In 1969, civil-rights leader James Forman presented The Black Manifesto to American churches and synagogues, demanding that they take the lead in paying blacks $500 million dollars to answer for slavery and racism. The Manifesto argued that whites had "exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed and persecuted" blacks, first through slavery and later through Jim Crow laws and other legal and social practices. This subjugation benefited whites enormously economically, while blacks got little from their labor. Churches were only Forman's first targets. He planned to move on quickly to other institutions to contribute to pay the debt.

Forman collected little money, but he did ignite discussion in universities, newspapers and, of course, pulpits. This response, by Gayraud S. Wimore Jr., then executive director executive director of the Council on Church and Race of The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., first appeared in the journal Theology Today.

Note: the following contains frank language some may find objectionable.

Reparations, Zeparations! Clergymen have customarily been afflicted with an almost sexual fixation upon words. We have symptoms of verbal voyeurism, roving eye-balls, and attuned ear drums for words--words for the morning, words for the evening, words to conjure with, words to analyze other words.

Ministers, and especially theologians, hustle words, seduce and are seduced by them. We manipulate and fondle them promiscuously, in public and in private. We bring them home to live with us, shacked up in rhetorical harems suited for our multifarious services, moods, and appetites. It is, perhaps, not for nothing that we call ourselves "ministers of the Word" and that the Bible, theology, poetry, and the latest phrases and quotations become our special procurers-working overtime on Sundays and holidays.

The effect of all this is that we are having a veritable orgy these days with the word reparations, while the Black Economic Development Conference has received about $20,000 of its $3 billion revised demands and practically all of that from the collection plate rather than the clergy-dominated bureaucracies. We are plainly more interested in talking, writing, theologizing about reparations than in making money and power available to implement the programs of "The Black Manifesto."

[New York newspaper columnist] Murray Kempton's appraisal of James Forman's controversial document was almost accurate when he wrote: "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."

"We are demanding $500,000,000 from the Christian white churches and the Jewish synagogues. This total comes to $15 per nigger.

This is a low estimate for we maintain there are probably 30,000,000 black people in this country. $15 a nigger is not a large sum of money and we know that the churches and synagogues have a tremendous wealth and their membership, white America, has profited and still exploits black people" (Black Manifesto, p. 7).

These words are not so much to be spoken as chanted or sung. A recitative in Southern blues meter. The kind of thing James Brown or Aretha would do at shrill pitch in a jumping Baptist church. The vibrations coming through from this kind of address do not intend to convey mainly cognitive information. A message is there, but it is not inherent in the words but in the spirit, in the style of music-in the pitch and timbre of the harsh, sad, rhapsodic music of extreme alienation. "This total comes to $15 per nigger."

There is, indeed, something to be taken seriously here, if with a smile, but one misses the point if he reads the reparations passages as a legal brief or a pronunciamento. What communicates meaningfully and by intent is a sullen irony, a bitter adumbration of the black condition, an uncompromised and unequivocal anger that curiously is laced (though imperceptibly to the untutored ear) with the cryptic black humor of the black community.

Kempton is both right and wrong. Incantation it may be and certainly not subject to the ordinary rules of discussion, as white people discuss other people's problems. The language, however, intends to transmit something more than a verbal abracadabra. It has the spirit of a certain grim, no-nonsense aspect of the ghetto, and it points to realities (real needs and demands) which black people experience daily in their world. If most white Americans do not live in the same world as blacks, that is all the more reason to force them-by disruption if not by something more persuasive-to pay attention to the fact that they and not the blacks evoked the Two Americas, one slave and one free, and that the overdue bill for that evocation must now be paid in full. The real issue is not the validity or invalidity of reparations, but the fact of black alienation and what white Christians are going to do about it.