By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
It’s no secret that the church was instrumental to the fight for voting rights, but why? Of course great leaders in the fight for justice were also ordained ministers such as the Reverends Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., C.T. Vivian and Ralph Abernathy. Further the church is a great place to rally and often a central location in towns. However it was not simply the location, or the ministers who were civil rights leaders themselves, that made the church the center of the fight for voting rights. For generations of African Americans, the church offered a beacon of hope, a safe place, lessons of freedom with God’s help, and a place that offers a call to action and promotes change.
“The first thing to note is that the Black Church was fundamental to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights campaigns. This reflects the historical legacy of the Black church. As an institution it has, when at its best, been the center for the Black struggle for freedom—key to its faith has been the belief in a God who is a liberator from oppression—so that to fight for freedom in the Black church was what, indeed, their very faith required,” the Very Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas told the AFRO.
The Very Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas, PhD, dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, shared the importance of the Black Church in reference to the Black Vote and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Courtesy Photo)
Douglas said that historically slaves looked at the biblical story of the Exodus, “where God liberated the Israelites from Egyptian bondage,” as the fundamental basis of their own desire for freedom with God’s help. “Evidence for this can be seen throughout the spirituals as they witness to this Exodus tradition repeatedly. In this regard, to engage in the Black struggle for freedom was not an ‘add on’ to Black faith it was central to it.”
Faith in God was the glue that held the freedom fight together through the 1950s and 1960s, however the church as a building and institution was also key.
“The Black church has traditionally been the only independent institution in the Black community—Black run, Black owned. Hence, it did not/does not have to answer or be accountable to local White power structures etc. It therefore has had the independence to respond to the needs of the Black community that a racist society ignored,” Douglas said. “It is no accident that some of the first black schools, publishing companies, came out of Black churches.” Thus, the voting rights fight spawned from Black churches as well.
The Black Church was integral to the Black Vote and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Courtesy Photo)
In an era of legal segregation, extreme police brutality and lynchings (although it sounds like 2020), the Black church and its leaders provided a semblance of familiarity, safety and power.
“The Black church has always been the gathering spot for the Black community—a safe sanctuary, if you will, where Black people can come together not only for worship but for community information political and otherwise. The Black preacher always wore multiple hats—hence it was also not unusual for the preacher to be engaged in politics and social activism. This, of course, also goes back to slavery,” Douglas explained. “I might also add, that the Black church was also the trusted institution in the Black community. Black people relied on it for their spiritual, physical, social and political well-being.”
It was that power in the church that also made it come under attack. “It is no accident that when White supremacists have wanted to send a message to the heart of the Black community, they have attacked Black churches throughout history,” Douglas told the AFRO.
However attacking the church only propelled the movement, such as in September 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four little girls. The bombing and its victims drew international attention and coverage and caused public outrage. King spoke at the public funeral for three of the four girls, which was attended by more than 8,000 people and garnered the attention of many who were ready to join the fight for civil and voting rights. Two years later, the Voting Rights Act was passed and signed into law.
Part of the church’s mass appeal during the voting rights fight then and now, is its ability to swing the narrative from a political conversation to that of values and principles.
“It shifts the focus from political to moral—from being about partisan divides to justice. This becomes most important given the insidious realities of voter suppression that have emerged since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. By basically gutting Section 2 , Section 5 became obsolete—the point being that states are able to make changes regarding voting and access to voting without getting pre-clearance. Hence, we have seen closing of polling places, voter id laws, reduction if not elimination of early voting, purging of names from the roles, re-institution of Jim Crow laws that withhold the vote from felons etc. –all of which serve to disenfranchise people of color especially Black people.”
Voter suppression was evident in states such as Georgia during the 2018-midterm election, when Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp were running for state Governor. Kemp, who ultimately won governor, but at the time of the midterm served as secretary of state, was said to have purged more than 1.4 million voters from 2010 to 2018 due to small changes and caveats in the law- such as cancelling voters’ registration if they didn’t vote in the previous election or the exact match rule that showed registrations had to be identical to personal documents, which disproportionately affected Black voters.
Douglas encourages faith leaders to be outspoken in the continued fight for justice and voting rights.
“It is incumbent upon faith leaders to educate themselves regarding the new tactics of voter suppression, the new realities of poll taxes etc. and to raise their voices so to make clear that this is about more than the political—it is about the moral and ethical. And in this regard this is about White supremacy’s last stand and battleground—the vote.”