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Photo of Dennis C. Dickerson

Preachers and the public square

The two Archibald J. Careys -- father and son -- wielded power inside and outside the church for much of the 20th century. But the gains they made for the black community often were at the cost of their ministry, says historian Dennis C. Dickerson.

July 21, 2009

In 1928, Bishop Archibald J. Carey Sr., already a powerful leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and engaged in a political career, took his 20-year-old son to Washington, D.C. In particular, the elder Carey wanted his namesake to see the U. S. Capitol.

The trip to the Capitol with its soaring dome sent a clear message to the younger Carey: Church and politics do mix.

 


Archibald J. Carey Jr.

For most of the 20th century, Archibald J. Carey Sr. (1868-1931) and Archibald J. Carey Jr. (1908-1981) wielded influence, both in the AME Church and in politics. They held high positions in the church (the elder Carey was elected bishop in 1920) as well as appointive and elective offices on the municipal and federal levels.

Both men found power and success in both spheres. They parlayed their clerical positions into the public square and persuaded politicians to become allies in advancing black civil rights. In office, they worked to challenge and eliminate legalized racial segregation and discrimination.

Yet their success was mixed -- even tainted -- as these ambitious men compromised their pastoral authority through questionable alliances. Though their public ministries yielded tangible benefits for blacks in Chicago and nationwide, their political partnerships also showed the hazards of close clergy interaction with politicians.

The Careys’ story illustrates a dilemma familiar to pastors and church leaders of every age: How much do you engage in politics, and at what cost? Although pastors make political compromises all the time -- both inside and outside the church -- engaging in politics can pose particular dangers.

The Carey family had a history of blending the political and pastoral: Some of their ancestors in Georgia entered the ministry and endorsed the preacher/politician roles that many black clergy pursued during and after Reconstruction.

Archibald J. Carey Sr., a graduate of Atlanta University, adopted this paradigm during his career, as he served in pastorates in Georgia, Florida and Illinois. It was in Chicago that he achieved his greatest influence, serving as a tough political powerbroker as well as pastor of Quinn Chapel AME Church, the city’s oldest black church.

Carey’s interaction with President William McKinley while Carey served as a pastor in the South convinced him that these activities benefitted him and his parishioners. During the 1920s, after his election as bishop, he remained in the Republican Party and provided frontline support of Mayor William Hale Thompson of Chicago. The mayor rewarded him with an appointment to the civil service commission, where Carey enhanced the employment status of blacks and facilitated their promotion.

But the benefits were limited: Thompson, while supportive of Carey, did not champion black rights in other spheres. And Carey’s close involvement in city politics led Carey to politicize AME affairs in damaging ways. For example, he was accused of penalizing pastors who did not support his political alliances. Yet Carey thought this problem was bearable because of the advantages blacks obtained through his involvement.

When he died in 1931, his funeral drew a crowd that overflowed Quinn Chapel’s huge sanctuary. The religious and political leaders who testified to the bishop’s prominence in both arenas showed his broad influence.

The junior Carey admired his father and followed him into the ministry and politics. Trained at Garrett Biblical Institute and the Kent School of Law, Carey, a clergyman and attorney, developed Woodlawn AME Church into a socially conscious congregation and later maintained Quinn Chapel AME Church as a venue for leading civil rights activists to speak. He served as a Chicago alderman, ran for Congress and spoke at the 1952 GOP Convention. After retiring from the pastorate, he served more than a decade as a judge in the criminal, equity and civil courts in Cook County, Ill.

Carey, an early benefactor of the Congress of Racial Equality, as an alderman fought to outlaw discrimination in publicly funded housing. After running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1950 against an entrenched Democratic candidate, U.S. Rep. William L. Dawson, he was invited to address the Republican national convention in Chicago.

At the convention, he gave a hard-hitting call to Republicans to honor their historic advocacy of black civil rights. This speech introduced language that Martin Luther King Jr. later adopted in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Later, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who won the election, appointed Carey as an alternate delegate to the United Nations and then to the chairmanship of a presidential panel that fought bias in federal employment.

But, like his father, the younger Carey found that political success often came at the expense of his role as a pastor.

Though he was a confidante and strong financial supporter of King, Carey also had a connection to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Evidence suggests that he failed to end FBI harassment against King. Moreover, some accused Carey of striking a deal with Mayor Richard J. Daley for a judgeship in Cook County in return for asking King to curtail his Chicago demonstrations on behalf of open housing.

The clerical careers of both Careys produced mixed results in regard to their public roles. Through politics they gained the power to work against employment discrimination and to make life better for two generations of African Americans. Their affiliations with Chicago mayors required compromises, but provided opportunities that aided African Americans. Nonetheless, the Careys were strongly ambitious men, who in spite of their altruism, sought recognition from their religious and public involvements.

Christian leaders today should recognize that political alliances can at times outweigh the benefits that their followers receive from these connections. Leaders contemplating political activities should ask themselves: How can I remain faithful to God while engaging in political activity for the benefit of the community I serve?