Two days before President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy retired as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Washington D.C., and in a strange way those two seemingly unrelated events may serve to chronicle a momentous shift that has taken place in black American politics.
Black Democrats—the majority of black voters—have moved almost entirely away from the long tradition of pulpit politics, the energetic confluence of religion and political activism embodied in the careers of the Revs. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and a long list of others before and after them. With the rise of Obama, the new generation of black politicians is now firmly rooted in traditional Democratic politics with only a marginal influence by pastors, and while this may have been an inevitable development, it does have some costs. The politics of the black church assumed the moral high ground and had clear, discernable goals—justice, equality, fairness. It was always about more than the politics of personal ambition or personal talents. The best practitioners were more than just politicians.
I am not advocating that we go back to a time when ministers were our most prominent leaders, but I am shocked that as we enter this new era, the new guard of black political leaders has not seen fit to honor the pastors who paved the way for their success. Not one black elected D.C. politician showed up at Fauntroy’s retirement. Not Mayor Adrian Fenty, or former Mayor Marion Barry or any of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus which Fauntroy helped found in 1971. Sure it was inauguration weekend and there was a lot going on, but a 10-minute congratulations and thank-you speech isn’t too much to ask for one of the people who worked long and hard to make such a weekend possible.
This may be an inevitable evolution, but we must be careful not to forget the importance of this religious-political history. Fauntroy was the embodiment of the tradition. As a pastor of New Bethel for almost 50 years, he was deeply involved in the civil rights movement and became Washington’s first representative in Congress in 1971.
Among the first black members of Congress in the House of Representatives was the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church who represented Harlem from 1945 to 1971. Among those who followed Fauntroy were the Revs. William Gray, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia and the first black House majority whip; Floyd Flake, pastor of Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral who represented Queens, N.Y. and was the last black minister to serve in Congress. And although they have never been congregational ministers both Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson Sr. mounted relatively organized bids for president. Almost a quarter century before Obama, Jackson was the first African American to win a statewide presidential nominating contest.
But there is little question that the torch is passed: “I will be touring the nation with many other pioneers of the civil rights movement at historically black colleges and universities holding ‘pass the torch’ ceremonies and symposiums,” Fauntroy told me at his retirement ceremony. Those in attendance at his final sermon included Jesse Jackson Sr. and the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, former executive director of the NAACP. The current NAACP president, Ben Jealous, and the two men who preceded him, Kweisi Mfume, a professional politician, and Bruce Gordon, a corporate executive, are not ministers.