An odd couple: Woodstock and Reparations

By Lew Finfer
Special to the Reporter

Last Saturday, as I went into Barnes & Noble at South Shore Plaza to buy a book for my wife as a birthday present, I saw a table full of colorful books and tee shirts commemorating Woodstock. Fifty years ago, I was at the Woodstock Concert - the symbol and myth of 1960’s peace and love culture – with hundreds of thousands of others. Earlier that month, I’d also participated in an event about the Black Manifesto calling for reparations for slavery.  “Woodstock” and “Reparations” are not usually connected, but they were for me in August 1969.

Woodstock was a blast with all those people and music. I heard Richie Havens and Joan Baez and others that first night. I had a crush on her; she sang beautifully and was attractive, so what was there not to like if you were 18 years old?  I went to a stand at the concert and asked for a hamburger and the attendant handed me my hamburger, then said, “Take these, take these” as he shoveled six more at me. I’m sure he was very high on something.  It wasn’t fun when it rained a lot the first night. I’d come with four others I’d worked with that summer crammed into a VW “bug.”  But several of those I came with got sick and wanted to leave, so we left the next day and missed a lot of famous acts……Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, the Grateful Dead, et al.  But I was there and saw it all for a time.

That summer I worked on a project sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-founded social justice group, and somehow we got connected to a new campaign called the Black Manifesto that had been initiated by civil rights activist Jim Forman in May 1969 asking churches and synagogues to pay $500 million into a fund for reparations for the oppressions of slavery.  I remember some of us accompanied an African-American leader of this effort named Muhammed Kenyatta (some militant civil rights adviocates in that era took new African names) to a church where a leader of the national Presbyterian service worshipped.  We stood up in the aisle in support when Kenyatta interrupted the service and made a speech.  Although the Reparations campaign did not get commitments, this campaign did influence Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church to start national programs seeking grants for community groups working on social justice issues. 

There’s a strong case for reparations given what slavery inflicted on African Americans from 1619-1865, followed by another 100 years of oppression with Jim Crow laws and the terror of lynching in the South. Six million African Americans fled the South for the North and West between 1918 and 1960. But there was much discrimination in the North, too. And today there are severe gaps by race in educational achievement, in net family economic worth, and in who goes to prison. Opportunity is still not equally available to all.

And many whites recoil from reparations and recount how their ancestors were not here when we had slavery and everyone has opportunity today.  It’s a fraught political issue because only 26 percent of Americans support Reparations.  But if it’s framed in the same vein as needing anti-poverty programs to help families and children with education, getting enough food, having affordable housing, making at least $15 an hour in wages, a large majority of Americans support that.

So I can’t say August of 2019 was as eventful so far for me as August of 1969. But with the recent tragedies in El Paso and Dayton and President Trump’s shameful reactions, it has been a hard month for us all.

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident.