In light of Barack Obama’s victory in Tuesday’s presidential election, many people are considering what his election might mean for race relations in America. Reflections from several African-American Baptist ministers suggest that although they see Obama’s election as an important moment, it must be just one step on a longer road toward racial reconciliation.
“The election of Barack is the beginning of a movement toward the unification of a nation and the pulling down of religious, political and social divides that have poisoned the very fabric of our nation,” said William Buchanan, pastor of Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.
“Emotion coursed through my being at the announcement that Barack Obama had become the new president-elect of the United States,” Buchanan told EthicsDaily.com. “The moment was surreal for me, a 61-year-old African-American, who, as a young man in Georgia, witnessed the displacement of my family because of my father’s civic involvement in voter registration for the ‘Negro.'”
“The intensity of my euphoric mood was similar to, yet the polar opposite of, the way I felt upon hearing the news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Buchanan added. “As hopeless as that mood felt 40 years ago, last night the mood was as exhilarating and as hopeful.”
Jeffrey Haggray, executive director/minister of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, called Obama’s victory “a major achievement” and said “America has now really officially come to a point” where Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream “is realized.” Haggray added that although there are still racial problems in America, Obama’s election means that the racial barrier “was pushed aside in a huge way.”
Haggray recounted watching the election results and sitting there “in denial” when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer declared Obama the winner. Haggray, not sure the news could be really true, switched to each of the other news networks, only to find that each one was calling the race for Obama.
“That this nation is now prepared to install a black man in [the presidential] office means that we have come a long way,” Haggray added. “A lot of people from across a lot of boundaries of race, class, ethnicity, culture, language had to vote in favor of Barack Obama.”
Michael Bell, pastor of Greater Saint Stephen First Church in Ft. Worth, Tex., claimed that “it’s obvious to even the most casual observer that some sort of positive ‘change’ might be near” as a result of Obama’s victory. Bell, the first African-American president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, added, however, that it would be “misleading to suggest that Barack Obama’s presidential election signals a portentous ‘sea change’ in race relations in America.”
“On my way to the church office, I stopped by a popular neighborhood breakfast diner,” Bell told EthicsDaily.com. “The crowd was enthusiastic, the conversations were lively and the atmosphere was permeated with pride, but there was no one talking about race relations. I think that there’s a hermeneutic of suspicion that informs folk in my neck-of-the-woods, and alongside it is the belief that it will take more than one election cycle to overcome centuries of division and distrust.”
Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins III, executive director of National Ministries for American Baptist Church in the U.S.A., echoed that sentiment.
Although Obama’s election represented an important step, he said, it did not mean racism in America was a problem of the past. He called Obama’s election a “commendable and a tremendous cultural leap for this country and well worth applauding,” but added that racism still exists. He specifically pointed to the problem of a “criminal justice system that incarcerated people of color at rates far out of proportion to their population in this country.”
“The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States of America is a giant step toward the commencement of serious racial dialogue rather than a graduation from America’s often racist past,” Wright-Riggins said. “King’s vision of the Beloved Community did not miraculously appear around midnight last night as Obama moved past the magic 270 electoral college votes he needed.”
One common theme expressed by the various African-American Baptist ministers was the hope that Obama’s election will be a step toward racial reconciliation. Underlying this hope is the belief that much more work is needed.
“I’m listening as intensely as I can for a barely audible hope that this time we took at least a baby step toward each other,” Bell said. “Only time will tell.”
“Whether President-elect Obama will be free to succeed or fail on the basis of his character and his charted course for America rather than on the basis of his color remains a question for us,” said Wright-Riggins. “Yes, we have elected the first African-American president of the USA. Our next step is to elect a president of the USA who happens to be African-American. Last night was a serious step in that direction.”
Haggray referred to a media story asking children if they now thought they could grow up to be the president, and all of them raised their hand. However, he argued since only a few people will ever be a U.S. president, the more important question concerns how Obama’s victory might encourage people to achieve their own dreams.
“The question is how many street sweepers can now become city managers,” Haggray added. “Or teachers can now become principals. Or people who are exchanging the linens in hospitals can now become registered nurses. I think it gives so much hope for so many people.”
Buchanan offered a prayer that the nation would continue to move forward: “I pray now that the politics of expedience is a thing of the past, that the politics of division and fear mongering that has been a part of the political landscape over the past decades is behind us and we have embarked on a paradigm shift that will catapult our beloved nation to a place of prominence as a moral leader in the world of equality, justice, and peace.”
Last month, the Baptist Center for Ethics released its DVD “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism,” which shows that racism is far from eradicated ”inside or outside the church. It also demonstrates that many Baptists are working together in proactive ways to break down the racial and ethnic walls of division and to be faithful to the Bible’s moral vision.
“Beneath the Skin,” which was recently screened at the International Black Film Festival of Nashville and won the award for Best Documentary, includes interviews with Wright-Riggins and many other Baptist leaders. For more information and to see clips of the DVD, click here.
The DVD will be screened today (Nov. 6) at Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. The free event, which will include a light lunch, begins at 11:30 a.m. and will last about two hours. The screening is sponsored by BCE, Broadway Baptist Church and the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship.
Robert Parham, BCE’s executive director, will moderate a panel discussion following the screening of the DVD. Panelists will include: Clay Calloway, associate pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church and president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Coalition; Eric A. Johnson, pastor of Greater Galilee Baptist Church; and Leslie Hollon, senior pastor of St. Matthew’s Baptist Church.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.
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