Thursday, January 22, 2009

Amid the focus on Barack Obama being the first black president, there has been a change, subtle and largely unnoticed by most, regarding black politics in the Democratic Party. Black Democrats - and the great majority of blacks are Democrats - have almost entirely moved away from pulpit politics and are now firmly rooted in traditional politics with only a marginal influence by pastors.

The Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy’s retirement as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church last Sunday was the embodiment of a change in political leadership that has taken more than 40 years to ripen. Mr. Fauntroy truly embodies the political and ministerial confluence as a pastor deeply involved in the civil-rights movement who became the District’s first delegate in Congress in 1971. He was preceded in Congress by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, who represented that part of New York City from 1945 to 1971. And black ministers who succeeded Mr. Fauntroy included the Revs. William Gray, pastor of Philadelphia’s Bright Hope Baptist Church, who became the first black House Majority Whip; Floyd Flake, pastor of Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral, who represented Queens, N.Y.; and (although they have never been congregational ministers) Jesse L. Jackson Sr., the first African American to win a statewide presidential nominating contest, and Al Sharpton, who also ran for president.

“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,” Mr. Fauntroy said. He gave more than a hint that his retirement represented a passing of the torch of political power to black politicians and activists whose values may be rooted in faith but who are not persons of the cloth.

It may seem presumptuous to say anyone succeeded or preceded Mr. Fauntroy, but he does represent a political culture that is waning in influence over Democratic and civil-rights politics and activism. The current NAACP president, Ben Jealous, and for that matter the two preceding him, Kweisi Mfume, a professional politician, and Bruce Gordon, a corporate executive, have not been ministers. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has had two presidents since 1997 - Martin Luther King III and current president Charles Steele Jr., neither of whom is a minister.

It seems that with the ascension of Mr. Obama - but only in small measure because of it - the days of the political minister-activist are over in the Democratic Party. And that may be a profoundly unsettling change for some who are involved in black politics.

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