By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Thousands of congregants will walk into the annual Progressive National Baptist Convention in the Dallas Hyatt Regency Hotel on Aug. 2-7, when they meet to develop a blueprint designed to restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Convention was formed in 1961 when a number of churches departed from its parent group the National Baptist Convention over issues and contentions that made unfavorable headlines during the National Baptist Convention’s annual meeting that year.
The legendary meeting not only gave birth to the 54-year-old Progressive National Baptist Convention; but also, launched a powerful and influential church organization with 33 delegates from 14 states. Currently PNBC has 2.5 million members and 22 churches in 14 states. In August, the group plans to draft a blueprint that will restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court softened in June 2013.
“This is our spiritual DNA, we get involved in social injustice,” the Reverend Dr. James C. Perkins said in a recent phone interview with the New Journal and Guide from his office in Detroit. Perkins heads the PNBC and has served as pastor of Greater Christ Baptist Church in Detroit for 33 years.
“I graduated from high school in 1968, four months after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated,” Perkins said. “I bring up my history because I am a product of the 1960’s. Ministry for me has to be prophetic. For the last two years we have had a series of events including the 50-year commemoration of the death of Civil Rights Leader Medgar Evars and Dr. King’s famous I Have A Dream speech.” “We cannot sleep through these historical moments because the rights they won us are being eroded,” Perkins said. “We cannot afford to just sit, and not say anything.”
“We believe our founders were at the forefront in 1965 to get the Voting Rights Act passed,” Perkins said. “So we have an obligation to try to get it restored in our lifetime. Pastors will attend workshops at the annual convention and learn how voting rights differ from state to state.
“Many people ask what is the black church doing?” Perkins said. “I recently did a 60 -second radio spot where I applauded the young people for standing up in Ferguson and Baltimore.
I said this generation rose up on its own but is disconnected from the church. Yet the church needs them. The church has a responsibility to reach and to teach this generation.”
“We will use a broad brush at our annual convention because we want the pastors themselves to find out more about the voting laws in their specific states, and communicate that to their ministers. We want to make the pastors aware.”
This means if the devil is in the details as the cliche goes. PNBC is warily drawing up an ambitious schedule that will include a June 25 press conference on Capitol Hill with Congressmen John Conyers (D-Mich.), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) who sponsored H.R. 4437 in January 2014.
The bipartisan bill is a response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, a case last spring in which a 5-4 Supreme Court majority struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the landmark 1965 bill that safeguarded access to the ballot box in regions that required federal oversight in areas with histories of voter suppression.
Although experts say this bill would hardly roll back Shelby completely, the number of states subject to pre-clearance requirements under the bill would be significantly lower than the number this time last year.
And this is where the upcoming convention in Dallas in August comes in. Remember this is 2015 not 1961. Back then Catholic priests, Baptist ministers, civil rights leaders and ordinary individuals found common ground long before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law. In other words, diverse groups nationwide formed partnerships that launched change in the 1960’s. Black voter turnout in Mississippi alone, for example, increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969.
So in an era when polls show many question the church’s relevance, many question institutions, laws, and policies that aim to end racial discrimination, a legendary religious organization that has focused on the prosperity gospel, like many churches nationwide, aims to develop a blueprint that will end racial discrimination at the polls in 2015.
Or does the issue of racial discrimination run deep like it did when Joseph D. Bibb, a prominent Chicago lawyer and equal rights advocate wrote the following op/ed article featured on the King Center website.
“The real reason that colored people are such popular topics of discussion is. . .because they are a clearly differentiated group with a high degree of visibility,” Bibb wrote.
“In short they have darker skins and curlier hair,” Bibb wrote. “It adds up to race prejudice. That is . . .why there is so so much reluctance to grant them freedom and liberty. The colored people are ready, willing, and waiting for civil rights. Cheap talk and acrid disputes will not retard them.”
And this is why history could once again shift and change at the annual convention in Dallas. “We cannot focus on the past without focusing on what is going on now,” Chip Banks, interim general secretary of PNBC said in a recent phone interview.
“I look at Twitter hastags such as the one on Selma, the one on Ferguson, or in Baltimore,” Banks said. “It is discouraging to know that with all of the progress we have made, many people are not thinking about the right to vote. While we have improved health outcomes with new health-care policies and have made progress in other areas, voting is what our own president is focused on.”
“The vision of our new president who has returned this organization to its roots, to its spiritual DNA, is to lift up the voice of the voiceless,” Banks said. “There are so many issues. Poverty, unemployment, other underlying issues have led to a large number of American jobs being shipped overseas.”
“In order to make change, we have to advocate for change at the federal, state, and local levels,” Banks said. “Dr. King’s efforts led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Now unfortunately it is in peril.”
“We are calling on all churches to come to D.C. on June 25 for the press conference on restoring the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” Banks said. “We believe our founders were at the forefront in 1965 to get it passed. So we have an obligation to try to get it restored in our lifetime.”