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Lively Meeting of the Minds Is of Two Minds

A rift between African American conservatives and liberals, evident in the election, reemerges at the State of the Black Union conference.

February 27, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

LITHONIA, Ga. — At a passionate discussion of the African American political agenda Saturday, few sparring partners better personified the fallout from the last election than the two preachers, Jackson and Jackson.

The first Jackson was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, liberal war horse, civil rights veteran and two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, who delivered a stirring declamation on social justice.

The second -- and lesser-known -- was Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., a Democrat who supported President Bush in the last election. He announced the dawn of a new black agenda based on the Bible and emanating from megachurches.

"My concern is: Have we allowed one party to take the black agenda and hold it hostage at gunpoint to the issue of gay rights?" asked Jackson, senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in suburban Washington, D.C.

The role of socially conservative black pastors in politics was a recurrent theme at the sixth State of the Black Union, an annual event hosted by journalist and political commentator Tavis Smiley.

Smiley invited the panelists -- among them Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, civil rights leader Joseph Lowery and the Rev. Al Sharpton -- to consider what planks might appear in a "Contract With Black America on Moral Values," which could be used to hold politicians accountable.

"The next time you come calling on our vote, you come correct on the contract or you don't come at all," Smiley said at the event, held at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta.

A number of panelists proposed that the first challenge for African Americans should be turning their gaze inward. Motivational speaker George Fraser argued that, with the civil rights era over, black Americans stood to benefit more from financial well-being than political action.

Farrakhan drew explosive applause when he said that blacks should build unity within their own ranks and rid themselves of dependence on a white power structure.

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. But power won't concede anything if the demand is coming from a weak constituency that looks like it's lost its testicular fortitude," he said.

Jesse Jackson sounded familiar themes of the civil rights movement. He decried racial disparities in income and life expectancy, and cautioned that voting rights were in jeopardy. "We've already got an agenda," he said. "Martin Luther King left us with an agenda."

Much discussion, though, centered on the last election. Left-leaning black intellectuals and civil rights activists took aim, sometimes caustically, at ministers who found common cause with white evangelicals.

"The problem with so many black churches is all you've got to do is say 'Jesus' and act like you're about to be speaking in tongues, act like you're high in the Spirit. All you've got to do is say the word 'Jesus' to justify some of the most insidious, invidious, backward-thinking theology you can imagine," said Michael Eric Dyson, a University of Pennsylvania professor whose upcoming book is titled "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?"

Afterward, Bishop Jackson said he was taken aback by the strength of the criticism. Three weeks ago, at a conference of conservative black pastors, Jackson introduced his "Black Contract With America on Moral Values," which called for, among other things, privatization of Social Security and a ban on same-sex marriage.

Since the election, there has been little direct communication between conservative pastors and black Democratic leaders, the bishop said. "It's going to get some jerky dialogue before we get to the same place," he said.

His sentiment was echoed by New Birth's pastor, Bishop Eddie Long, who has supported banning gay marriage. In the last political season, black leaders on opposite sides of the gay marriage issue found themselves "meeting each other through the media" instead of working together, he said.

Several speakers, including Jesse Jackson, took aim at a visit that Long and other black pastors made to President Bush at the White House. Long responded good-naturedly, saying he thought it was important to gain access to powerful circles.

"Just because we went to the house," he said, "does not mean we had intercourse."

The crowd, which organizers estimated at about 5,000, gave him a roar of applause.

Keith Boykin, a panelist who has written about the lives of gay black men, left encouraged by the reception he received from some leaders, and saddened by that from others. After a disorienting year, activists need to regroup, said Boykin, author of "Beyond the Down Low."

"I think people in the African American community are trying to figure out what happened to us," he said.

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