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Long March Ahead: African American Churches and Public Policy in Post-Civil Rights America

Long March Ahead: African American Churches and Public Policy in Post-Civil Rights America

by R. Drew Smith

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Analyzing the extensive data gathered by the Public Influences of African American Churches project, which surveyed nearly two thousand churches across the country, Long March Ahead assesses the public policy activism of black churches since the civil rights movement. Social scientists and clergy consider the churches’ work on a range of policy matters


Analyzing the extensive data gathered by the Public Influences of African American Churches project, which surveyed nearly two thousand churches across the country, Long March Ahead assesses the public policy activism of black churches since the civil rights movement. Social scientists and clergy consider the churches’ work on a range of policy matters over the past four decades: affirmative action, welfare reform, health care, women’s rights, education, and anti-apartheid activism. Some essays consider advocacy trends broadly. Others focus on specific cases, such as the role of African American churches in defeating the “One Florida” plan to end affirmative action in college admissions and state contracting or the partnership forged between police and inner-city black ministers to reduce crime in Boston during the 1990s.

Long March Ahead emphasizes the need for African American churches to complement the excellent work they do in implementing policies set by others by getting more involved in shaping public policy. The contributors explore the efficacy of different means of public policy advocacy and social service delivery, including faith-based initiatives. At the same time, they draw attention to trends that have constrained political involvement by African American churches: the increased professionalization of policy advocacy and lobbying, the underdevelopment of church organizational structures devoted to policy work, and tensions between religious imperatives and political activism. Long March Ahead takes an important look at the political role of African American churches after the great policy achievements of the civil rights era.

Cathy J. Cohen
Megan McLaughlin
Columba Aham Nnorum
Michael Leo Owens
Desiree Pedescleaux
Barbara D. Savage
R. Drew Smith
Emilie Townes
Christopher Winship

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Duke University Press
Publication date:
public influences of African American churches ; , #2
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Copyright © 2004 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3358-6

Chapter One


R. Drew Smith

Although pivotal in channeling black political grievances and dissatisfaction into mass protest during the 1950s and 1960s, African American churches have struggled to maintain political momentum within the contemporary American political context. Contributing to this has been the lack of consensus since the civil rights movement about an African American public policy agenda-unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when a broad consensus around a civil rights agenda existed. The lack of consensus is, in one respect, evidence of an evolving African American social and political diversity in a context where race functions somewhat less than it once did as a determinant of social prospects for African Americans-indeed, for all groups-within American society. And this diversity has become increasingly evident, translating into a more wide-ranging approach to African American public policy activism-especially with respect to its organizational auspices.

African American policy activism has since the mid-twentieth century been advanced mainly by three blackinstitutional sectors-black advocacy organizations, black elected officials, and black churches. In assessing the relation of African American churches to the contemporary public policy process, it is important to understand the shifting dynamics within and between these three sectors. The trend within all three through at least the mid-twentieth century (and, in some cases, well beyond) was toward the centralizing and collectivizing of actions through national bureaucracies. For example, African American churches formed national denominational structures beginning in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, developing national offices and divisions designed to centralize and collectivize a range of actions. African American advocacy organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League and, later, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Operation push evolved national structures that centralized and collectivized the activities of their emergent local chapters and units. And African American elected officials have generally channeled their leadership through national political parties that have centralized and collectivized the policy agendas and political actions of those operating under their party banner. These centralizing and bureaucratizing tendencies have by no means been unique to African American institutional life and have, in fact, closely paralleled patterns operative in the institutional life of the majority culture.

Beginning in at least the 1960s, African American institutions and majority culture institutions have also been on parallel courses in their growing dissatisfaction with the national institutional bureaucracies through which so much of their activity had come to be channeled. According to a number of scholars, denominational structures and political party structures are examples of national bureaucracies whose institutional relevance and support have diminished in recent years. Craig Dykstra and James Hudnut-Beumler argue, for example, that American denominations began losing considerable moral influence and institutional clout in the 1960s owing to the erosion of ideological consensus within denominations as the society became more polarized on issues and "the tremendous rise in the number and kinds of ... special-interest groups" and of the organizational vehicles that they created to promote their social concerns and interests. At about the same time, according to John Bibby, and for similar reasons, political parties also started to experience a significant decline in their influence and clout. Bibby contends that the extended reach and effectiveness of special interest groups and the media over the last few decades have broken the monopoly that political parties once held in shaping political reality and setting the political agenda for political candidates, officeholders, and the public. The combined effect of these broad institutional trends, and of the significant racial reforms of the 1950s and 1960s that led to the dismantling of politically constrictive Jim Crow policies, has been that the context of African American church activism has in recent years been characterized by greater political variegation and decentralization than it had been prior to and during the civil rights movement.

