ATLANTA — On the Sunday before Election Day, preachers told black churchgoers across the country to get out and vote — and defy predictions that they'll be complacent or uninterested in a year that President Barack Obama isn't on the ballot.
Tying the vote to nostalgia and obligation, black pastors invoked the civil rights movement and Obama's historic 2008 victory. At Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — the spiritual home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock warned attendees that not voting would be nothing short of a sin.
"Go to the polls Tuesday in the name of our ancestors," Warnock said to cheering listeners who rose to their feet. "Know that your ballot is a blood-stained ballot. This is a sacred obligation."
Among those in the pews in black churches across the country were Democratic candidates hoping congregations would heed the message. Indeed, many pastors and worshippers said this election was more important than 2008, with Democrats struggling to hold on to large majorities in the House and Senate and Obama still working to put his agenda in place. Several voters said in interviews with The Associated Press that they planned to get to the polls, believing Obama needs more time to implement his plans.
The black electorate, one of the Democratic Party's most loyal constituencies, voted in record numbers to help elect the country's first African-American president two years ago, and Democrats are hoping at least some of that enthusiasm hasn't faded. Obama has in recent weeks tied a midterm vote for Democrats to continued support for his agenda — even as some candidates distance themselves from the president, who along with his policies has become less popular with the economy continuing to sputter.
Polls indicate that minority voters may not turn out at the same level as they did two years ago, but analysts say a solid showing among blacks could still swing several House, Senate and gubernatorial races, especially in the South.
Mike Thurmond, currently Georgia's labor commissioner, currently lags behind popular GOP incumbent Sen. Johnny Isakson. Thurmond — hoping to become the first black senator elected in Georgia and the first elected in the South since Reconstruction— attended Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church in Atlanta as he made his campaign rounds Sunday. Thurmond said the polls are flat wrong.
"This whole notion about a lack of enthusiasm was an illusion, and a propaganda scheme at worst, designed to depress turnout," he said.
At the historic Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., the Rev. Michael Thurman opened his sermon Sunday by asking parishioners to vote. He said he did not endorse any candidates, but he said this election would be even more important than 2008's historic vote.
"This one's going to decide the direction that the nation goes in from here," Thurman said.
The sea of negative political ads — many accusing Democratic candidates of being a rubber stamp for Obama's agenda — has quelled the enthusiasm of many black voters, said Calvin Johns, a retired medical doctor. African-Americans could be especially key to Blue Dog Democrat Bobby Bright, who narrowly won his first term two years ago with the help of black voters.
"To me it seems like whatever candidate they are talking about, the negative ads are talking about President Obama," Johns said. "Most people seem disconnected to the candidates."
In the small West Tennessee town of Brownsville, about 100 congregants sang and prayed at St. John Baptist Church on Sunday. Some worshippers came from as far as Jackson, Tenn., about 30 miles away, to attend the services led by pastor Johnny Shaw.
Shaw is also a state Representative, a Democrat from nearby Bolivar. During the service, he asked congregants to pray for their leaders, including the president. Later, he urged them to vote, regardless of for whom they cast a ballot.