The number of African-American voters in America has increased steadily from 12.9 million in 2000 to 17.8 million in 2012.
In the last presidential election year, blacks for the first time voted at a higher rate than whites.
The black church and black clergy have always played a big role in educating and mobilizing voters. I visited one church in Framingham and spoke to a religious scholar to get some perspective.
Service at the Greater Framingham Community Church is packed: 88-year-old Katherine Hill is in a black dress, shawl, and matching hat. She stands from the cushioned wooden pews to sing old gospel hymns.
It’s the Sunday before election day and Hill cast her ballot during early voting. She laughed and struggled to remember the first time she ever voted.
“It’s been so long ago.”
But voting in the 50’s and 60’s in Hill’s day was no laughing matter. She was raised in the North, in New Jersey, but remembers the grim images of black people in the South being beaten when they showed up to the polls to vote after the enforcement of the voting rights act in 1965.
“I think it’s awful... I mean very, very bad... Everybody has the right to vote without having any intimidation at all... it’s just…it’s just awful.”
On this Sunday, Hill’s pastor, the Reverend Dr. J Anthony Lloyd, has a special message.
“Someone said it’s a privilege to vote and I said thank you very much, but thought about it and said, 'It’s a right to vote.'”
For months he has been encouraging his congregation to vote, but won’t tell them who to vote for.
“I think it's my responsibility. And it’s how I understand ministry to make them understand the biblical mandate upon us, what we understand about morality and morality being driven from the bible. Therefore. I am pushing and I call for people to take responsibility for their civic duty to vote, and that means an educated voter.”
Nationwide black churches have pushed souls to the polls to get people to vote.
Dr. Pamela Lightsey, Associate Dean and Clinical Assistant Faculty Member at Boston University’s School of Theology, says black churches across the country have a long standing history of encouraging and educating voters.
“The black church has always reflected the interest – whether they be more than spiritual, the social, political, and economic interest – of the black community. That dates back to what some called the invisible institution and its capacity to bring in the slaves to worship God in a way which was unique and fulfilling for them.”
Lightsey says Sunday morning pulpits were preachers’ chance to mix God’s word with information, and that dates back to even before the civil rights movement.
Political candidates recognized this early on.
“The influence of the black church on the political scene here in America is long standing. Some people ask the question about why do candidates show up at the black church on Sunday morning. You can find examples of political candidates showing up at black churches dating back to the 1930’s.”
20-year-old Greater Framingham Community Church member Alexis Butler credits her church for not only encouraging her to vote but educating her on candidates and issues:
“I think people have always encouraged me to vote, and to know what is going on, and to stay abreast of issues that were going on in different communities.”
88-year-old Katherine Hill is glad Alexis Butler is an educated voter. For both, the church is where it all starts.