the BEDC by funding their own minority programs. “No longer will we allow whites to separate us,” vowed Marshall.
The black churchmen also laid the groundwork for NCBC hopes to bring together the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), the NCBC, and the BEDC in joint strategy. Much of the membership is already interlocking. The plan calls for a coordinating committee to be chaired by NCC social-justice head Charles S. Spivey, Jr. Roles were assigned: IFCO, funding and training; BEDC, economic programming and implementation of the Black Manifesto; NCBC, mobilizing black churchmen for political pressure.
In a unity move the NCBC and several caucuses voted to join the twenty-three-member IFCO. Each will have voting influence over IFCO policies equivalent to that of every member denomination that shared in IFCO’s creation.
NCBC president H. B. Shaw, bishop of North Carolina African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches, reaffirmed NCBC endorsement of the Black Manifesto. He was joined by Gayraud S. Wilmore, director of the Committee on Church and Race of the United Presbyterian Church, who repudiated “Communist interpretation” of the manifesto by its opponents. Churches must not allow rhetoric to impede direct funding of the manifesto’s programs, he said.
At an afternoon NCBC “information” session in Berkeley, Shaw asked everyone to stand while a young woman sang the Black Panther party national anthem. Panther chief of staff David Hilliard drew enthusiastic applause when he advocated “extermination of all forces of reaction.” But delegates quieted when he warned that many “bootlickin’ black preachers” were high on his elimination list. Even Boston’s firebrand Virgil Wood questioned the sanity of “blacks killing blacks.” Hilliard’s reply: “The most atrocious enemies of black people are black people.”
Asked whether love might be a better way, he responded that the killing of a Panther enemy was an act of love for oppressed people. Three days later he was soundly booed by thousands for virtually the same speech at a Viet Nam Moratorium rally in San Francisco.
Later, Haziah Williams, head of Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union (GTU) urban/black studies department, offered one interpretation of the “whatever means necessary” section of the NCBC “message.” He related how he was named to his GTU post: After almost a day of “unproductive” negotiations last February, he and other clerics, under the influence of alcohol, threatened the GTU administrator with physical violence. He got the job.
Williams and the other NCBC delegates sported over-sized white buttons that probably summarized the mood of the convocation. The picture on the buttons: a large black fist clutching a small white cross.
EDWARD E. PLOWMAN
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