The pews of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Church appeared filled this weekend but not by those who routinely attend worship service or other ministries.
Instead, members and others visited the sanctuary on Saturday, Oct. 29 for a church-sponsored discussion focusing on the upcoming presidential election. “Ready-Set-Vote,” a non-partisan conversation, addressed the dominant issues and concerns of the Black community in an election cycle that has evolved into something that looks nothing like the more traditional race to the White House.
Located within close proximity to the White House and the U.S. Capitol in Northwest, Metropolitan, by its own description, “has been not just a major center of worship, but also an institution in the forefront of the civic, cultural, and intellectual life of African Americans.”
Founded in 1838, the predominantly-Black church bears the distinction of being the oldest AME church in the District. Formed under anti-slavery leadership, the church in its early days, often harbored runaway slaves, later evolving to a place of worship within the Black community that fearlessly provides education about and support to those impacted by HIV/AIDS, promotes voter education and registration projects and has long featured renowned speakers from Frederick Douglass to former President Bill Clinton.
Co-moderators Maureen Bunyan, anchor, WJLA-TV-7, and Paul Holston, editor-in-chief, Hilltop Newspaper, engaged the audience and panelists on voter education and issues such as the significance of race in the upcoming presidential election and topics of importance to millennials.
Panelists included members from the community: Colbert King, Pulitzer-Prize winner and Washington Post columnist; Elsie Scott, founding director of the Ronald W. Walters Leadership Public Policy Center; Terrence Johnson, Georgetown associate professor of Religion and African American studies and Berkley Center faculty fellow; and Keneishia Grant, assistant professor of Political Science at Howard University.
And though the panelists represented various political affiliations and supported different candidates, they all agreed on one thing, the African-American vote will be of great significant in the 2016 elections. But Black voters have had tremendous impact on previous presidential elections too.
The historic turnout of Black voters in the 2008 (69 percent) and 2012 (67 percent) presidential elections have been credited in the election and re-election of Barack Obama.
Black votes have also been said to have re-elected President George W. Bush when the Republican nominee won an unprecedented 12 percent of the Black vote for the party, nationally.
“We need to put this election in some context,” King said. “This is the most consequential election for African Americans since the presidential election of 1876.”
He said many of the efforts to suppress the Black vote during Reconstruction are “being replicated now.”
The panelists discussed legislation related to voter suppression and current forms of voter intimidation including the landmark 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Shelby County v. Holder which has allowed nearly a dozen states to change their voting laws without federal preclearance.
Bunyan said the presence of groups like Oath Keepers, a fringe right-wing group whose founder issued a “call to action on” on its website last week asking members of the organization to go undercover to watch for voter fraud and voter intimidation at polling places on Election Day, could be a problem for minority voters.
The discussion later moved into a heavy debate when the role of millennial Black voters, who many on the panel felt have remained apathetic and too uninvolved, was called into question.
According to a GenForward poll of Americans ages 18 to 30, 49 percent of African Americans say they will definitely vote on Election Day. That’s similar to the percentage of all young people.
A forum attendee and family support worker in the District, Kuntumie Fadika, said that while she enjoyed the panel, she would like to see them take place in more disadvantaged areas like the one in which she works.
“There needs to be more conversation in the community – not just here,” Fadika said.
“With conversations like these, we never have enough time,” Holston agreed.
“It doesn’t matter who you vote for, I feel that this is a time to take a serious step and vote,” he said. “I challenge you to take these conversations outside.”