Bishop Harry Seawright (Courtesy of African Methodist Episcopal Church)
Bishop Harry Seawright (Courtesy of African Methodist Episcopal Church)

As the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders head South for the next round of primaries, African American voters stand to play a prominent role in the outcomes, and pastors of color are challenging their members to look beyond political speeches and promises when deciding on who they will vote for this political season.

Over the next week and a half, voters in South Carolina and Nevada will cast their ballots and on March 3, better known as Super Tuesday, residents in 14 states and the American Samoa and Americans living abroad will cast votes in Democratic primaries and caucuses. For the eight remaining presidential hopefuls, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

But from a range of pastors across the Washington area to the bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church for the state of Alabama, faith leaders say they and their members are taking a second look at the various candidates after decades of being taken for granted by Democrats and ignored by Republicans.

“As I vote, I am not just voting for someone to represent me for the next four years but the next 40 years,” said Bishop Joel Peebles, pastor of City of Praise Ministries in Landover, Maryland. “Our ability to vote was fought for by our forefathers and, as a pastor, I am interested in a person who has a track record and not just themselves.”

Peebles, whose church is one of the largest in the Washington area, said his congregation will conduct a major get-out-the-vote campaign and host election-related forums before Maryland’s primary, in addition to providing material to voters to clearly show where candidates stand on the issues.

In the D.C. region, voters go to the polls in Virginia on March 3, in Maryland on April 28 and in the District of Columbia on June 2. The Democratic Convention is July 13 in Milwaukee and the Republican Convention is Aug. 24 in Charlotte, N.C. The general election is Tuesday Nov. 3.

Harry Seawright, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and onetime pastor of Union Bethel AME in Brandywine, Maryland, has long been heavily involved in community issues from policing to fair housing. He said this year, people of color must choose from a number of candidates who have similar themes.

“Every election is critical,” said Seawright, who on March 1 will take part in the commemoration of “Bloody Sunday,” when on March 7, 1965, demonstrators marching for equal voting rights were beaten and blooded by state police officers in Selma, Alabama, as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Seawright said to highlight the importance of voting, they will honor Rep. John Lewis, one of the leaders of the “Bloody Sunday” march who himself was severely beaten that day, and Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her 2018 gubernatorial bid in Georgia and has been floated as a possible running mate for the eventual Democratic nominee.

Seawright said the church is taking part in many get-out-the-vote efforts but that it ultimately is about people going to the polls and unifying for the best results.

“We are hoping that we can gain a consensus behind a candidate,” Seawright said. “The Democratic field is so fragmented, we can’t miss this opportunity.”

Rev. Ianther Mills, pastor of the Ashbury United Methodist Church in D.C., stressed the influence women hold in the election noting that three of the remaining major Democratic contenders are female.

“Women have the opportunity to make a critical difference in this election,” said Mills, adding that female Methodist parishioners have spent months organizing in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote and the women’s suffrage movement.

Rev. Willie Wilson, pastor emeritus of the Union Temple Baptist Church in D.C., said that the candidates can’t do what they have been doing for decades.

“The Democrats get all of the Black support and do absolutely nothing” he said. “Now we have Bloomberg but he made his name by creating Stop and Frisk in New York. It is not enough just to say, ‘vote for somebody.’

“Every four years about this time, they come for the Black vote and we just give up that vote,” Wilson said, adding that he wants to know what each candidate has done to address the incarceration rate, lack of economic opportunities, homelessness and the loss of property because of gentrification in many cities.

Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in D.C., said in terms of selecting a Democrat, he is undecided.

“I am keeping my powder dry and I am watching,” Hagler said. “It is the same old politics. Whoever comes out of the Democratic side, we have to be very determined.”

Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, who served on President Obama’s Faith Council, said that in the weeks to come, more national get-out-the-vote campaigns will be rolled out and it will be critical for voters to look beyond race, color and personalities.

“There are 8 million unregistered Black people who could make a difference from the White House to the State House and we have to get people to see that their futures are at stake,” she said. “When they vote for a president, they are voting for their families and their loved ones.”

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Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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