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.
Let me make it more clear: For 52 years, there was at least one black minister seated as a representative in Congress and for most of that time a minister was president of the NAACP and SCLC. Those representatives and the civil rights groups worked together to advance civil rights policy in Congress. When the administration of Ronald Reagan determined in 1982 that the Voting Rights Act had run its course just 17 years after it was signed into law, it was Fauntroy, Jackson, Hooks and Joseph Lowery at the SCLC who led the charge to get the act renewed for another 25 years.
It was the same coalition, inside the Congress and out, that worked to get Dr. King's birthday established as a national holiday and forced the Congress and President Reagan to impose economic sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime.
Throughout the history of black people in America—from slavery to the successes of the civil rights movement—ministers have been both the spiritual and political conscience of our communities.
Since the Rev. Absalom Jones was ordained as the first African-American Episcopal priest in 1795 and the Rev. Richard Allen became the first Methodist preacher in 1799, this has been the case. Together they founded the Free African Society, one of the earliest civil rights organizations and possibly the first established by blacks. They are the beginning of a more than 200-year history of ministers leading the way on political and civil rights matters.
Ironically, it is with the Republican Party where we have seen some resurgence of black ministers involved in politics. Fauntroy himself has stood with President Bush on issues of gay marriage and abortion. Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Lanham, Md., a self-described Democrat, has been one of the most vocal black ministers on how Republican values are closer aligned to those of the black church. And the party is currently considering electing a former Catholic seminarian, Michael Steele, as its chairman.
If Steele is elected Republican Party chairman Friday, African Americans will be faced with an interesting dilemma. Maryland’s former lieutenant governor is nobody’s Uncle Tom, and he’s not a token, certainly not if he ends up leading the party. As we move away from ministerial politics, we have to consider what’s next. If President Obama is not the end of African-American political advancement, then we have to consider the options ahead. It may very well be equal distribution of our political power in both parties. Imagine the most powerful Democrat and Republican being black men for the first time in history. Talk about change you can believe in. What have we got to lose?
Brian DeBose has been covering local and national politics in Washington for 12 years and is a frequent radio and television commentator.