Steve Williams

A lot of controversial issues have been in the news lately – immigration, corruption, obstruction, climate change, and health care to name a few.

To address issues like these, some nations have formed ‘representative democracy’ governments where individuals are elected to represent the group.

Americans are quite familiar with representative democracies probably because we’re inundated with commercials and candidates seeking to represent us. But nowhere in our Constitution does it say that our representatives must be the only ones to confront political and social issues. Whatever happened to the church’s commitment to combating unjust institutions of the world?

Perhaps it’s because these issues are so polarizing, but preachers in Georgetown avoid them like they avoid the Coronavirus.

Even so, I don’t believe turning the other cheek or praying away controversial issues is biblically-based. My Bible tells me in Matthew 25: 35-36 that Christians should be about the business of addressing political and social issues.

From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, the church has benefited from social activism– especially the Black Church. African-Americans have paid the ultimate price for their freedom. Shouldn’t we, their descendants, take better care of these hard-earned rights?

Haven’t we as parents use this argument before with our children? How often have we rebuked them by saying, “if you had to pay for that dress, that car, or those shoes, you’d take better care of it?”

Causes can be difficult to champion, but churches need not wait for the government to address them. Ministry is not immunity. Was it not Dr. Martin Luther King who once said, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; rather, through the tireless efforts of men and women who are willing to be coworkers with God?”

As we celebrate another MLK Day and Black History Month, I’m appalled, yes appalled, at how divorced so many of our local black preachers are from the social advocacy that Dr. King embodied.

Since Jesus never divorced Himself from the social issues of His day, why do so many of them dismiss this part of his demeanor?

Among other things, Jesus was a mover and shaker, a disturber of the peace – a trouble maker. But many of our local religious leaders seem to have a chapter in their Bible called the “Fifth Amendment” because every time they get a chance to speak about a social, racial, or political issue that affects our lives, they say what amounts to, “no comment.”

Last month is a good case in point. A former county council member attended a council meeting and said some offensive things about the leaders of a particular civil rights organization, which I will not dignify with a response. Moreover, the ex-councilmen called for the removal of a political milestone that minorities fought hard for 50 years ago — Single Member Districts.

If you’re new to Georgetown, not old enough to remember, or simply forgot how Single-Member Districts were realized, you should know it was a socially conscious / politically committed preacher named Richard S. Watkins who led the way. Watkins fought the good fight, kept the faith, and finished the course.

Watkins, the former pastor of Georgetown’s Soul Saving Station Church and former jail chaplain, came to Georgetown only five years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the time, he had no idea that he would impact the lives of thousands in Georgetown County.

In the 1960s, while ministering at the Soul Saving Station Church in Harlem, N.Y., he saw drug addicts, drug dealers, gang bangers, prostitutes, hustlers, and hardened criminals turn their lives over to God. He witnessed the miracle of lives transformed by the saving grace of Jesus Christ. He knew there was nothing too hard for God for those who believed, and he believed.

It just so happened that the shepherd of Soul Saving Station in Harlem was a native son of Georgetown – Jesse Winley. Bishop Winley took Richard under his wings. He guided him and mentored him to be a soldier in the army of his growing church, which by then was in cities all across America.

Winley never asked Richard to come to Georgetown and start a mission in April of 1970. It was God. When Richard informed his pastor of the mission God had given him, Winley wholeheartedly supported it. Little did they know that God was preparing Richard to play a pivotal role in a movement that had begun years before he ever set foot in Georgetown?

In 1970, Georgetown, like most of the South, was polarized with whites having the upper hand and blacks knowing their place. As fate would have it, this was also at a time; things were beginning to change for African-Americans. Georgetown schools’ had recently integrated, and blacks had won numerous political battles in the courts. Be that as it may, Richard was no militant — he was a man of the cloth.

He was charged with ministering not so much to the needs of the natural man, but the spiritual man. He believed that if a man, even a black man, would “seek ye first the kingdom of God, then all these things would be added unto him” – yet, Richard was not socially blind.

Like Moses, God was preparing him to lead his people into a Promised Land. In Georgetown, the proverbial promised-land was helping blacks secure their God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Though many before him had tried, it was as if God was telling Richard, “You’re the one I’ve chosen to do my bidding.”

Back in 1898, many state legislatures had developed new constitutions with provisions making voter registration more complicated. These provisions included poll taxes, residency requirements, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. South Carolina was one of these states.

As designed, these provisions effectively disenfranchised blacks and poor whites. Even in districts where Blacks were in the majority and could vote, many states created voting districts that gerrymandered (reduced) the impact of black voters.

Fast forward to 1965, and the National Voting Rights Act made these restrictions illegal in every state, but a few counties had one more trick up their sleeve. Legally, they could establish voting systems that allowed one winner to take all — the so-called At-Large system. Under this system, one person represented the entire county making it improbable for minority (any minority — black, white, or other) populations to win elections.

Before the Voting Rights Act, South Carolina, a state whose population was 30 percent black, had elected no black officials in the 20th century. By 1970, the percentage of black elected officials in South Carolina had slightly increased, but Georgetown continued to lag behind the rest of the state. Blacks were a substantial majority in the city but outnumbered in the county.

Richard knew that if this discrepancy continued, African-Americans would never be adequately represented in their county government.

Civil rights groups successfully sued their local governments in the federal courts for various voting violations, but this strategy often caused bitter political infighting and polarization between the races.

Ironically, white Republicans in Georgetown County (who were in the minority at the time) also believed the At-Large system of electing officials reduced their chances of gaining representation in county government.

Not wanting to file another divisive federal lawsuit, leaders in both communities decided to go in another direction. They organized a bipartisan committee to explore alternative ways of fixing the system. They soon realized they needed someone to chair their committee, someone they trusted, and someone with credibility in both communities. Richard S. Watkins was that someone.

Reverend Watkins was fair-minded, thoughtful, and issue-oriented. People not only liked him, they respected him. But unbeknownst to them, he was someone God had placed here years earlier to do His will. Richard quietly began building the necessary political and social coalitions to bolster their cause.

Along with other community groups, he gathered signatures and galvanized the community to bring the issue before a referendum. In 1980, the referendum was placed on the voting ballot. That year, the majority of Georgetonians voted to repeal the At-Large system in favor of a more equitable system of electing our county representatives. For the first time since Reconstruction, blacks were justly represented in their county government.

Bishop Richard Watkins could have buried his head in the proverbial sand of the 1970s and joined the chorus of complaints about how dark things were. He could have declared, “This is none of my spiritual business;” instead, he said, “Here am I, Lord, send me.”

Steve Williams is an award winning journalist who lives in Georgetown. His columns are published regularly in the Georgetown Times and South Strand News.