In all likelihood, Barack Obama will suffer minimal political damage for his recent admission that he accepted as much as $250,000 in campaign contributions from Chicago businessman Antoin “Tony” Rezko, now on trial for mail fraud and attempted extortion. Everyone understands that because of the high cost of running for office, politicians often look the other way when it comes to financing their elections.
But the racially charged sermons of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr, who was Obama’s pastor for 20 years, marrying him and his wife and baptizing their children, are a different matter. Wright has the potential to undermine Obama’s claim that he is the Democratic party candidate who will lead the country to racial reconciliation. The video tapes that have recently surfaced of sermons Wright gave at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ seem straight out of the 1960s and embody the black power rhetoric that split the civil rights movement apart.
Wright has been strongly defended by the Reverend Otis Moss III, his successor at Trinity United, who has argued that the attacks on Wright amount to “an attack on the legacy of the African-American Church.” But in today’s world Wright’s sermons stoke the lingering racial fears that so many white, working-class voters have that Obama is not at heart the unity candidate.
“Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run,” Wright, who has referred to the United States as the “U.S. of K.K.K. A.,” is quoted as saying. Indeed, for Wright, America deserves the troubles it has experienced since 2001. “America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” Wright declared in a widely quoted sermon he delivered following the September 11 terrorist attacks. “We are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards.”
As soon as the video tapes of Wright’s sermons appeared on television, Obama went on the talk shows to say that the sermons did not reflect his thinking. He followed up his television appearances with a statement written on The Huffington Post that spelled out his views still further. “Let me say at the outset that I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy,” Obama wrote. “I reject outright the statements by Reverend Wright that are at issue.”
Obama’s disavowal of Wright was far quicker than Hillary Clinton’s response to former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who said that Obama would not be a leading presidential candidate if he were a white man. The difference is that Ferraro’s racial comments came without warning. Obama had two decades to listen to the sermons of Jeremiah Wright, whom he credits with giving him the title for his best-selling book, The Audacity of Hope.
Aware of the trouble Wright’s sermons stirred up, David Gergen, the White House advisor for Democrats and Republicans, suggested on CNN that voters needed to recognize that blacks and whites viewed the country from different perspectives. To illustrate his argument, Gergen cited the famous Frederick Douglass speech of 1852, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” that ends with the observation: “Your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness swelling vanity.”
The historical analogy was a stretch and ignored the fact that ten years later, with the Civil War under way, Douglass delivered an oration in which he observed of America that “no people ever entered upon the pathway of nations with higher and grander ideas of justice, liberty and humanity than ourselves.”
But the motives behind Gergen’s attempt to historicize Jeremiah Wright’s sermons are revealing. They reflect an awareness that Obama is on shaky grounds when he likens Wright to “an old uncle who sometimes will say things I don’t agree with” and then claim: “The statements that Reverend Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation.”
It is hard to imagine that what Wright said on video tapes to an approving congregation amounted to ideas he made a habit of keeping to himself. Much easier to imagine is that the controversial views voiced by Wright are ones he has expressed over the years and Obama, once a Chicago outsider, did not say anything about them in order to establish himself as a member in good standing of a powerful black church. Within the black community, it was Obama who needed an ally like Wright, not Wright who needed an ally like Obama.
We may never be able to say whether Obama was ever in a position to take the full measure of Jeremiah Wright, but it won’t be for want of trying by the media. In the coming weeks, as Obama seeks to get his campaign back on a positive track, reporters will certainly be scrutinizing the tapes of many of Wright’s sermons, trying to figure out which ones were delivered on Sundays that Obama attended church.
Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower. Photo: Realjameso16 (Flickr / Creative Commons)