Obama to meet at the White House with black church leaders

By Hamil R. Harris and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

President Obama will sit down Tuesday with about 20 black religious leaders, including representatives of the major African American denominations, in the second White House meeting in three months to discuss the needs of the black community.

The president has faced growing questions about whether he has done enough to help African Americans deal with the nation's economic downturn. Blacks have been hurt more than other communities by the lack of jobs and the difficulty in obtaining bank financing, among other issues, and some -- including political commentator Tavis Smiley and some members of the Congressional Black Caucus -- say that Obama has not responded urgently.

As the criticism intensified last month, the White House paid little public attention to the critics while aides privately pushed back, citing examples of the president's agenda, such as health care and education, that specifically benefit African Americans.

Tuesday's meeting appeared to be a clear sign that Obama has heard the complaints, especially because it precedes a gathering with a larger group of ministers in the East Room for an Easter prayer breakfast. But a White House spokesman rejected the conclusion.

"This meeting is not about politics," spokesman Corey Ealons said. "It is about connecting with key faith leaders on the challenges impacting our nation. President Obama appreciates the acute challenges facing African Americans across the country and respects the work these pastors are doing to support the communities they serve."

The preachers, who represent some of the largest African American churches in the country, have written an open letter to the president that praises the job Obama has done and encourages him to "stay the course."

"President Obama has pursued policies that are crucial for our communities and the nation as a whole, and we cannot afford to lose courage and fortitude at this juncture," reads the letter, which more than 30 ministers signed. "President Obama has fought for us -- and we must fight for him. . . . We have been troubled by the trivial debates that have become more prominent in Washington and across the country, while at the same time our families are facing historic challenges."

The public show of support and its welcome by the White House is a shift from Obama's seeming detachment from the question of whether he should have a "black agenda." In the past, he has responded by saying that "a rising tide lifts all boats" and that his job "is to be president of the whole country." This time, he is letting the ministers sing his praises.

"He is the president of the United States, not just the president of black people, the president of Latino people," said Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. "We expect him to put together policies and an agenda that will impact all of America and not just one special interest."

The letter, to be presented to Obama by the Rev. T. DeWitt Smith Jr., president of the 2.5 million-member Progressive National Baptist Convention, outlines Obama's accomplishments on behalf of "the least of these," citing changes in education policy, health care and financial regulation.

"We are in the mix here," McKenzie said. "If you are talking about health care, you are talking about African Americans. If you talk about unemployment, African Americans are losing jobs disproportionately."

Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said that the president "is honored to have deep support in the African American church."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company