Attention to National Issues

Though our focus was on work with local community groups, the content of the work was often dictated by large, national issues. Events made that clear. A national call for reparations for blacks, led us to some strong statewide actions.

James Forman had interrupted a worship service at Riverside Church, NYC, reading the Black Manifesto, adopted by the National Black Economic Development Conference, in Detroit, April, 1969. The Manifesto was directed “To the White Christian Churches and the Jewish Synagogues in the United States of America and all other Racist Institutions”. The demand was for $500,000,000, with specific ways in which the reparations were to be used.

The Black Manifesto got the attention of people in churches and synagogues. Most white folk found ways to dismiss it, but some knew there had to be a response. In Massachusetts it was the beginning of a consciousness which led finally to the support of a recently created Black Ecumenical Commission. CCI was involved in providing organizing, consultant assistance to two conferences on racism. From one of these came the idea that the Mass. Conference of the United Church of Christ, should give one million dollars to support the Black Ecumenical Commission. That was one-fourth of the invested funds of the Conference, and the proposal created strong opposition and dissension in churches across the state.

With a goal to discuss the Manifesto, and the possible grant to the Black Ecumenical Commission, Community Change conducted a three-month program which involved teams of people from several churches (Andover, Great Barrington, Wellesley, Brockton, and Walpole, West Springfield, maybe others ?) in six evening sessions and two week-ends. Each of these churches joined with other churches in an Annual meeting of the Conference, at which there was a vote making the grant to the BEC.

The struggle over the gift to the BEC was a divisive and sometimes bitter one; dividing churches, families and friends across the state. The context of the Black Manifesto provided an “urgent and present” background for confronting the still “new” ideas about institutional racism which we were introducing to many for the first time.
The success of the program in these churches, gained both support and defiant opposition for our fledgling organization.

Another national opportunity came with a phone call came from Valerie Russell, working then on the staff of the National YWCA. The women of the National YW were gathering in Houston, in convention. As a prelude to the large convention, members of the College Division of the YW were in confrontation over a focus on “white liberation”. Under an urgent call from Valerie, we gathered a team of six people, scurried off to Houston, where we worked with the College Division over an intense two days. Some of the intensity arose when the women had decided to divide into two groups, one “white”, one “black”. Of course the few Asian American women were left without a choice; the discussions to resolve that issue were strong, but constructive. For me, that was the first time I was faced with the practical difficulty presented by a “bi-furcated” only black/white view of the issue. A new consciousness dawned, demanding a wider, more inclusive view of the oppressed.

The College division of women joined the other sectors of the YWCA, in its national Convention. That 1970 Convention brought forth the National YWCA “One Imperative”, which called for women to “thrust their collective power towards the elimination of racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary”. In the summer, Community Change sent a team to New York for one week to work with the National Staff on the implementation of the Imperative, and another full week with the National Board of the YWCA. In addition to being with friend Valerie, it became the opportunity to work under the leadership of Dorothy Height, and other national YW leaders, including Edith Lerigo, and Elizabeth Jackson.

One of my fondest memories from that work was listening to the strong words of Edith Lerigo, then staff executive of the YWCA. In introducing the “One Imperative”, Edith made clear the distinction between the “imperative” and a priority. “Priorities come and go” she, said. “priorities change from year to year” … not so with “One Imperative”. Here, she said, was an “imperative”, a “demand” which cut through and superseded all priorities. The action of that National Board, adopting the “One Imperative”, stands still for me as a prime example of what it means for an institution to publicly witness against racism. Work with the YWCA nationally, led to other opportuni-
ties to assist in implementing the “One Imperative” with other state and local YW’s.

Over the succeeding years, we continued our work with the National YWCA,
particularly with its College Division, and then more locally with the Boston and
Cambridge Y’s. In the experience with the YWCA over the years there has been a rebirth of the hope generated by the “One Imperative”, but also an illustration of the need for constant, sustained, deliberate, institutionally supported efforts to implement good intent. Too often that sustained effort failed to fulfill the stated goals.

Reading some of the old records of the organization reminds me of the hope which came as we found white people in communities, in religious groups, in social service agencies, in informal groups of concerned citizens, who sustained our beginning hope. In countless conversations we struggled to articulate, “growing-edge” convictions about racism, and how to “combat” it.

Organizing among whites was a central focus, because that is where the “problem” originated and was sustained. When it came to identifying the “problem” it was of central urgency to learn to listen to people of color. We were learning to ask questions like, “Where does it hurt most?” “Where must energy be focused to bring change?” We were learning to seek and accept leadership from people of color.

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