The performance by the Rev. William Owens at the National Press Club last week was enough to make a cynic blush. In a nearly empty room, as the C-SPAN cameras rolled, Owens, a Tennessee minister and self-proclaimed leader of the civil rights movement called out the president for his changed position on same sex marriage.
“I didn’t march one inch, one foot, one yard, for a man to marry a man, and a woman to marry a woman,” he said.
Claiming to speak for thousands, he connected the prevalence of same-sex marriage to the collapse of the African-American family. And he threatened the president with a widespread revolt by black voters on Election Day. “He has not done a smart thing,” Owens said.
Then, perhaps to clinch a spot in the news cycle, Owens weighed in on the Chick-fil-A scandal, the story that launched a million clicks. He aligned himself (and by implication all civil rights activists) with Dan Cathy, the company’s president, who has declared his opposition to same sex marriage, by equating the hate hurled at the chicken-sandwich franchise to the racism of the Jim Crow South.
“It’s the same thing that happened when I was marching for civil rights,” Owens said. “They didn’t want a black eating in their restaurants, they didn’t want us staying in their hotels. Now they’re saying because we take a Christian position, they don’t want us in their cities. Well, we won’t take it.”
CNN, Fox News, NBC, the New York Post, the Daily Caller and the Christian Post, among others, followed the story. Headlines underscored the potential threat: “Obama’s support for gay marriage ‘might cost him the election,’” wrote NBC.com.
In reality, though, Owens isn’t a story. He’s a figurehead in what political operatives call an “Astroturf” campaign. It looks like a grass-roots movement, but it’s really a political stunt. And his threat is not a threat.
“I would place the odds of African Americans defecting the president as about the same as the odds of an asteroid hitting the Earth and wiping out all human life,” says David Bositis at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “It’s not going to happen.”
Owens has been, for years, a religious liaison for the National Organization for Marriage, a conservative lobbying group whose aim is to block or roll back same-sex marriage legislation wherever it occurs. Though he told me in a phone call that he receives no compensation from NOM, his new campaign called Mandate for Marriage, aimed at urging African Americans to withdraw their support for the president, is made possible in part by individuals affiliated with NOM. “We have asked a few people for contributions – some of them from the National Organization for Marriage,” he told me.
To drive home the point: The day after Owens’s press conference, NOM’s president, Brian Brown, went on Fox and said that “key Democratic constituencies do not support same-sex marriage.” NOM created a truth and then went out and proclaimed it.
In every craven political maneuver, there is a glimmer of honesty, however, and this case is no exception. The African American community has been slower than the American majority to accept same-sex marriage.
More important, some African Americans are frustrated with the president, feeling that since 2008 he has neglected their concerns and taken their votes for granted. This frustration has little to do with same-sex marriage and everything to do with jobs, the economy and the creeping distance between the haves and the have nots. In our phone conversation, Rev. Owens was emphatic on this point.
“The black family and the black community have so many problems,” he said.“ We’re behind every group of people academically. We have young girls having children. More black men in prison than in college. I’d like to see those problems be addressed.”
Cornel West, the progressive philosopher – who incidentally supports same-sex marriage – has said much the same thing.
But if Owens expects large numbers of African Americans to stay home on Election Day on account of the president’s gay-marriage views, he’s mistaken. And in our conversation, he articulates one of the main reasons why: African Americans like Obama; they like health care reform, and they continue to see his presidency as historic.
“I know the sacrifices we made — the price we paid so that blacks would be able to vote,” Owens concedes. The pastor struggled with his conscience, he said, before deciding not to vote on Nov. 6. That position puts him in a stubborn, and short-sighted, minority.