from Derrick Bell: Barack Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Issue

      In recent weeks, we have discussed the rationale that politicians use to justify not taking on tough issues like the death penalty, abortion, gay rights, and the war on drugs.  To do so, many explain, “would place in jeopardy the seat I seek or wish to be reelected. There is much that I want to do in office that I likely will not have a chance to do if I speak out against the consensus on those issues.” 

      In the last few weeks, Sen. Barack Obama’s opponents and the media have played almost continuously excerpts from some of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons blasting America as racist and guilty of terrible wrongs both here and around the world.   Obama’s denouncements of those statements were deemed insufficient and there were fears that they could undermine and perhaps destroy his campaign.  His “A More Perfect Union” speech has been deemed historic by some and inadequate by others.  Given our discussion about politicians’ rationales I find myself in the middle on the subject.    

Partly it is because I know Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have visited his church and some years ago, with his participation, presented my gospel choir and lecture program.  Wright is one of the foremost preachers in the country who has done great work in the Chicago area where he has built a most impressive church for a very large congregation.  More importantly, Wright is well named.  He is one of a large (though not as large as it should be) group of black ministers who are deemed Jeremiads because as the biblical prophet Jeremiah did, they speak out strongly about the nation’s ills and predict downfall unless it changes its ways. 

Washington Post columnist, E.J. Dionne in his Mar. 21st piece, “On His Own Terms,” reminded us of what Dr. King whose life has been so sanitized, particularly by conservative commentators, said about the Vietnam War at his own Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Feb. 4, 1968:   

“God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war. ... And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation. But God has a way of even putting nations in their place.”  King then predicted this response from the Almighty: “And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.” 

King’s speeches against the Vietnam War, particularly his famous statement on Apr. 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York, angered many from President Lyndon Johnson to many civil rights leaders who felt King should not involve himself in foreign policy matters.  According to a 1997 report by Tim Wheeler in the People’s Weekly,, King would not be intimidated. He told the crowd at Riverside Church that evening, "I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, where I began my pastorate, leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight ... I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such." 

Black, Brown and white GIs were being sent to die in Vietnam in the name of freedoms denied them at home, King charged. He spoke of vets who challenged his doctrine of non- violence. "But they asked ... what about Vietnam? ... I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - my own government."  

King demolished the anti-Communist lies used to justify the Vietnam War. "For nine years," he charged, "we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence ... we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to re-colonize Vietnam." 

The people of Vietnam, he continued, "watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops ... So far, we may have killed a million of them, mostly children." 

He described Vietnam's Communist leaders, including Ho Chi Minh, as patriots who organized the resistance to French and Japanese colonialism only to be betrayed by the U.S. who sabotaged the Geneva Agreement of 1954. King called on every person of conscience to protest the war. 

"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on social uplift is approaching spiritual death," said Dr. King. 

"These are revolutionary times." All over the world, he said, the people are revolting against "old systems of exploitation and oppression ... The shirtless and the barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. We in the West must support these revolutions ... It is a sad fact that because of ... a morbid fear of Communism the Western nations ... have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing-oriented' society to a 'person-oriented' society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered."  

Dionne suggests: “If today’s technology had existed back then, I would imagine the media playing quotations of that sort over and over. Right-wing commentators would use the material to argue that King was anti-American and to discredit his call for racial and class justice. King certainly angered a lot of people at the time.  And had King been Obama’s minister, he would have been called on to denounce King’s  

Even so, Dionne said: “I’m a liberal and I loathe the anti-American things Wright said precisely because I believe that the genius of our country is its capacity for self-correction. Progressivism and, yes, hope itself depend upon a belief that personal conversion and social change are possible, that flawed human beings are capable of transcending their pasts and their failings.” 

Individuals yes, groups sometimes, but the record of this nation acknowledging wrong doing is not impressive.  More to the point, the fact that Dr. King or Rev. Wright say loathsome and divisive things that many deem anti-American does not make those statements wrong.  Tim Wise, whose works I have mentioned before,>,reviews Rev. Wright’s charges and finds much truth beyond the rhetoric. 

As he puts it, “our collective indignation, no matter how loudly we announce it, cannot drown out the truth. And as much as white America may not be able to hear it (and as much as politics may require Obama to condemn it) let us be clear, Jeremiah Wright fundamentally told the truth.  You can read his essay, “Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama and the Unacceptability of Truth


Wise does not agree with all of Rev. Wright’s charges. His point though is that any criticism of the country, particularly by a black, is deemed threatening and must be condemned.  This was the fate of Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and so many others, including recently Ward Churchill. And until the nation – or much of it – is willing to debate and not simply condemn critics of our history and current policies, those who are critical will always be vulnerable to those Wise describes as “the flag-lapel-pin wearing leaders of this land--who bring shame to the country with their nonsensical suggestions that we are always noble in warfare, always well-intended, and although we occasionally make mistakes, we are never the ones to blame for anything. Nothing that happens to us has anything to do with us at all. It is always about them. They are evil, crazy, fanatical, hate our freedoms, and are jealous of our prosperity. When individuals prattle on in this manner we diagnose them as narcissistic, as deluded. When nations do it--when our nation does--we celebrate it as though it were the very model of rational and informed citizenship. 

“So what can we say about a nation that values lies more than it loves truth? A place where adherence to sincerely believed and internalized fictions allows one to rise to the highest offices in the land, and to earn the respect of millions, while a willingness to challenge those fictions and offer a more accurate counter-narrative earns one nothing but contempt, derision, indeed outright hatred? What we can say is that such a place is signing its own death warrant. What we can say is that such a place is missing the only and last opportunity it may ever have to make things right, to live up to its professed ideals. What we can say is that such a place can never move forward, because we have yet to fully address and come to terms with that which lay behind.” 

Sen. Obama, his campaign threatened by Rev. Wright’s sermons – or sermon snippets – played over and over again, has spoken out about racial difference and anger and the need to get beyond it in order to address effectively the serious problems that face us all.  But like the politicians we discussed who avoid the tough issues, Obama has chosen to condemn  rather than acknowledge the truth in Rev. Wright’s sermons.  He does so while appropriately refusing to end his relationship with Wright who brought him to Christianity.   

He has placed the country’s racial divisions on the table.  He has suggested (though not as specifically as I think necessary) to show how race has been used to divide whites and blacks who should be economic and political allies.  Perhaps as candidate and if elected, as president, Obama can take on the tough issue of the intentional harms our policies have done both here and abroad.  Unlike the politicians who rationalize their refusal to challenge widely held views on say, gay marriage, Obama cannot easily ignore the divisive potential of race. Whether he can gain the nomination and then the White House without doing so is the real challenge for him and his supporters.    

Derrick Bell

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