Warnock’s Election Reminds Us that Black Churches are Vital to Democratic SuccessRoundup
tags: religion, African American history, Democratic Party, Raphael Warnock
Robert Greene II is assistant professor of history at Claflin University, and the book reviews editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians.
A hugely successful get-out-the vote effort, especially the mobilization of Black voters, will deliver Raphael Warnock to the U.S. Senate when he is sworn in this week. The role of the Black church in his election has been much remarked upon — and is the result of years of organizing strategy.
For generations, a critical part of Democrats’ efforts to get Black voters to the polls has been appeals via the Black church, one of the strongest pillars of the African American community. Warnock’s election is the latest example of the success of this strategy. But a broader view of the Democratic Party’s recent past makes it clear that the African American church has become a powerful organizing space for Democrats — so much so that national candidates for office must engage the African American church for any hope of winning the party’s nomination.
This was evident during the 1976 presidential elections when Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter made widespread appeals to the Black church during his run for the presidency. Carter persuaded Martin Luther King Sr., the father of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., to campaign with him. His actions immediately caught the attention of African American voters. Appeals to such voters became critical when, late in the fall campaign, it was revealed that Carter’s church in Plains, Ga., did not allow any African American members. Support from King Sr., Andrew Young — who, before becoming heavily engaged in the civil rights movement served as a pastor, too — and other Black religious leaders helped Carter avoid what could have been a devastating blow to his campaign.
The rise of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was another clear signal of the importance of the Black church to Democratic Party politics. Although the 1980s are remembered politically as the era in which the Moral Majority and the conservative White evangelical movement made its presence felt in the Republican Party, some African American religious leaders thought the Black church needed to become more politically active.
“It is no accident that the Black church has produced much of the Black political leadership in the United States.” This was the opening of an essay in Ebony magazine’s August 1984 issue about the importance of the church in Black politics during another critical election year. By the late summer of 1984, Jackson had set out to use his pulpit — along with his activism and coalition building through the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition — to rise in the Democratic presidential primary.