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?’
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 had 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 sex marriage. If the numbers are saying if President Obama does not have the overwhelming support of Black people again like he did in 2008, he will lose his presidency to a candidate who…will create actual turmoil in the lives of actual Black people, in terms of his policies around health care, education, access to social services…you can go every day of your life without getting ‘gay married,’ you can go everyday of your life without having an abortion, if you so choose. However, you need homes, you need food, you need education, you need to be not caught up in a system of mass incarceration. Do you not think that it is dangerous to be so adamant about this one issue that the president supports? Why you are not encouraging people to register to vote, why not support him?
RO: First of all, we asked to speak with the president in private. We did the same thing for President Bush, we did the same thing for the governor of Nevada when I lived in Nevada, we did the same thing in Memphis…had the president talked to us in private, we never would have gone public…if you or your staff will even meet with and we can share what we feel, we would have left with a handshake…[President Obama] didn’t respect us enough to even answer us
JL: There is nothing that I can imagine that President Obama can say to you to change your feelings on same sex marriage and likely vice versa. If he brought you and a group of people that feel the same way that you do into a meeting and said ‘I’m here to let you know how I feel and why I will fight tooth and nail to the day that I die to support same sex marriage,’ how—
RO: You didn’t hear me. The truth of it is we asked to speak to [Attorney General] Mr. Holder. We didn’t even bother the president at first, we asked to have a dialogue with him.
JL: Why Eric Holder?
RO: [Obama] didn’t think enough [of us] to have a dialogue with us [now,] when he wanted a dialogue when he first ran for office. He was accessible then, if he is [not willing] to have a dialogue now, why should we respect him and not let him know that we are here and we are going to heard one way or another?
JL: [Regarding Obama,] it just seems that there is a unique level of expectations of this man— I don’t know if it’s because he’s African American, I don’t know if it’s because he is Christian-identified, as all our presidents have been— that he has done some sort of disservice to the Black community by supporting same sex marriage…it just seems like when Black people have so many other things at stake. Where is the outrage over mass incarceration? Where is the outrage over lack of access to preventative health care methods for women? There wasn’t this large outcry coming from the Black church about any of those things, about HIV/AIDS, the destruction of our schools. There’s been activism, there’s been work done, but with this single issue, Obama has done some sort of grand disservice?:
RO: I have worked aggressively hard for the education of our young people. Let me tell you something, I’ve picked cotton, I grew up so poor [yet] I earned my way my way, I earned three university degrees…I know what it means to have him in the White House. I marched that he could go to the White House, I laid my life on the line in the Civil Rights Movement…that he thinks that he can ignore us and not talk to us, but he talked to the Latinos, he talks to the gays…If he thinks he can ignore us and take our vote for granted, take the leaders for granted, we will show him. I don’t care if he is Black, White, yellow, green or red, but we will show him.
JL: Black people are literally on fire right now. You have people— teenagers, kids—dying in Chicago. Getting shot 10, 12, 30 in a night and you’re sending out daily press releases about same sex marriage. Is this the greatest challenge of your generation or my generation? is this the biggest fight that we have in the middle of an election season? Do we have that much to lose from gay people getting married?
RO: I think we do. First of all, the Black family has been destroyed. When I grew up there were more Black men going to college, now there are more Black men going to prison. Something is wrong.
JL: What does that have to do with homosexuality? There are Black men who have went to college and graduate and got married and are gay and also Black men who have women who they’ve been in intimate relationships with who didn’t go to college and who don’t provide for their children. So who is the problem in our community?
RO: We’re our own problem right now. We are are own problem and we need good moral leadership and I expected that from Obama. Same sex marriage is not [representative of that]…I felt that that one issue was enough to help deteriorate the Black family more than anything else.
JL: How do you feel that gay relationships have destabilized the Black family or Black community? I don’t see many gay guys gangbanging, you don’t see many gay guys abandoning their children or having the same rate of domestic violence that we see in straight homes. How are they destroying the moral fiber of our families when most of us are not getting married anyway?
RO: I felt the president [was] using his office—the highest office in the land—to endorse something that is not good, and I stand my ground on that he is endorsing something [because of] money first, because of the gay contribution from Hollywood (back and forth) The NAACP did the same thing.
JL: Support for same sex marriage is increasing across the country, across racial lines—
RO: If you studied the statistics of every state in the Union, when [SSM] was voted on, they have lost in every state. One person should not go against the will of the people. Not one state has approved same sex marriage in the United States of America when the people voted.
JL: So where is the outcry?
RO: Why would the president stick his neck out and give his approval of it because you are going to have thousands that follow it because he is powerful he has the most powerful position in the world in the world and why would he go against what the people want?
JL: Why is it that we are not getting a massive outcry from other people? Why is it that all of a sudden, because this one particular politician because he’s a Black man—
Owens: It’s not because he’s Black, we did the same thing with President Bush…if you would talk to us in private, we will tell you our disagreements and we’ll leave with a handshake. We’ll never say anything publically. This president didn’t give us the courtesy of a letter answer. He just ignored us.
JL: I’m just curious to know why it’s so more important to mobilize around this than it is around other things?
Owens: I do mobilize, believe me. I just said I did mobilize around education for 52 years.
JL: But I’m saying that, as somebody who is an editor for a major brand, I’ve never received anything from you that didn’t have to do with gay marriage.
RO: We were ignored when we were getting students in college. The mainstream media, both Black and White, ignored us.
JL: I started getting emails from your publicist once a week, sometimes 3 times a month. If he’d reached out to me to tell me that you all were out registering people to vote, that you all were getting people registered for school, that you were working on immunizations, that you all were doing something around the prison industrial complex…and all these other things that have tangible impacts on Black people’s lives, I promise you that you would have gotten coverage because that is the type of narrative that is too often missing from the Black church in the news.
RO: Well, I have sent several myself several news releases…I have been in the trenches working hard for years.
JL: Getting back to the president, you are aware that there is a separation between church and state and that this country owes nothing to your Bible because it has people here that are both “believers” and “non believers” and to say that this person is wrong for supporting something because of what is found isn’t fair because he is not a religious leader.
RO: Then he should have stayed out of moral issues.
JL: It’s a legal issue, marriage is a function…
RO: No, it’s a political issue, it is a political issue.
JL: He’s a politician.
RO: Right, and I think on this issue he was on the wrong, I think he was on the wrong side of this issue and we have supported him. We have supported him with our money, we have supported him with campaigning, we have supported him from the ground up.
JL: Will you continue to support him with your money and your vote?
RO: As I said, we have never told anyone not to vote for President Obama.
JL: Have you told anyone to vote for him? Have you supported him in this election cycle?
RO: No, we have not done that…
JL: Why is that?
RO: We are not going to take a position, we are not going to say ‘don’t vote for him,’ nor are we going to say ‘vote for him’ and we are not going to tell people to vote for anybody else either.
JL: But you told people to vote for him 4 years ago ?
RO: Oh, yes we did.
JL: So now he doesn’t deserve your support because of this ‘moral’ issue, even though there a separation between church and state?
RO: Well, there isn’t such thing as separation as church and state. He’s a politician, I’m a minister. He’s doing his job, I’m doing mine.
JL: Thank you so much for you time, sir.