No one could have predicted that paths grown cold would cross, or that one degree of separation would make for an odd connection. About a week ago, Hofstra University in Hempstead , New York , was the site of the last of three debates between Barack Obama and John McCain. Just a few years ago, I was invited to the same university (twice actually due to a mix-up) to lecture on my book Germany’s Black Holocaust: 1890-1945. They treated me like a king, sending a limo to pick me up at the airport, and, of course, putting me up in a nice hotel. I had no idea at the time that real Black royalty, Barack Obama, would grace the university with his presence. I was scheduled to present to the campus crowd; Obama would present to the universe. Neither did I anticipate that when ABC’s Charles Gibson interviewed me twice on Good Morning America during the ill-advised 2004 Michael Jackson trial, he would be the first to interview Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Exciting, historic times indeed! But, in this regard, I pose a question, What do Malcolm X, Michael Jackson, Prince (the Minnesotan mentioned above), and myself have in common? This: Due to the influence of Jehovah’s Witnesses, we don’t vote. You can blame our mothers if you’d like.
According to the book On the Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X (1996), it could be said—arguably—that Louise Little, Malcolm’s mother, raised him and his siblings as Witnesses just after the tragic death of her husband. “Malcolm does not mention in his autobiography,” says author, Louis A DeCaro, Jr., “that he had already become interested in religious ideas…He even contacted the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society seeking Bible-study assistance from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For an extended time, their representatives visited him [in prison] regularly.…It is interesting to note that Malcolm turned to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society for theological guidance…It would seem that he turned to the Jehovah’s Witnesses because he was drawing on his own religious background. As noted earlier, Malcolm’s mother had found certain aspects of the Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine of great interest and had exposed her children to their meeting.” (My emphasis.) So, though he entertained political aspirations after leaving the Nation of Islam where voting was prohibited, were El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (his father’s seventh child of ten) to re-embrace the teachings of his mother, it’s unlikely he’d participate in the voting process today, and that despite Obama being a big fan.
Katherine Jackson, Michael Jackson’s mother, raise all nine of her children (like Malcolm, Michael was the seventh) as Jehovah’s Witnesses. For this reason, it is highly improbable that the King of Pop voted for Barack, or anyone else for that matter. My mother, Ophelia P. Carr, raised all nine of us (like Malcolm before me and Michael after me, I am the seventh child) as Jehovah’s Witnesses. And though I admire Obama greatly and am inspired by him, no, I didn’t vote. Neither did Prince, who is reportedly the only one in his family who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is not the case, though, with Venus and Serena Williams. Both of them, as well as their mother Oracene Williams and at least one sister, are Jehovah’s Witnesses. None of them voted either.
One popular Internet article states: “Serena Williams told reporters at Wimbledon …that she’s excited about Barack Obama’s candidacy but won’t vote for him because Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘don’t get involved in politics.’ Her sister Venus—who is also a Jehovah’s Witness—wouldn’t even comment on the presidential election.” Other Americans who’re excited about Obama’s candidacy feel they’ve suffered far too long under eight years of Bush. Proverbial texts express their sentiments well: “A ruler who mistreats the poor is like a roaring lion or a bear hunting for food.” (Prov. 28:15; Contemporary English Version) “When those who do wrong become rulers, the people groan.” (Prov. 29:2; New International Reader’s Version) The article goes on to explain: “Voting is not expressly prohibited, but it is discouraged. The Watchtower, the official publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, ran an article in 1999 suggesting that the decision whether to vote was one of personal conscience, although it carefully laid out reasons for staying out of the voting booth….Jehovah’s Witnesses are by far the largest religious group that refuses to vote, but they are not the only ones: Old Order Amish, Christadelphians, and Rastafarians have all traditionally shunned politics.”
Somewhat humorously, Obama himself has been accused of being a Witness sympathizer. CNN.com quotes him as having said: “We’re going to keep on praising together. I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth.” Interestingly, Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Kingdom blessings will extend to a paradise earth inherited by the righteous. Obama’s statements have caused some drama in certain circles. Couple what he said with his door-to-door canvassing during this election year, and you get statements like this one made by a conservative blogger: “One thing is for sure, Barack Obama sounds more like one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses than he does a future President of the United States.” And just this past Monday one die-hard Obama supporter in Denver , who along with other Obamaites, also adopted the door-to-door method proclaimed when interviewed by a London-based news organization: “We are like political Jehovah’s Witnesses, but we are unrepentant.” And because Obama didn’t sport a flag pin on his lapel at one time during his bid for the presidency, some even felt that the Witnesses had influenced him in some way. (See my Sentinel article, “Is Obama ‘Patriotic’ Enough?” February 28, 2008) Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to salute the flag of any country.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a common thread binds Jehovah’s Witnesses and America’s Black Communities. I enumerate the commonalities in my books, A History of Jehovah’s Witnesses: From a Black American Perspective (1994), and Jehovah’s Witnesses: The African American Enigma—A Contemporary Study, Vol. 1 (2002). As noted above, at one time the Nation of Islam as well as the Rastafarians, both influenced by the Witnesses, elected not to vote. (As to the reasons why the Witnesses don’t vote, please reexamine my January 10, 2008, Sentinel article, “Jesus Christ and Worldly Politics.”) Proving the point further, “According to Pew’s most recent report on the U.S. religious landscape…at least 90% of the members of…historically black churches…and Jehovah’s Witnesses are ‘absolutely certain’ that there is a God.”
Do Witnesses condemn others for voting? Absolutely not. They happily respect the rights of others when it comes to voting and exercising other civil liberties. In fact, the Internet article quoted above reveals that “While Witnesses have shied away from electoral politics, they have left a strong mark on the judicial branch: The group has brought several dozen civil-liberties cases before the Supreme Court.” And the cases they’ve won, they won for everyone. Amen.
Word for the Week (or is it “Weak”?): apolitical: “Having no interest in or association with politics.” Usage: “Though Jehovah’s Witnesses pay taxes as responsible citizens, they are apolitical irrespective of their country of origin.”