HOUSTON (AP) — Martha Whiting-Goddard believes there’s power in voting — she’s seen it firsthand.
Her great-grandfather, the Rev. John Henry “Jack” Yates, was one of a handful of freed slaves who founded Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in 1866, Houston’s oldest African American Baptist church. The church has historically helped shape the city’s political discourse, ushering powerful African American political leaders through its doors such as Booker T. Washington and women’s suffrage movement organizers.
Parishioners here are planning to band together again Tuesday to shape the course of American history. They are heading to the polls to decide which Democrat should take on President Donald Trump in the fall in what many black voters say is the most important election of their lifetimes.
The Super Tuesday contest in Texas and a swath of other states with substantial black populations are the biggest opportunity yet for minority voters from coast to coast to weigh in on the tumultuous Democratic primary. And for people like Whiting-Goddard, it’s a reminder of their power.
“For black people, we have someone in power that’s kind of put us back in time and so we need to look to the future,” the 70-year-old said. “Voting was the one right that we recognized long ago that we had that was important.”
Black voters have already helped transform the Democratic race. Nearly two thirds of non-white voters in South Carolina backed Joe Biden on Saturday, according to AP VoteCast, a wide-ranging survey of more than 1,400 voters in the state’s Democratic primary. They revived what had been a lagging campaign into one that has quickly emerged as the leading moderate alternative to progressive Bernie Sanders.
Biden is looking to Houston to help keep the momentum going.
“The decision Democrats make tomorrow and the next few weeks will determine what we stand for, what we believe, and where we’re going to go,” he said Monday at the historically black Texas Southern University.
But activists caution against assuming that black voters in Texas or elsewhere will follow South Carolina’s lead.
Cliff Albright, the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said he believes African American voters nationally are split into three groups: Those who are concerned about electability, voters who want progressive policies and individuals who are agnostic and prepared to vote regardless of who advances to November.
“It’s going to be interesting to see some of the other states that have a different culture than South Carolina that might separate out black voters in some of these Super Tuesday states,” Albright said.
Houston resident Linda Nwoke said she’s most familiar with Biden, who spent eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president. But she has yet to decide who to throw her support behind among the crowded field.
“We’re trying to see who can we trust with our vote and not let it be wasted again,” Nwoke, a 72-year-old retired history teacher, said. “A lot of them don’t have a history with us yet they always come after our vote.”
Five presidential hopefuls remain after three candidates, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer and Pete Buttigieg, dropped out of the race before Super Tuesday.
Black Lives Matter Houston founder Ashton Woods, a 35-year-old millennial who is running for the Texas House District 146 seat, said the organization decided in February to officially endorse Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“Her and Bernie have been the two people who have talked about issues that affect black people but affect everyone else with a special recognition that we are marginalized and that it hits us a little harder without pandering,” Woods said.
Voters like Houston resident Natasha Turner, 45, said candidates must realize that African American voters are not monolithic and are concerned about a myriad of issues.
“We are looking for a candidate who will center African American concerns for once,” Turner said. “We want our just due. This nation was built on the backs of African Americans and yet we have not seen any of the benefits of that. As a matter of fact, at every turn, we are seeing ourselves being deterred from making any strides economically.”
Texas resident Josie James-Hamilton has identified as a Republican her entire life until she cast a vote for President Barack Obama in 2008. James-Hamilton, 62, said that changed when Trump was elected.
“Until recently, I did have a lot of conservative views that I agreed with because many black voters are a lot more conservative than you think,” she said. “The problem I’m having right now is that I don’t see a Democratic candidate that I feel has the ability to unseat Trump.”
Michael Adams, Texas Southern University’s political science department chair, said he believes older black women will show up as expected to the polls but he believes younger voters could shake up the election.
“In both Texas and in California right now, there’s a progressive element and African Americans of course have been a very loyal constituency and part of the Democratic Party base, both nationally and here in Texas,” Adams said.
The 2020 election will be the first one that University of Houston junior Kenneth Davis III will cast his vote in. The 20-year-old said he plans to vote for Sanders.
“The laws that are being passed affect real people and we have to have a seat at the table, especially millennials, Gen Z and the generation behind us,” Davis said.
Veteran Tashandra Poullard, a Texas Southern University senior who served 10 years in the U.S. Navy, said Democrats are potentially alienating younger black voters who are frustrated that the field went from the most diverse to an all-white slate, with the exception of U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who is polling near or at zero among black voters.
“A lot of them are saying they wanted Cory Booker and they were even willing to back Kamala Harris but they said there’s no one that looks like us up there now,” Poullard, 42, said. “They don’t have that warm and fuzzy feeling that they did when Barack Obama was running for office because they feel there’s no representation for us as a people.”
This story corrects the spelling of Cory Booker’s first name.
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Houston contributed to this report.
___ Kat Stafford is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kat__stafford