Mecham visiting black churches

December 2, 1987

Associated Press

MESA, Ariz. — Gov. Evan Mecham, criticized for his recision of a holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr., has begun visiting black churches in an effort described by an aide as intended “to bring races together.”

Mecham has visited several Phoenix congregations on recent Sundays, Joseph Parham, director of the governor’s Affirmative Action office, said Tuesday.

The Republican governor is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“He goes to his church in the morning, then he goes with us,” said Parham, president of the Arizona Black Republican Council. “What I’m trying to do is get him involved with communities that don’t really know him.

“It’s good to go out and worship with other people and get to know them. It’s a good experience for the community and a good experience for him.”

Mecham has fielded charges of racism since January, when he rescinded a holiday for state executive branch workers in honor of King, the slain civil rights leader.

Mecham has denied he is racist and has said the paid holiday was created illegally by executive order by his predecessor, Democrat Bruce Babbitt, and an opinion by state Attorney General Bob Corbin supported Mecham’s position.

Mecham later signed an executive order creating an unpaid holiday in King’s honor, but leaders of the drive in favor of a paid holiday have said that is inadequate.

One of Mecham’s church visits was to the Phoenix congregation of the Rev. Henry Barnwell, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.

“He came here just like anybody else,” said Clarence White, Barnwell’s assistant. “The feeling was this is the house of God, and we do not prohibit anyone from coming to the house of God — no more, no less.”

Parham also has recruited GOP deputy registrars to visit the churches and sign up voters. He said party workers from several Mesa-area legislative districts have been taken along to “expose them to the black community.”

“What I’m trying to do is bring races together,” Parham said. “Why should we as Republicans get out there and isolate ourselves?”

Parham said he hopes to take Mecham on visits with Hispanic, Oriental and Indian congregations.

Gubernatorial press secretary Ken Smith said media coverage of the visits could lead to an end to them. “If it looks like the governor is going to black churches as a media event, he ain’t going to do it,” Smith said.

Parham and Smith were reluctant to discuss the visits, which Smith said have offered Mecham a chance to “talk to some folks without the media distractions.”

“He finds it personally a very warm experience,” Smith said. “He’s had a number of discussions about the Bible at black churches and listened to some of the problems of the minority communities, mostly one-on-one.”

On Tuesday, state Sen. Peter Key, a Republican, prefiled a resolution for consideration during the next legislative session that would let voters decide next fall whether the state should have a paid King holiday.