Channeling Leni Riefenstahl and the Nuremberg rallies as inspiration, three dozen antigay black pastors dispatched hundreds of uniformed black Southern California schoolchildren in October to encourage blacks to vote yes on Proposition 8. The smiling children had been dismissed from school for the event. Banners read, “For Children. For Families. For Our Future.”
Apostle Frederick K.C. Price, one of the nation’s more prominent black televangelists and leader of the 22,000-member Crenshaw Christian Center, ordered the children into the streets as the army in his own personal jihad against gay marriage. Marriage was defined by God as a union between a man and a woman, he said, and to change that definition would “jeopardize our children’s future.”
Thinly disguised homophobia has always been the calling card of fundamentalist black churches, and as a result black voters tend to be more conservative on social issues. It came as no surprise when exit polls on Election Day showed that Prop. 8 was rejected by 51% of white voters yet supported by 70% of blacks. Even before a single ballot was cast, the persistent drumbeat by many in the gay e-telligentsia -- especially revisionist conservative Andrew Sullivan, who fancies himself an authority on race relations -- was that black homophobia would seal the passage of the ballot initiative.
The truth is far more nuanced. Blacks made up no more than 10% of those voting in California this election. Even if a larger proportion supported the measure, the passage was “sealed” by millions of mostly white, conservative, inland voters and the millions of dollars from the almost lily-white Mormon Church. An eleventh-hour television commercial by Samuel L. Jackson and robo-calls by Magic Johnson and Barack Obama apparently fell on deaf ears.
Almost every major black politician and organization in California was on record against Proposition 8: the state chapter of the NAACP, whose friend-of-the-court brief was considered in the state supreme court’s landmark marriage ruling last May; assembly speaker Karen Bass; then-assemblyman Mervyn Dymally; Oakland mayor Ron Dellums; U.S. representative Barbara Lee. Even former NBA player and new Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, who angered gays by saying marriage should be restricted to a man and woman, opposed Prop. 8 “because it would write discrimination into the state constitution.”
“Why wasn’t this message coming out?” asks Archbishop Carl Bean, founder and leader of the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, a majority black-LGBT denomination that fuses the charismatic tradition of the black church with a progressive, gay-friendly ministry. Bean said he received “at least two” robo-calls in the 20 minutes prior to our interview that specifically targeted blacks to “support Proposition 8, protect marriage, and protect the family. But why weren’t there any phone calls from the other side?”
Bean isn’t surprised many black pastors supported the antigay amendment pushed by white social conservatives. “That is the painful history of the black church,” he says, adding that many black preachers opposed the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and ’60s. The Reverend Joseph H. Jackson, then-president of the National Baptist Convention, the nation’s dominant black Baptist group, “called him ‘Martin Luther Coon’ and actively fought against him.”
Bean calls himself “lucky” to have a pastor who was a classmate of King’s to teach him progressive Christianity, and he expected more church leaders steeped in the tradition of civil rights to oppose Prop. 8. The Reverend Eric Lee, president of the California chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group founded by King and other civil rights and religious leaders in 1957, agrees. Standing outside the gates of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Los Angeles’s Westwood district, he said, “The same people who are driving this fight for Proposition 8 are the same people who considered African-Americans inferior and used the Bible to justify slavery [and] Jim Crow segregation.”
What’s more, the Mormon Church “did not allow blacks into the priesthood and did not allow them into Mormon heaven [until 1978],” he adds. “It’s amazing to me how all of a sudden when there’s another scapegoat, African-Americans so quickly join in oppressing another people.” Lee notes the same clergymen who are marching to the antigay call today were noticeably absent as HIV/AIDS ravaged the black community. These clergymen are missing “an understanding of what the Scriptures talk about: providing quality to life and dignity to God’s people,” Lee says. “They are definitely wrong on this issue, and hopefully, God will be the final judge for all of us.”