ATLANTA – Despite the fervent tones and solemn faces of the nation’s highest ranking Black Baptist leaders as they preached the importance of voting on Election Day Nov. 6, the National Baptist Convention USA is being criticized for falling short of presenting a unified action plan by the close of its annual conference last month.
“It’s all rhetoric, it’s all talk,” said the Rev. Dr. Joseph L. Williams, 35, co-pastor of the Atlanta-based Salem Bible Church East and West, with a congregation of approximately 5,000. “If there was some kind of activity going on at this convention where people could learn, where information was shared, and they were able to be truly nonpartisan, I would be the first person to stand up and clap,” he said in an interview. Joseph provided revival preaching services during the NBC.
The NBC leadership initially gave the impression of a collective action plan. That impression was given when the presidents of all five major Black Baptist church organizations appeared on stage together at an opening press conference. The organizations represented were the Lott Cary Foreign Mission Convention, the National Progressive Convention, the National Baptist International Convention of America, the National Missionary Baptist Convention, and the National Primitive Baptist Churches.
The collective organizations, representing at least 12 million parishioners, acknowledged the need for voter turnout in the likelihood of voter suppression and intimidation at the polls. Yet, no specific strategy was announced to battle the voter suppression.
“This is not so much about my leadership, as much as it is about the corporate leadership here in this room that is fully aware of the voter suppression that is taking place in the United States,” said the Rev. Julius Scruggs, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA. Scruggs was responding to media commendations for his role in corralling all of the national Black Baptist leaders.
When pressed by the media about what specific actions Black faith leaders were taking – singularly or collectively – the answers were vague and vacuous. “I ride a motorcycle and lead a caravan of people to the polls,” said Rev. Gregory Moss, president of the Lott Cary Foreign Mission Convention and a Charlotte, N.C., pastor. NBC President Scruggs made only passing mention of a potential collective gathering to discuss further action plans amongst the presidents. But he provided no details, only indicating that the NBC would partner with the NAACP’s voter mobilization efforts.
There were no visible listings of additional voter education/registration activities having taken place at the NBC, not on the online convention schedule at the NBC website, nor on the convention events schedule posted onsite at the Georgia World Congress Center.
Meanwhile, mounting voter suppression evidence has surfaced across the nation. Other leading Black organizations such as the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference focused strongly on voter registration and get out to vote strategies during their annual meetings this summer.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, more than two dozen new voter laws have passed in 19 states since 2011. Though some of the controversial Voter ID laws have been overruled in court challenges, many remain on the books as civil rights leaders and voting activists have sought to educate the electorate, and set up voter protection plans.
Joseph was not alone in his observation that there appeared to be no aggressive strategy articulated during the Baptist’s convention.
The Rev. Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, the AME pastor of Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple, who is traveling the country registering voters in his “Empowerment Movement”, said he attended the Baptists’ press conference to support.
“I was there at the press conference with all five of the Baptist leaders. Now, what they have done after that, I have no clue. I don’t know what they have distributed out to their local body, but I was there at the press conference and I think that they’re in line to push the vote out in November. But I don’t know what their strategy is,” Bryant said in an interview this week.
Following the mid-September conference, a letter was posted on a webpage of the National Baptist Convention USA’s website, generally encouraging pastors to get their congregations out to vote. But, the “Dear Pastor” letter was not from a top leader of NBC or the top leaders of any of the Baptist organizations. Rather it was from the vice president at large of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education, Rev. Jesse Voyd Bottoms.
“We want to thank you in advance for your willingness to help your church members fulfill their God-given duty as citizens to register to vote and then to vote. We have the opportunity to positively impact the direction of our country,” the letter begins. “The goal of our voter-registration initiative is to equip evangelicals to be ready to vote this November. Just imagine the impact believers could have on the character of our elected leaders, the direction of our government and the moral climate of our nation if we are all able to cast an informed, biblically based vote each election. By not voting in each election we fail to carry out our Lord’s command to be ‘salt and light’ to the culture in which we live.”
The letter announced that NBC had called for a major registration drive between Sept. 23 and Oct. 7. “The National Baptist Convention has spearheaded a grassroots voter-registration, education and participation effort among thousands of Bible believing churches across America calling for 100% registration,” it states. “The objective of our initiative is to register thousands of previously unregistered, but qualified, people of faith, and to promote awareness of the immediate and long-term importance of voting.”
Joseph, nationally recognized as one of the top 40 young pastors under 40 by the Baptist’s Informer Newspaper, speculated that the motive behind the leaders uniting was simply a show of force:
“When we see these major Black institutions coming together at the NBC, it’s almost like a front of sorts,” he said after the convention. “It’s their way of demonstrating political and social consciousness, to convince their individual organizations and members of their relevancy. There is no contiguous partnership between all of them.”
Trice Edney News Wire Editor-in-Chief Hazel Trice Edney contributed to this story.