There are historical lessons to be learned about the role of black clergymen in electoral politics as our race transitions from its dependence on the clergy for political guidance.
The latest example of this transition was in last week’s election of a state representative for District 17. In that race, nearly 30 black pastors and clergymen assembled to give their support to one of the candidates.
The merits of their endorsement is not at issue but their failure to deliver on their endorsement publicly revealed a shift in our community’s dependence on the black clergy for political leadership.
When the video of some of Monroe’s most prominent pastors reading their support from a written script was shared by thousands locally, it appeared that the outcome was predictable because any candidate with that much support from the black clergy was assured victory. The image of the invincibility of the black clergy in electoral politics was legendary and meant success or the kiss of death.
The fact that the candidate they supported failed to win a single precinct and only tallied 37 percent of the vote, despite a well-financed and publicized effort, that outspent the other candidate three to one, should raise eyebrows.
In times past, any candidate who received the endorsement of the black clergy was assured that the majority of our people would follow.
The late mayor Bob Powell had such a respect for the black clergy’s influence that nearly every issue championed by the clergy received his support. The same was true of Mayors Pierce, Troy, Howard and Rambin; they respected the clergy as a force, especially if they appeared united.
Whether friend or foe, politicians from Edwin Edwards to John Bel Edwards sought the support of the black clergy because the vote of the black community would surely follow.
Last week’s voting publicly revealed what many have seen privately; that there is a change in the way our community views the clergy’s role in electoral politics. Pastors are no longer the only source of political information and neither are they seen as social warriors who aggressively protest wrongs against our people and champion our causes as did the Biblical prophets of old.
As pastors, they are revered, loved, respected and held in high esteem. However, those who are not on the forefront of our battles are being replaced by social media, live Facebook feeds and a variety of other sources for political information, inspiration and guidance.
In the past, an endorsement from the black clergy meant dozens of church vans would pick up and carry voters to the polls, sermons would be preached promoting a candidate or issue, money would be raised, accepted and distributed for armies of workers that would fan the streets, make phone calls, and turn out the vote. Why? Because clergymen were activists, modern-day prophets, leading our fight and their congregations followed.
In the last 20 years, the political influence of the black clergy locally has been on the decline. Instead of pointing the way, many safely sit on the sidelines and preach against sin while refusing to join the battle against the impacts of sin, especially as it relates to public policy. Instead of identifying the issues, and shaping our direction, which is more difficult and may mean taking unpopular positions, they simply follow at a distance.
As a group, there is no regular discussion of issues that impact our people. There is no prayerful and rigorous debate as to our direction, and no unified response to the issues of the day as it relates to black people. The black clergy does not hold elected officials accountable for their actions and speak truth to power.
Locally, the black clergy as a group does not address public policy or stand before Pharaoh to say, “Let my People Go.”
When our conventions and associations meet there is no statement of our position. They are silent.
There are three Baptist organizations in our city, not to mention COGIC, AME, CMEs and Non-Denominationals, but none of them study local and state issues and provide guidance to our people on a regular basis. As a result, the black clergy, as a group, becomes invisible on matters of public policy, and their endorsements during elections mean nothing.
The greatest local names of the past were warriors until death: P. Rayfield Brown, Elijah Brass, E.J. Jones, Madison James Foster, E.T. Martin, Sherman Davis, Alex Burns and scores of others fought the battles that brought us Head Start, OIC, CAP, Monroe Colored High, crosswalks, paved streets, and better schools.
They spoke against our enemies without and within and stood just as tall in the trenches of our daily fight as they did on Sunday mornings.
Because they were seen as fighting our battles and charting our path, they were our generals, they pointed the way and we followed.
The clergy is transitioning from fighting battles to religious ritual.
They are respected highly among the faithful, but in the world of electoral politics, their endorsement has little influence.
Unfortunately, by publicly putting the reputation of the black clergy on the line last week, their failure to deliver exposed a weakness that would have been best kept a secret.