Some Black Ministers Urge Parishioners Not to Vote

by Harrison Chastang on September 19, 2012

This past Saturday September 15th was the 49th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama that took the lives of four little Black girls; Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair,and Cynthia Wesley. The anniversary of this Ku Klux Klan bombing will likey receive more attention next year on its 50th anniversary, but sadly, many in the African American community who are urging African Americans to stay home on election day, particularly Black ministers have either forgotten, or chosen to ignore the sacrifices of the four little girls in Birmingham nearly 50 years ago this week. They have also forgotten or ignored many others killed during the Civil Rights struggle to end legal discrimination in America and win voting rights for African Americans.

An Associated Press article out last week says a Baltimore minister believes that President Barack Obama’s endorsement of same sex marriage has inspired a group of Black ministers to urge that their congregations, and African Americans in general not vote for President Obama, or not vote at all in November. The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant is quoted in the article as saying that “this is the first time in Black church history that I’m aware of that Black pastors have encouraged their parishioners not to vote.”

The Rev. Willliam Owens of Coalition of African American Pastors, a group financed by conservative Republicans, has asked Black pastors and Black Christians to withhold support from President Obama until the President reverses his position on Same Sex Marriage. He has also urged African Americans to stay home rather than re-elect Obama.

The 1962 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was an effort by the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate and derail civil rights laws that included repeal of various laws that made it all but impossible for African Americans to vote in many parts of the country. Black churches, and Black ministers like Dr. Martin Luther King were instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

The 16th Street Church bombing was a direct response to efforts by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) to register African Americans to vote in Birmingham, among them the parents of Condoleezza Rice and Angela Davis, who both knew Collins, Robertson, McNair and Wesley. Davis might have been at the 16th Baptist Church herself that fateful day if she had not been studying in Europe. Rice’s father was a minister at a church just a few blocks away and Rice recounts the fear she felt that day not only from the sounds of the blasts, but also thinking that it could have been her father’s church that could have been bombed.

Fifty years later the notion of Black ministers actively calling for Blacks to stay home on election day is just as irresponsible as Black ministers telling their congregations that their kids should drop out of school. Or encouraging unprotected teen sex, the use and sale of drugs, or to embrace the Exdous 21:24 bible verse of “eye for an eye” in dealing with the problem of crime and murder in the Black community.

These Black ministers calling for African Americans to stay home on election day justify their actions by saying that the only way to express their frustration about the President’s position on same sex marriage is to stay home on election day. These ministers also believe that the President’s attention toward Gay issues like same sex marriage as well as repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has come at the expense of issues important to African Americans.

Many of these ministers contend that staying home in November is the only way to send a message to Democrats since these Black pastors have little hope of persuading African Americans to support Republican candidates, given recent polls showing that GOP nominee Mitt Romney has support from zero percent of African American voters. African American ministers upset with Obama say that endorsing Romney is not an option because of the Mormon Church’s history of banning Blacks from holding any meaningful position in the Mormon Church.

Romney was a Mormon Church leader when the Mormon’s racist policies were in place but Romney never publicly criticized or challenged top Mormon church leaders on the policy. It was repealed after President Jimmy Carter threatened to revoke the Mormon Church’s tax exempt status.

It’s ironic that these Black ministers are calling for Blacks not to vote at a time when there’s a concerted effort by Republicans to prevent African Americans from becoming registered and voting in November. Many of these laws were passed by Republican legislatures, and signed by GOP governors in battleground states with the intent to prevent or discourage African Americans from voting for President Obama and Democratic Governors, Congressmembers and state legislators.

Some of these laws, such as a ban on early voting, prohibiting voter registration by non-profit groups like Black Churches and the League of Women Voters, and Voter ID laws have been overturned in the courts, and similar laws in other states are currently being challenged in the courts by lawsuits filed by the NAACP, the Justice Department and a coalition of Black ministers. Owens’ group and other Black religious organizations opposed to President Obama’s re-election have not been involved with efforts by the NAACP and other organizations to fight voter suppression efforts or to support African American voter education and turnout efforts.

Many Black conservatives like to tell people what they think Dr. King’s positions would be today on issues like on politics (they claim he would have been a Republican) affirmative action (say say he would have opposed it) or Gay Rights (opposed). These views are presumptive and speculative in the very least. One issue where there would be no doubt on where Dr. King would stand today is on the issue of voting. Dr. King would denounce, in the strongest terms, any talk about African Americans not voting on election day.

If Dr. King were around today, he would likely say that there are too many important issues on ballots across the country that will have a critical impact on African Americans for Black voters to say home. Just here in California, millions of African Americans, from state employees, to college students to low income families will be adversely impacted by drastic budget cuts promised by Governor Jerry Brown if his tax increase measures are not passed. California voters are being asked to determine the future of a death penalty law that has never been popular with African Americans.

National programs and services important to African Americans will be impacted by whether Democrats can keep control of the Senate and/or retake the House. In many of these races, a large African American turnout will make the difference between victory or defeat for candidates and ballot measures across the country, particularly where African Americans on the ballot.

Dr. King probably would point to Dr. Condoleezza Rice and Dr. Angela Davis, two Black women from Birmingham who because of the right to vote changed the world in very different ways. Dr. King might likely ask people urging African Americans to stay home on election day to think about how Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley might have changed the world if they were not killed on September 16, 1963 by racists who did not want African Americans to vote.

Harrison Chastang is News Director of KPOO FM Radio in San Francisco

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