by Dee Newman
The truth, especially when it is ugly, can be very difficult to face.
Given the reality of our history here in the United States of America, it is understandable why many Americans are uncomfortable with some of the observations and remarks the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright has made from his pulpit over the years.
It is, also, understandable why the national media has chosen to portray and dismiss Dr. Wright’s statements as the racist rantings of an angry old black man.
However, if the oppressed rather than the oppressor had written and taught the history of the United States to us all our knowledge and understanding of reality and our criticism of Dr. Wright would be very different.
Moreover, if the analysis and reporting of Dr. Wright's sermons were presented from the perspective and historical experience of Black-America rather than White-America, Dr. Wright’s words would not be depicted or perceived as un-American.
For in truth, his words and actions represent the best of what this country stands for – the freedom to speak our minds in a public forum, the courage to state the truth to those in power, and the audacity to challenge us all to be the best that we can be.
Perhaps, his rhetoric, at times, has been inflammatory. But, the accuracy and historical authenticity of much of what Dr. Wright has said cannot be disputed.
Without question, the Constitution of the United States of America is a grand and impressive document. However, what is often conveniently ignored by many white men and women in this country are those parts of our Constitution that made it possible to enslave and oppress our black brothers and sisters and to legally treat them as chattel and non-humans. It is these portions of our Constitution (faithfully upheld by the United States Supreme Court with the Dred Scott decision in 1856) that White-Americans have never been willing to fully acknowledge.
Somehow, White-America has found it extremely easy to forget that African-Americans had to endure the brutal oppression of government-sponsored slavery for 250 years.
Even after slavery was abolished with the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865, citizenship was granted to African-Americans with the 14th Amendment in 1868, and black men were finally given the right to vote with the 15th Amendment in 1870 the unjust and brutal vestiges of slavery and oppression continued to plague Black-Americans.
When Reconstruction ended in 1876 and whites in the South resumed civil and governmental control, a systematic disfranchisement of blacks took place, racial segregation was imposed, and violence against African Americans rapidly increased. Between 1882 and 1964 approximately 3,445 African-Americans were lynched in this country, according to statistics compiled by the Tuskegee Institute. A system of unabashed and state-sanctioned racial discrimination and oppression (known as the “Jim Crow” system) emerged and spread throughout our nation, lasting until national civil rights legislation was passed in the mid-1960s.
In 1896 the United States Supreme Court’s decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the doctrine of separate but equal. It was not until the court’s 1954 decision, Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that racial segregation was judged, at last, to be unlawful. Regrettably, the high court’s decision was slow to be implemented and was never thoroughly or successfully realized throughout our nation.
Even during my lifetime Dr. Wright and African-Americans have had to not only deal with and endure a separate and unequal educational system, segregated water fountains, restrooms, restaurants and hotels, a segregated military, discrimination in housing, employment, healthcare and the banking system, but they have had to bear the burden of racial profiling and a legal system that continues to incarcerate African-Americans at an alarming and disproportionate rate.
Those of us who are contemporaries of Dr. Wright, who grew up in this country in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s witnessed in person and on our TV sets thousands of civil rights protesters being assaulted by our fellow citizens, governmental officials, police officers, their dogs, and high-pressure fire hoses.
In just 20 years from 1944 (the year I was born) to the passing of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights legislation by the United States Congress there were 23 reported lynchings of African-Americans in the United States. We will never know how many more went unreported.
During that same period of time there were hundreds of acts of terrorism against African-Americans and other minorities. In 1955 Emmett Till, a fourteen year old black child from Chicago, Illinois visiting his great-uncle in Money, Mississippi, was brutally murdered by Roy Bryant and his half brother J. W. Milam (latter, after being acquitted by an all white jury and after being given $4,000 by Look magazine to tell their story, they unashamedly admitted to the murder); Clinton High School (7 miles from my home in Norris, Tennessee) – the first public high school in the South to desegregate – was blow-up in 1958 by white supremacists; four young black girls (Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair) in 1963 were killed when members of the Klu Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; and, in 1964 near the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were brutally murder by members of the Klan for assisting blacks in Mississippi with voter registration. In the process of trying to find their bodies rivers were dredged and a number of other bodies of murdered black men and women were discovered.
No one has ever been successfully prosecuted for any of these hate crimes.
Given the historical evidence, the personal history and life experiences of Dr. Wright, it seems credulous and extremely unreasonable to condemn him or any person of color in this country for expressing in public their feelings of outrage with the oppression and injustice they have had to endure. The controversy over the maliciously selected clip of Dr. Wright rhetorically asserting that God should “damn ” rather than “bless” America for its hypocrisy and historical mistreatment of minorities has been blown way out of proportion. His comments asserting that our government is responsible for the disproportionate HIV epidemic among African-Americans in this country is understandable in the light of history and the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments carried on by our government. His assertion that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were retribution for America’s own acts of terrorism is also not difficult to comprehend given our governments long history of supporting brutal dictatorships (including Saddam Hussein’s ) in the middle east and our hypocritical and indefensible support of Israel’s state sponsored terrorism against the Palestinians.
Nonetheless, to assess Dr. Wright’s life and his dynamic ministry on the basis of a few sound bites taken out of context is extreme and unjust.
Both Senator Obama’s and Senator Clinton’s initial response to the widespread public reaction against Dr. Wright’s statements spurred on by the inflammatory commentary of the national media are explicable, but disappointing.
Senator Obama’s initial criticism of Dr. Wright’s statements, calling them “stupid” and rejecting them out right as “inflammatory and appalling,” though understandable in a political sense, seemed, at first, to reveal a flaw in his character – a willingness to forsake a friend, even his own pastor, for personal gain. However, his eloquent, thoughtful, honest, frank, inclusive, hopeful, and highly constructive speech delivered several days latter confronting race in our society, once again, clearly demonstrated his strength of character, his courage, and his remarkable capacity to lead.
Senator Clinton’s initial statement, too, criticizing Senator Obama and Dr. Wright, saying, "Given all we have heard and seen, he [Dr. Wright] would not have been my pastor," rings more like a calculated political shot at her opponent than a deeply felt belief about Dr. Wright’s challenging rhetoric. Senator Clinton’s statement may reveal more about how she views the ignorant, irrational, preformed opinions of white America, than it does about how she perceives Dr. Wright and his "prophetic preaching."
What both Senator Obama and Clinton know (and fear) is that too many of us (including many of their supporters) on matters of politics, religion, and ethnicity seem unwilling to do the work it takes to form an objective opinion. Our judgments and attitudes are too often based either on insufficient knowledge, irrational feelings, or inaccurate stereotypes. We seem to be far more diligent at protecting and preserving our biases than we are in trying to eliminate them. We latch on to a word, a phrase taken out of context and use it to justify our preconceived notions, and then, try to turn it into some personal or political advantage.
The truth is: both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama know that Dr. Wright’s life and ministry, his service to his country and his community has been exemplary – from his years in the United States Marine Corp and Navy to his decades on Chicago's poor South Side, serving and uniting a culturally and socioeconomic diverse neighborhood and church. They know that for over thirty years he has been an outspoken critic of racism, sexism and homophobia, a thoughtful and profound voice for equality and inclusion in our society, challenging America to live-up to its promise and pledge of liberty and justice for all its citizens. And, they know (or they should) that he has been as tough on himself and his parishioners as he has been on anyone.