Acknowledging these contextual differences is an essential starting point in assessing and critiquing contemporary black church policy activism, and these contextual distinctions will receive close attention in my analysis of public policy involvements of African American churches during the 1990s. Utilizing data from the 1999-2000 Black Churches and Politics (BCAP) Survey, I examine recent public policy priorities of African American churches, the methods that they have used to engage public policy, and the auspices under which this policy activism has been pursued. The data shed important light on the increased institutional range of black church policy activism and on modest increases in the ideological range of this activism.

Policy Priorities

As Charles Hamilton and Dona Hamilton point out, since at least the 1930s the public policy focus of African Americans, including leading organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League, has centered around a "dual agenda" of "social welfare" (including socioeconomic development) and "civil rights" (encompassing racial justice politics in a broad sense). Hamilton and Hamilton note that various balances have been reached between the two agendas since the 1930s, with priority given to socioeconomic development during the 1930s and 1940s, civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s, and both civil rights and the socioeconomic development of the black underclass from the mid-1960s through the 1990s.

Throughout most of the 1900s, the public policy commitments of African American churches, it is fair to say, largely mirrored the policy agenda of the broader African American community as outlined by Hamilton and Hamilton. More than one scholar has drawn attention, for example, to the importance that African American churches assigned to socioeconomic development, and to education as a form of socioeconomic development, during the period from the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth. Considerably more documentation exists on the emphasis that African American churches placed on civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s. Doug McAdam, for example, codes New York Times newspaper accounts of African American political activism anywhere in the nation during the period covered by the civil rights movement, isolating in particular black church-based activism for subperiod 1955-60. He shows that the Times reported fifty-seven instances of black church-initiated activism during this subperiod (not including actions initiated by Martin Luther King Jr. or the SCLC, which he considers formal "movement organization" activities) and that at least 95 percent of this activism was focused on black civil rights or black educational and economic empowerment. Similarly, 38 percent of respondents surveyed for a study of activism by African American clergy in Buffalo during the 1960s reported systematic involvements in political issues-all of which were civil rights related. As the American social context became more diversified, polarized, and decentralized after the civil rights movement, one of the effects was that the public policy involvements of African American churches expanded in a few additional directions. Data from the BCAP Survey confirm some of this expansion.

The BCAP Survey asked respondents (mostly pastors) from 1,956 congregations about their congregational involvement with a list of public policy issues during the 1990s. The issue identified by congregations as receiving the greatest attention was public education, followed by (in order) civil rights, public welfare, affirmative action, criminal justice, and government economic development (for more details, see table 1). The data reveal, therefore, a relatively strong twofold emphasis on racial justice and economic development policies. Half the top six issue categories listed in table 1 (civil rights, affirmative action, and criminal justice) could be considered racial justice issues, while the other half (including public welfare and public education) could be considered socioeconomic development issues.

Moreover, the types of advocacy organizations cited by BCAP respondents reflect a similar twofold emphasis. When BCAP respondents were asked about their involvements with civic or political organizations, the NAACP was most frequently cited, 16 percent being involved at the local level and 8 percent at the national level-twice the frequency of involvement with any other organization or category of organizations. When these figures are combined with figures on involvement with other civil rights organizations such as the SCLC or the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, 19 percent of respondents are shown to be involved locally with civil rights organizations generally and 10 percent nationally (see table 2). Community/economic development organizations were the second most frequently cited, 10 percent of respondents being involved locally and 3 percent nationally. (Another 1 percent cited involvements with local education-related organizations.) It could be said, then, that, at best, 11 percent of the congregations were involved locally with socio-economic development organizations and just over 3 percent were involved nationally (for more details, see table 2).

