With the Democratic Primary for the Ninth Congressional District about two months away, ministers in dueling camps are taking a stand, leaving those in tune with their spiritual guidance to determine if that influence should extend to the voting booth.
While such division is not new, some are suggesting that this time around the stakes are higher for African Americans in the district represented by incumbent Steve Cohen since 2006.
In May, more than a dozen ministers convened near the National Civil Rights Museum to announce their support for Atty. Ricky Wilkins, who – along with community activist Isaac Richmond – is challenging Cohen in the Aug. 7th primary.
The names of a contingent of ministers backing Cohen were detailed recently in a widely circulated announcement, making it clear that they have a different perspective on what is needed in the district going forward.
So, while Greater Community Temple Church of God in Christ Bishop Brandon Porter is urging voters to embrace Wilkins and give “change a chance,” the Rev. Hubon “Dutch” Sandridge, pastor of Thomas Chapel Baptist Church, insists Cohen’s record of service and his political pedigree make him the clear choice.
“You can’t take a novice and put him in a congressional seat,” said Sandridge, referring to Wilkins, former chairman of the Memphis Housing Authority. “He does not have a record to stand on. He doesn’t have the political record that can touch Steve Cohen’s record and years of service. Just saying I’m a black man doesn’t have anything to do with leadership.”
Noting the dozen-plus ministers who were named in the recent release and others that he asserts support him privately, Cohen, said, “I am proud that such a distinguished and diverse group of men and women have endorsed my candidacy.”
For some clerics, making public declarations in support of one candidate over another is par for the course. They argue that their involvement in the political process is no more than an extension of their duties in and away from the pulpit.
Bishop Edward H. Stephens Jr., senior pastor of Golden Gate Cathedral, said politics in its purest form has the ability to move people. He encourages his members to get involve and vote for the candidate of their choice.
“The church is the voice for our community…the megaphone and mouthpiece…to get information out. You can’t complain if you don’t exercise your right to vote,” said Stephens, a prominent Wilkins supporter.
Stephens, who joined other ministers in the May public showing of support for Wilkins, reiterated that he has nothing against Cohen. It would be good for African American kids to see an African American occupying the congressional seat in Washington, he said matter-of-factly.
“Cohen is a good man, but African-American people don’t have representation,” said Stephens, using as a hypothesis a non-Hispanic representing the Hispanic community. “Why would a black person represent the Hispanic community? Another Hispanic understands the community better.”
After introducing Cohen at the opening of his East Memphis campaign headquarters Saturday (May 31st), the Rev. Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., pastor of The New Olivet Baptist Church, railed against Cohen’s detractors, who he said maintain that a “Jew” cannot represent a predominately African-American district.
“It’s the height of disingenuous presentation to suggest that a Jew cannot effectively represent black people,” said Whalum, a former school board commissioner. “Black preachers get in the pulpit every Sunday, every Wednesday in Bible study, and preach and teach about how a Jew has been effectively representing us in heaven for 2,000 years.
“I just think it borders on stupidity,” he said. “Steve has been an excellent representative before he went to Congress.”
Wilkins, who has said “diversity of representation” should be appealing and valued by people regardless of their political affiliation, has emphasized his academic pedigree and his public and private career.
“There is a lot more to Ricky Wilkins than just being a black man,” he said the morning of the endorsements by the ministers. “I just happen to be a black man.”
Whalum says race is the issue, offering this context:
“Black people have been in charge politically for decades, yet the masses of black folks are worse off now than they were when Boss Crump was in office. That’s the race issue to me.”