Despite signs of reticence among black evangelical voters, presidential candidate Donald Trump remains determined to court them.
After inviting 100 prominent black pastors to a press conference scheduled for Monday, the Trump campaign prematurely announced their endorsements to the dismay of some invited guests. The GOP frontrunner has since changed the nature of the event to a private meeting.
“On Monday, Mr. Trump will host an informational meet and greet with many members of the Coalition of African American Ministers,” Trump’s press secretary Hope Hicks said in an email to reporters Sunday. “This is not a press event, but a private meeting, after which, a number of attendees are expected to endorse Mr. Trump’s campaign for President.”
The original press release for the event suggested all 100 pastors were ready to endorse Trump, a claim many of them disputed.
Bishop Hezekiah Walker of New York, for instance, told fellow African American church leaders he won’t be attending the meeting. Mr. Walker, founder of the Love Fellowship Tabernacle church in East New York City, will instead attend the funeral of a deceased youth.
“I was prepared to share my thoughts with him about the injustice and racism that still plague our communities as well as enlighten him about our culture that has been misunderstood for years,” Walker wrote in an email. “Those who invited me never invited me to endorse Mr. Trump, but to be a voice and to stand for what's right in our community.”
Bishop Clarence E. McClendon of Los Angeles, Calif., also clarified that the meeting was never presented as a confirmation of endorsement.
“The meeting was presented not as a meeting to endorse but as a meeting to engage in dialogue,” a post on his Facebook page read, emphasizing that the bishop had been invited but will not be attending.
Detroit pastor Corletta Vaughn said Trump “for sure isn’t my choice” in a statement posted to Facebook, and Bishop Paul Morton of Atlanta tweeted, “I was asked 2 meet with Mr. Trump too but I refused because until he learns how to respect people you can't represent me thru my endorsement.”
Trump came under fire last week for his comments about an altercation between his supporters and Black Lives Matter activists in Birmingham, Ala. Speaking on Fox News, Trump implied disregard for the demonstrator’s message.
“Maybe [the protester] should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing,” he said.
This sentiment echoes many of his prior comments on the Black Lives Matter movement. “I think they're trouble. I think they're looking for trouble,” Trump told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly in September.
Still, some black evangelicals support Trump’s efforts to court the black vote.
George Farrell, chairman of the conservative super PAC, BlakPac, told Bloomberg news that even support from a few black pastors would be significant, though he himself has yet to decide who to vote for.
“The effort by candidate Trump is meaningful and shows that black votes matter,” Mr. Farrell said.
Some of Trump's black supporters are unfazed by his public stance on Black Lives Matter. Sheila Griffin, a black evangelical pastor based in the Tampa area, said his comments were blown out of proportion by the press.
“Oh goodness. Donald Trump is not a racist – that's just the press looking for a story. What was it? A couple of knuckleheads in a crowd of thousands? It's a none issue,” she said.
Traditionally, Democrats have dominated the black vote – especially in the past two major elections in support of President Barack Obama. Before 2008, Republicans were able to garnered about 10 percent of the black vote. This election cycle, Trump isn’t the only one going after the black evangelical demographic: His opponent Ben Carson is seeking 13 percent, or double of Mitt Romney’s share, of the black vote to beat Hillary Clinton.
As for Trump, his miscommunication with the black pastors may be merely a hiccup in his endeavor to win their support.
“It's rare for a Republican candidate to reach out to the black community,” black conservative activist Angelia Boynton told Bloomberg.
“So who cares if it's an endorsement or a meeting? Mr. Trump's attempt in and of itself is honorable. It's a chance for black leaders to tell a leading candidate exactly what we care about.”