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How Did Jonathan's Wake Relate to Black Leadershiip



As a part of the effort of Jonathan's Wake to achieve racial justice, we advanced the names of two Black churchmen for the offices of President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches at their Assembly in Detroit in December, 1969. They were Albert Cleage and Leon Watts. I never met Albert Cleage but he was well-known as a minister and author of an argument that Jesus was black. At that time, the white church establishment had little interest in Cleage's argument. Leon was a close friend of my colleague Jim McGraw. I knew him in that context. We did not make these nominations with much hope. We knew there was no chance of a takeover of the NCC. 

Three of the principals in the core of Jonathan's Wake had extensive relationships and credibility with a wide swathe of Black church leaders. Will Campbell was probably the best-connected white churchman in the United States. He was already venerated as one of the prime movers in the effort to right the scales of justice. Will was ever the quiet force within all movements of which he was a part, speaking when asked to and acting as he chose, in ways parabolic and highly effective. Jim McGraw's relationships were extensive, as were mine, to a somewhat lesser extent. Jonathan's Wake, however, was an explicitly white effort in support of a Black initiative. 1969 was not a time when it was possible to be anything other than that. I do not think any of us had any illusions about the Wake either before or after the events in Detroit. It was, from the start to its conclusion, a sign of the gap between the mainline churches and the needs and aspirations of the ghettoized Black community which Jim Foreman and others were seeking to aid.  One has only to reflect on the time between 1969 and now to be aware of how deep the fissure remains and how paltry the commitment of white society is, even with the somewhat-remedial situation created by the emergence of President Obama. The closest anyone got to the problem was the direct action of community organizers. Don Benedict had sought to launch a community organization in the Lawndale area of Chicago's West Side in the mid-1960s. Other church-sponsored efforts followed. But the problem was massive and would increase over time, to the horrendous dirge sounded by the emergence of what is now the most prison-dependent society on the globe. We literally re-instituted Jim Crow under the eye of what was left of liberal mainstream Christianity, with not a peep of protest. Jonathan's Wake is now forgotten and ignored, along with Jim Forman's Black Manifesto. The amnesia is telling, accompanied by a degree of self-justification, pointing to areas of progress and tolerance and inclusion over the last few decades. The fact is that there is complicity all around. When I lived in Boston in the 90s I joined a Black Methodist Church  because its minister Charles Stith said it was time again for Black and white Christians to work together.  But even in this welcoming atmosphere, it was clear that we were miles away from the most searing realities of the poverty that was institutionalized over the decades following the 1960s.  Almost everyone throws up their hands these days.   The Wake did not end in Detroit. The Presbyterians supported me through a year following Detroit when I maintained contact with folk in California and helped launch demonstrations on Wall Street and at the Interchurch Center in New York City. The result was revealing. We got at the resistance even of ostensibly liberal church leaders. But when all was said and done, the era of confrontation was ending. The possibility of action diminished. The last thing I did before folding up that chapter of my life was to help midwife a million dollar transfer to the Black community in Boston. 

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