When Donald Trump came to Detroit last weekend making his first appearance at a Black church, it had all the markings of a well choreographed trip. To say the least, one visit to a Black church is largely insufficient to convince Black voters that he cares about their wellbeing.
Speaking before parishioners at Great Faith Ministries International, Trump said all the right things. He paid homage to the Black church as central to the African-American experience. Bishop Wayne T. Jackson invited Trump to speak at his church, but Donald Trump did not convince the Black church.
His remarks which clearly were not indicative of the Trump we’ve come to know on the campaign trail, especially after he called Pope Francis “disgraceful” for criticizing his harsh immigration policies. In Detroit we saw a more subdued Trump, who has no problem hurling deeply personal insults at his political opponents, trying to convince the congregation at Great Faith that he has religion.
“You do right every day by your community and your families,” Trump told his audience. “You raise children in the light of God. I will always support your church, always, and defend your right to worship.
“I am here today to listen to your message and I hope my presence here will help your voice to reach new audiences in our country,” he continued. “And many of these audiences desperately need your spirit and your thought.”
Whether Trump’s maiden trip to the Black church was a disguised attempt to convince suburban white voters that he is not a bigot is besides the point. The fact that he chose Detroit as the place to make his debut in a Black church is significant on many levels.
Detroit has a longstanding religious tradition that commanded influence in the affairs of the city, calling and challenging politicians to do more for ‘the least of these.’
Drawing from the wells of that tradition, a majority of Detroit’s ministers brushed aside the Republican presidential nominee’s visit as a photo-op and not one rooted in a genuine commitment to address the socioeconomic and political challenges facing the city.
His surrogates, Ben Carson and Omarosa Manigault who accompanied him to Detroit are the wrong ambassadors to the black community because they have no track record of fighting for racial justice, which is central to the Black struggle in America today. Ironically, Carson is a Detroit native.
Because there is a deeper understanding in Detroit about the special place the church occupies in the lives of the people. That is why Detroiters were not fooled by the “drive by” visit Trump made.
Detroit has also served as the fertile ground for many movements for social change where the church and its leadership have always served as the catalyst, explaining why Trump’s visit will do little to sway Black voters here.
Take for example the the Shrine of the Black Madonna, a religious institution which historically espoused a Black theology- insisting that the church cannot be divorced from address the questions of racial justice and affirming the humanity of African Americans.
The church founded by Albert B. Cleage Jr., was pivotal during the Civil Rights movement and in ushering in Coleman A. Young as the first Black mayor of Detroit in the 1970s, and today it remains as a powerful reminder of the proud legacy of Black activism mixed with Black theology that set the city apart.
Another example is the Rev C.L. Franklin, former pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church and the father of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Franklin, who was a close friend of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, exemplified the role of the church in demanding political accountability.
Franklin epitomized the finest example of how Black church leaders ought to become the voices for social change. He was key in organizing the Walk to Freedom March keynoted by King which preceded the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
At Plymouth United Church of Christ, the Rev Dr. Nicholas Hood Sr., who was a signatory at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference co-founded by King, led economic development initiatives to ensure that the church was relevant in the life of the community.
At Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, the Rev Frederick G. Sampson also pushed to make the church a voice to be reckoned with in the civic life of Detroit. Many of Detroit’s luminaries called Tabernacle their home church including Rep. John Conyers Jr., Federal Judge Damon Keith, author Michael Eric Dyson among others.
Did Trump know about the legacy of the Black church in Detroit before he visited? If he did he should know that he was coming to a skeptical audience that will use the grand legacy of the church as a barometer of truth to decipher what comes out of his mouth.
Trump’s candidacy has emboldened White supremacists who have come out in support of him, which is a bastardization of how the black church –especially in the south has fought against racism and bigotry.
Detroiters see him as a candidate who has used racism to bolster his support among a segment in the nation by leading the birther campaign against President Obama.
During his birther campaign Trump tried to humiliate Obama by forcing the White House to release his birth certificate. He has never apologized for the campaign that questioned the legitimacy of the president to hold office.
Another sticking point why many in Detroit did not pay much attention to his “Black outreach” is because there is nothing in Trump’s record that shows he cared for or worked for the advancement of blacks by tackling issues Black America is grappling with like poverty, unemployment, foreclosures, crime amongst others.
Instead what is in the public record is damaging for the candidate who asked what do Black voters have to lose by supporting him. The answer is found in the story about how his family’s real estate business discriminated against potential Black tenants in New York in the 1970s, which serves to remind people today of the “Whites only” era that ignited the civil rights movement.
Again, Bishop Wayne T. Jackson invited Trump to speak at his church. But Donald Trump did not convince the Black church.
Bankole Thompson is an opinion columnist at The Detroit News. Email firstname.lastname@example.org