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  • Writer's pictureDavid Beckmann

The Black Church Builds Electoral Power

African Americans turned out to vote in 2020 and tipped the results of the election in several swing states. They now have influence and commitments in the White House, and issues on the agenda of the Congressional Black Caucus are also high on the agenda of both houses of Congress. There are now 57 African American members of the House, up from two in 1955.

It has been a long climb, and African American churches have been preaching about voting and organizing to get people to the polls every step of the way.

In a webcast released today, Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner and Representative Barbara Lee share African American struggles over the centuries and the contribution of the Black Church throughout this history. The webcast is drawn from their presentation to my class in Berkeley. Dr. Barbara is head of the Skinner Leadership Institute and Co-Convener of the National African American Clergy Network. Rep. Lee is an influential member of the House of Representatives and chair of its foreign affairs appropriations subcommittee.

Dr. Barbara retells the long story of African American struggle as sacred history, with a clear eye to practical lessons for right now. Everyone who listens will be humbled and inspired.

She begins with analysis of the uniquely brutal enslavement of African American people. Many countries have tolerated slavery, but African Americans were systematically stripped of their culture, language, family, and dignity.

Dr. Barbara sees a cycle in African American history - repression, revolt, and advance. Again and again, periods of advance were followed by periods of repression - the violent repression that followed Reconstruction after the Civil War, for example. More recently, President Trump after President Obama.

She reports on the work she helped lead in 2020 to promote voting and counter voter suppression She and her colleagues recruited 600 clergy (mostly African Americans) to serve as chaplains at vulnerable polling stations in 16 states. This clergy presence contributed to an election day that was surprisingly from violence and intimidation.

Dr. Barbara expresses appreciation for White allies, but notes that White allies have repeatedly proved unreliable. Many White supporters of Dr. Martin Luther King pulled away when he focused on economic justice (issues such as wages for sanitation workers). Public support for the Black Lives Matter movement has dropped since last summer.

Rep. Barbara Lee represents Berkeley in Congress, and when she joins the class she is eager to connect with her constituents. I invited some community leaders of Bread for the World to join the call, and she celebrates their important work.

She says that African Americans in Congress are insisting that Biden and the Democrats deliver on their commitments. Rep. Lee is building support for a racial truth-telling commission (modelled after post-apartheid South Africa) and for reparations for African Americans.

As chair of foreign affairs appropriations, she is pushing for a big increase in international development assistance. She argues that we rely too heavily on military spending for our national security.

The congresswoman notes that many Jesus-loving members of Congress repeatedly vote against her people, but recalls that many of the men who managed the slave trade were also devout Christians..

Both of these remarkable leaders speak joyfully about their own experience of church and

God. They both close with exultant, rapid-fire recitations of well-worn words of praise and persistence from their own lifelong experience of the Black Church.

Right now is a time of decision on racial justice issues. There seems to be a good chance that a policing reform bill will become law. Democrats in Congress are also intent on passing voting rights legislation and some version of the President’s Build Back Better legislation (which is also on the Congressional Black Caucus agenda).

Meanwhile, Dr. Barbara and others are gearing up to help churches expand on their election-related work in the run-up to 2022, now including grassroots opposition to the voter suppression legislation that Republicans are pushing in state legislatures across the country. If you want to help, consider a contribution to the Skinner Leadership Institute.


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