Throughout this election season, I've been receiving emails from a PR company representing the Coalition of African-American Pastors---an organization I had not heard of prior to this year. All of the press releases were regarding the same topic: the Coalitions' opposition to President Obama's endorsement of same sex marriage earlier this year. I reached out to the organization's president, retired pastor Reverend William 'Bill' Owens, to discuss the issue of gay unions, his civic engagement work and why the separation between church and state won't stop him from challenging the President's stance.
Jamilah Lemieux: When did the Coalition come together?
Reverend Owens: The Coalition is 23 years old, it started as just an educational foundation for putting young people in college, and getting them scholarship and mentoring them through the process. We started [by] helping students that were not able to get in college, they had the ability but they probably didn’t have the ability to [pay for school]...then we expanded [into] the marriage agenda and abortion agenda.
JL: If you were to look at the problems and challenges that are facing the African American community, would you say that [same sex] marriage and abortion are issues with the same weight as sending Black students to college?
RO: My issue was really with the president accepting and endorsing it, and I felt it was a moral issue...With all of the challenges Black young people have [and] with the homosexual population being only less than three percent, I felt they were more important things for him to do rather than issue a moral judgment. I think that some of the people [supporting SSM] should’ve been doing the things that I’ve been doing for 50 years and that is trying to get young Black people educated get them in college...I felt he did it because of the money that Hollywood poured into his campaign...Blacks outweigh the homosexuals by a large segment, so I felt the decision was ill advised and I think it was done for the wrong reasons and I had to be honest.
JL: You know there are also people that are both Black and gay. And, as we both know, you have a large percentage of the country that does support same sex marriage. Do you think that president Obama has a unique responsibility to African Americans, assuming that the majority of African American voters oppose same sex marriage---which has not been proven---to oppose it? How does it become 'the Blacks' versus 'the gays?'
I felt they were more important things for [Obama] to do rather than issue a moral judgment [about same sex marriage.]
RO: I think it is proven, I can tell you why what the polls say you really can’t believe them I know because [our site] had nearly 90 thousand hits and 85 percent of the people are on our side on this issue.
JL: Can you substantiate that with facts and numbers?
RO: Yes, I can. Since we did the first news conference, we advertised 100000signaturesformarriage.com and we’ve had over 87,000 hits and 85 percent have been on our side...If you ask a Black person a question, if a White person [is conducting the research], most [of the] time they are not going to be truthful. They are afraid to stand up or stand out because they look like they’re standing against Obama, because he endorsed it. That’s the reason we’ve taken such a firm stance.
JL: Are you saying that when Black people are polled, they will lie about their feelings on same sex marriage because they are afraid of disrespecting President Obama in front of White people?
Owens: I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying they do it because they don’t even want other Blacks to know that they don’t stand with Obama on that issue.
JL: Whether you support abortion or gay marriage or not---the other party has repeatedly voted and put things in practice that make it harder for Black people to have a good quality of life. And then you have a current president who has largely been on the side of the Black and the poor and the working class when it comes to these vital issues. If the biggest thing that you can say that Barack Obama is doing wrong is supporting same sex marriage, is it worth with holding your support from him?
Owens: I’m not withholding my support and I have never ever [done that.] I’ve had a lot of news coverage and I have never asked people not to vote for Obama. We do not suggest who people vote for, we are not going to endorse any candidate. We make our position known and let the people decide.
JL: I have never heard of your organization, I never received a press release from you until President Obama stood up and supported same sex marriage...I’m not saying you don’t do other work, I’m saying that the public perception of your organization at this point may well be limited to your opposition to same