National faith leaders, civil rights icons and clergy engaged in spiritual reflection and political soul-searching Saturday during the annual Congressional Black Caucus prayer breakfast at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
Two years ago, the event was a praise-fest as leaders reflected on seeing the first African American ascend to the White House, but at a time when unemployment is high and the president’s poll numbers are falling, the Rev. Freddie Haynes delivered a different message that was met by a chorus of amens.
“Out of hell, great leaders emerge,” said Haynes, a well-known Texas evangelist who preached from Mark 10:45, in which Jesus tells the disciples that he came to serve. “In the most hellified times, God always raises up servant leadership. If you want to lead, you must serve and create a heaven out of this hell.”
It was a sermon embraced by the crowd, which included Martin Luther King III, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Suzan Johnson Cook, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
“What I heard today is that we need leaders who are servants,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.). “Rev. Haynes gave us a call to action to protect our leaders who serve, especially our president. It was a very powerful message.”
The prayer breakfast came on the last day of the 41st Annual Legislative Conference, which was scheduled to conclude at night with a speech by President Obama at the annual Phoenix Awards dinner. The conference had the usual pomp and circumstance as in previous years, but substance seemed to trump style as thousands came to Washington to debate at issues forums during the day and back-slap at happy hours and parties at night.
This year has been marked by tensions between African American members of Congress and the White House as the unemployment rate among blacks remains persistently high. The promise that blacks felt in 2008, when Obama was elected, has evaporated. Indeed, many blamed Obama for not pushing hard enough to ease the 16 percent unemployment rate among blacks, the highest in more than 25 years.
“People want me to really fight to get jobs, to improve the economic status of people in our state and to really fight to get a handle on this housing market that seemingly is crushing all of our working families,” Edwards said. “They don’t want to back down against Republicans who want to say ‘no’ to everything.”
And there was angst over the president’s reelection hopes. While many said they would vote for Obama, they were also weary of the president. Last week, a Washington Post-ABC news poll found that support may be wavering. Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held “strongly favorable” views of Obama. Now that number is 58 percent.
“I’m tired of the ‘it’s the Republicans’ fault,’ ” said Joi Franklin, 33, a jobs counselor for a nonprofit group in St. Louis. “We expect you to fight them and win. I know it’s hard, but it’s exasperating. But will I stay home next year? No way.”
Jason Murray, 42, an education lobbyist from Atlanta, said Obama gives in to Republicans too often. The last straw was when he changed the time of his speech on the economy this month to cater to the GOP’s “antics.”
“I keep telling myself he’s just trying to get reelected, but there’s got to be a point where he’s down for something, that he isn’t worried about not being safe,” Murray said. “That’s the word that keeps popping in my head — safe. And all I want to do is say, ‘Come on brother, come on.’ ”
Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) said the Republicans’ solutions to creating jobs — with a heavy reliance on tax cuts for businesses — were insufficient.
“I am not waiting for Steve Jobs or Apple Computer or the iPad to solve unemployment,” he said Friday at an afternoon forum. “The private sector, if they could have solved unemployment by giving [blacks] contracts, they would have done it already. Only the government — of, for and by the people — has the power to give you a job today.”
In the District, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said that in addition to jobs, elected leaders have to adapt to the changes happening around them. The District, for instance, has seen an influx of whites, threatening the city’s majority-black status.
“If black power depends on large majorities in congested cities, this is not the kind of black power that you will see in the 21st century,” she said. “What you will need is politicians sensitive to the needs of the black community without alienating whites who moved into the cities.”