(RNS) — Leaders of the Progressive National Baptist Convention announced plans at their annual session this week in St. Louis to work on enhancing voting rights and criminal justice reform through partnerships with like-minded organizations.
Members of the social justice team of the historically Black Protestant denomination also traveled to nearby Ferguson on Wednesday (Aug. 9), the last day of their meeting, to mark the ninth anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager whose fatal shooting by a white officer prompted protests that energized the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Rev. David R. Peoples, president of the PNBC, said in an interview Thursday that supporting the Brown family and the Ferguson community is one example of how the denomination is pursuing justice issues.
“We want to make sure that wherever injustice takes place, wherever our people are oppressed and don’t have a fair shake, we’re going to speak out, we’re going to speak truth to power,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere until those things happen and positive change occurs.”
He said a couple of thousand Baptists attended the meeting of the denomination of more than 1,200 churches and more than 1.5 million members.
In his remarks the previous day at a news conference, Peoples said the organization would continue to follow in the footsteps of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who considered the PNBC his denominational home.
“We won’t stop until what Dr. King said, until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” he said on Wednesday. “We won’t stop until Florida Governor DeSantis understands that slavery never benefited any African American.”
He continued: “We won’t stop until the real thugs like Donald Trump, who are the real threat to democracy, get justice they deserve.”
PNBC leaders also differentiated members of their denomination from Christian nationalists.
“What a tragedy it is that so much of what it means to be a Christian has been co-opted by white nationalists,” said the Rev. Willie D. Francois III, the co-chair of the PNBC’s social justice arm. “But there’s something about the rebellious imagination of folk like us, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, that says we have political priorities that aren’t limited to policing who people sleep with and policing what women do with their bodies. The Progressive National Baptist Convention is actually pro-life because we care about bodies before they are born all the way through the tomb.”
Answering the question “Why is the white Christian church aligning with Trump?” the Rev. Frederick D. Haynes III, the new Rainbow PUSH Coalition president, responded: “They’re more white than Christian.”
During the meeting, PNBC delegates also adopted a resolution saying the denomination “strongly denounces any … who refuse to support the results of the 2020 presidential election” and anyone who supports the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The Rev. Darryl Gray, the PNBC’s director general of social justice, said the denomination will be working with Amnesty International USA to provide training and other resources on gun violence intervention to the denomination’s churches.
The Baptists gathered for the meeting approved a resolution that said the two groups will “work to reduce gun violence in communities across the country while advocating for the passage of federal legislation titled the Break the Cycle of Violence Act, which will provide federal funding for community organizations conducting gun violence prevention work.”
Francois said the broader gun violence concerns of the denomination include greater accountability by police departments.
“We went today to Ferguson to stand in solidarity with this family to practice the presence of God to practice the ministry of presence because we are tired of blue privilege, blue terror and blue violence,” he said. “It is not enough for us to talk about gun violence in our communities without also talking about gun violence that we’ve normalized, and that’s police gun violence.”
Francois added that gun violence in general should be viewed as an American issue, not a Black issue, and one that needs to be solved with improved access to jobs and better schools rather than larger police forces.
The denomination also plans to partner with the Faith Leaders of Color Coalition, which is seeking state and federal action to end the death penalty. PNBC members passed a resolution with the same aim.
“I stand here arm-in-arm with the Brown family, clergy and people of faith who are intentional about being participatory in our policy efforts,” said Joia Erin Thornton, national director of the coalition. “We want to bring forth results that promote equity and opportunity for those who are historically disenfranchised in their communities and who are over-policed and often selectively policed.”
Voting rights, a longtime agenda item of the denomination, continued to be addressed, including with a resolution calling for passage of a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would make voting “a permanent right for adult US citizens and residents.”
In the interview, Peoples condemned “strange tactics that are used to make sure that people are denied or deterred from voting,” including people of color.
“We need to find a way to make sure that voting is easier and not harder,” he said.
At the news conference, several PNBC leaders agreed on the need to further address voting rights.
“We’ve come here 58 years after the voting rights bill was passed to say we’re going to revive it,” said Haynes, a clergyman affiliated with the PNBC.
Peoples cited the continuing partnership with the AFL-CIO on voter mobilization.
“We won’t stop until the AFL-CIO and PNBC continue to push back voting suppression, till everybody gets a chance to vote,” he said at the news conference. “Even those who have paid their time, they have a right to vote. We won’t stop until everyone can realize the dream to vote, understand all of us are God’s children.”
Francois added that the voter registration work with the AFL-CIO will be organized around their organizations’ policy priorities.
“We are tired of politicians asking us, and benefiting and pimping our robes and pimping our collars, for their agenda,” he said. “If they want our votes they need to sign on to our agenda.”
At last year’s annual session, the denomination joined forces in a renewed partnership with the prominent union, decades after the two groups worked together to lobby for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory practices in hiring and voting, respectively.
The denomination also reiterated criticism it first expressed in June when the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in admissions by American universities. It said the ruling will be a motivator in get-out-the-vote efforts for the 2024 election.
“We believe this is not the final word on race-specific affirmative action, and our advocacy will mirror that conviction,” it said in a resolution. “PNBC will continue to partner with the nation’s HBCUs and Black churches to ensure the growth of the Black middle class.”