Buffalo's "Prophet of Protest": The Political Leadership and Activism of Reverend Dr. Bennett W. Smith, Sr

Article excerpt

Buffalo's "Prophet of Protest": The Political Leadership and Activism of Reverend Dr. Bennett W. Smith, Sr.

Introduction

Since the Civil Rights movement that resulted in the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, protest-oriented African-American(2) clergy have positioned themselves increasingly as electoral activists within their local political communities. This faith-based protest-oriented activism, emanating from the Civil Rights movement, has given way to a systemic procedural politics "in which the range of involvement for African-American clergy activists has included elective and appointive office-holding at federal, state and local levels as well as the more widespread practice of brokering votes and resources as a means of leveraging politicians of all kinds" (Smith 1994: 35). In fact, it is in the marshalling of votes and material resources for political officials and candidates that African-American clergy have maintained their high profiles as power brokers within in their local communities (Smith 1994: 39; Harris 1994; Lincoln and Mamiya 1991; Tate 1991). Situated within the context of the historical "Black Church," scholars have found that as an autonomous institution, it has been strategic to the electoral process as sources of votes, funding, publicity, and organizational infrastructure (Harris 1994; Lincoln and Mamiya 1990).

Lincoln and Mamiya (1990: 243) note that the African-American clergy and churches participate collectively in ways that go beyond the realm of electoral and protest politics in that their involvement also entails the community organizing and community building that constitute many African-American clergy and churches activities. Harris (1994: 63), summarizing numerous studies, posits that the involvement of Black churches and clergy in the mayoral campaign of Harold Washington in Chicago, the local politics of New York City, and the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, point to the particular importance of church life as a resource for African-American voter mobilization (Young 1988; Tate 1991). This significance is embedded in the belief that Black church activists and African-American church members probably receive political messages at "their places of worship at a greater level than white churchgoers, directly stimulating political activity" (Harris 1994: 63).

Although conventional wisdom maintains that the Black church is central to the organizational base in African-American electoral politics, some scholars have taken a different view of the electoral importance of Black churches in general. New research suggests that the church may not play as an important role in the mobilization of the African-American electorate as do civil rights organizations such as the NAACP (Walton and Smith 1999: 41, 63). This finding supports the position that Black churches, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, were "not autonomous, popularly based centers of political activity" (Reed 1994: 41-48). Rather, some Black churches may have in fact discouraged more than encouraged participation in a democratic, procedural politics. Conyers (1996) concurs by stating that the "Black clergy profession has sometimes served as surrogates to neutralize and regress political, economic, social, and educational affairs of African-Americans, [and as] the primary political and religious leadership force in the lives of African-Americans, [the Black church has] somehow...stonewalled radical/nationalist leadership" (p. 12). Therefore, as Calhoun-Brown (1996) argues, it is a "mistake to assume that the majority of African American churches are political environments," but "only in contexts where the verbal political messages were sent was the clear link between politically mobilized individuals and African American churches manifest" (p. 951). Understandably, these conclusions have been drawn from national case studies of church-based political involvement as opposed to systemic analyses of individual local political arenas. …