Draped in red, white, and purple robes that just kissed the tops of his white patent leather shoes, Bishop S. L. Green stood bathed in television lights beside his church's pulpit here today and gave his blessing to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Henry E. Howell.
For Howell, the political sanction from Green and other black church leaders is essential to his chances in the June 14 Democratic Primary. To help make sure he got those endorsements, he went before four black congregations in Hampton and Newport News today.
"God has made me an instrument of change in Virginia," he told each one. "I have witnessed for things that no one else has spoken up for before in the history of this Commonwealth.
"I went to Central State Mental Hospital in 1954 when it was segregated for black people only and sued the state because of the poor services there. The judge lashed out at the state and the General Assembly unlocked millions for the hospital. I did this when I wasn't running for anything."
Howell put himself in an exclusive club of political and civil rights leaders who have had solid black support.
"I want you to get it in your mind that this election on June 14 is just as important as if Abraham Lincoln was running for governor, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt were running for governor of Virginia in the bottom of the depression, or John Fitzgerald Kennedy or Martin Luther King."
Howell received either an endorsement from the pulpit or at least a warm greeting at each church he attended, but none so colorful as the one that was bestowed by Bishop Green.
As Howell walked down the aisle of his church with a small party, Green put politics in its place by saying, "They're running for office, I'm running for heaven."
The effect on the packed church was electric. Women jumped to their feet and raised their arms as the organist played louder and louder. There were hand clapping and cries of joy.
Then Green told how he had reaprimanded the staff of former attorney general Andrew P. Miller, Howell's Democratic Primary opponent, for listing him as a Miller supporter.
Finally, he said, "I told them I hadn't endorsed anyone. I didn't tell them I'm voting for Henry. Henry's the man."
Then Green brought the congregation into a responsive introduction of the candidate. "Turn to the person next to you and say "Henry" he said.
"Henry," the worshippers responded in unision.
"Henry? Who is Henry?" Green asked, and the congregation repeated his words in unison.
"Stand up, Henry," Green commanded, and when the blue-suited Howell obeyed in a front pulpit, Green said, with flare and a gesture, "That's Henry. I hope he's the last white man I vote for for Governor. I want to see some chocolate up there."
Howell did not fail to reamind Bishop 's own political notoriety. "When I went to the very first party that President Jimmy Carter gave when he got to the White House," Howell said, "the very first Virginians I saw there were Bishops Green and his wife."
Howell clearly was reaping the rewards of his years as the most outspoken supporter of black rights in Virginia statewide politics.
When the Rev. Woodrow Brown endorsed him at the second Baptist Church, East End, in Newport News he said:
"My stand is for Henry Howell. He has outspoken out through the years. He hasn't just started. These folks that jumped overnight, I feel a little nervous about them."
The conventional political view is that Howell must have an overwhelming turnout of black support on June 14 to beat Miller. The candidate made it clear that he subsribes to that view.
He told each congregation, "If we don't stay united, if we don't pour out to the polls, I'm not going to win."
Howell has gotten 90 to 95 per cent of the black vote in each of his statewide races, including two unsuccessful runs for the governorship in 1969 and 1973.
His failure to turn out a larger black vote in 1973 is blamed by many state election analysts for his loss to Republican Mills. E. Godwin.
In his campaign, Howell is concentrating his limited financial resources on turning out his well-identified supporters, including a potential of about 100,000 black voters.
However, Miller also has had near-solid black support in two statewide races for attorney general against conservative Republicans.
Miller's staff hopes for 25 per cent to 35 per cent of the black vote and Howell himself once conceded in an unguarded minute that Miller might get as much as 25 per cent.
In addition to church endorsements, the black vote traditionally has responded to endorsements by a few groups of black civic leaders.
Howell already had been endorsed by the black Virginia Crusade for Voters and the Black Democratic Caucus. He is almost certain to get the backing of the black Concerned Citizens in Norfolk, his hometown. Miller, however, has received the backing of a few smaller black political organizations.