Although African American churches have placed a priority on racial justice and socioeconomic development issues, there were strong differences of opinion about how justice and social empowerment are best achieved-especially as these goals relate to approaches to education and welfare policies. For example, when a subsample of 324 respondents was asked about government interest in channeling education tax dollars toward vouchers for private education, 43 percent of the respondents agreed with the policy (10 percent strongly agreeing), but 54 percent disagreed (35 percent strongly disagreeing). When asked about government interest in funding churches to provide social services, 46 percent agreed with this initiative (8 percent strongly agreeing), but 52 percent disagreed (33 percent strongly disagreeing). Complete data are reported in table 3.

Two policy areas that represent emerging frontiers of black church policy activism in the post-civil rights movement era are women's rights and foreign policy. However, while it is important to acknowledge black church expansion into nontraditional policy areas, it must also be noted that African American church activism in these areas has proceeded fairly slowly. It has been well established that African American churches have been generally unsupportive of many aspects of the women's movement, especially women's leadership aspirations. A number of historically black denominations, for example, continue to resist, if not prohibit, the ordination of women. And, while, in a survey of black clergy conducted by C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya as late as the 1980s, 81 percent of female respondents approved of women as pastors (as opposed to their holding a ministerial position other than pastor), male respondents were split fifty-fifty on the issue.

The BCAP Survey inquired similarly about African American church supportiveness of female leadership in the church and the broader society. While the Lincoln and Mamiya survey asked about approval of women specifically as pastors, the comparable BCAP question asked about congregational support for women taking on "ministerial and other leadership positions in the church." Seventy-one percent of male BCAP respondents and 89 percent of female respondents indicated support for women as ministers and leaders within the church (see table 4). The stronger support of female clergy in the BCAP Survey than in the Lincoln and Mamiya survey may be due in part to the wording of the question-Lincoln and Mamiya made the pastoral role explicit, while the BCAP Survey left it implicit-a fact that has relevance to the extent that respondents would support women as "ministers" but not as "pastors." But it is more likely due to incremental progress made during the period between the two surveys in the acceptance of women as ministers and as pastors within African American churches.

Either way, the significance of 71 percent male support among BCAP respondents for female leadership within churches, and 96 percent male support for female leadership in the broader community (see table 4), should not be overlooked as an indicator of growing conceptual affirmation among African American churches of the rights and social interests of women. However, given that only 17 percent of the BCAP respondents reported congregational involvement in public policy activism related to women's rights or empowerment (see table 1 above) and that only a handful of BCAP respondents listed congregational involvements with organizations that concentrate on any aspect of women's social interests, there is obviously a great distance yet between conceptual support and policy advocacy/actual practice.

BCAP respondents reported least involvement in foreign policy matters relating to Africa and the Caribbean. Herschelle Challenor points out that factors constraining black foreign policy advocacy historically have included "the immediacy of local survival" issues for African Americans, American diplomatic disinterest in black life globally, and "official discouragement" of black "interference" in American foreign policy. Roger Wilkins notes that certain cultural dynamics historically unfavorable to African American foreign policy advocacy, including African American negativity toward Africa, have evolved in more favorable directions owing to greater firsthand and secondary exposure to Africans on the continent and in the diaspora.

The creation of organizations such as Operation Crossroads Africa (which has sent hundreds of young Americans to Africa annually for short-term volunteer experiences since its founding by a black Presbyterian minister in 1957) and TransAfrica (founded in 1977 by the Congressional Black Caucus to promote public awareness and U.S. government support of Africa and the Caribbean) illustrates a growing African American seriousness about African affairs. Moreover, other organizations have shared the Africa policy stage in the United States with TransAfrica, including the American Committee on Africa, the Washington Office on Africa, and the Constituency for Africa-with some of these combining to form an organization called Africa Action in 2001. But, while 55 percent of African Americans surveyed in 1984 indicated feeling close to Africans, those affinities have yet to translate into comparable levels of engagement with Africa public policy matters. African American churches have played an active part in Africa-related advocacy; still, few (only 13 percent) of churches in the BCAP sample said that they were involved with Africa policy matters and even fewer (only 5 percent) that they were involved with Caribbean policy matters (see table 1 above). These numbers are certainly small, but it is likely that the number of African American churches with Africa policy involvements was considerably smaller prior to the historic changes brought about in the United States, and in Africa, during the 1950s and 1960s.


Excerpted from LONG MARCH AHEAD Copyright © 2004 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

R. Drew Smith is the Director and Principal Investigator for the Public Influences of African-American Churches Project. He is a scholar-in-residence at the Leadership Center at Morehouse College.

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