Recently I received an email with an Associated Press story indicating that Congressman Artur Davis, (D) of Birmingham, AL has written a letter to Attorney Faya Rose Sanders and the organizers of the Annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma essentially suggesting that the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. be disinvited to this year’s commemoration of “Bloody Sunday.” In recognition of the historic election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, the theme for the 44th commemoration of Bloody Sunday is “The Bridge to the White House.” In criticizing the organizers for inviting Rev. Wright, Congressman Davis, who is planning to run for Governor, argued that “the pastor’s divisive rhetoric is inconsistent with the theme of the event and President Obama’s message of unity.” In addition, the Congressman warned that Rev. Wright’s presence, particularly if he is asked to speak, would frighten “prominent invitees” from attending this year’s events.
Contrary to agreeing with Congressman Davis, I believe that as a “Black” political leader, he should be ashamed of himself for caving in to reactionary forces which have sought to demonize and marginalize one of the great spiritual leaders, institution-builders and prophetic voices of our time. It is equally lamentable that Mr. Davis would succumb to the sound bites and mean spirited diatribe from the corporate media used to defile Rev. Wright’s legacy as a leader. Indeed, the Congressman’s remarks smell of an opportunistic cheap shot, coldly calculated to secure the blessing of White folks in his long shot campaign for Governor. But people of conscience and good will should not be deceived.
Few in White America had heard of Rev. Jeremiah Wright prior to the media rummaging through his sermons and writings, searching for any tidbit that might be exploited to destroy Barack Obama’s historic campaign for President. Rev. Wright is a learned man who has demonstrated his love for country by serving in the armed forces. He initially attended Virginia Union University but interrupted his pursuits in academia to serve in the Marine Corps. He subsequently re-enlisted in the Navy where he studied to be a cardiopulmonary technician. In fact, he served on the medical unit charged with caring for President Lyndon B. Johnson. Rev. Wright received personal commendations for his service to the President from Vice Admiral Burkley. After completing military service he received a BA and MA in English from Howard University, a Master’s of Divinity from the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Doctor of Ministry at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. Armed with these credentials, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright began his dramatic ascent to become one of the foremost faith leaders of our time.
When he assumed the pastorate at Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago in 1972, fewer than 100 parishioners attended Sunday service. Anchoring the mission of his ministry in the prophetic faith tradition of the Black Church and the emerging philosophy of Black liberation theology as propounded by Dr. James Cone, hundreds of Black people flocked to Trinity to hear Dr. Wright’s inspiring and redemptive sermons. However, it was not just his sermons that captivated the swelling ranks of parishioners. Rev. Wright launched social, economic and educational programs and built institutions which served the needs of the community. By 2008, when he retired as the Senior Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ had grown to some 8,000 members, the largest Church in the predominately White Denomination. Moreover, Rev. Wright emerged as one of the foremost theologians and one of the most sought after preachers in America. When President William Jefferson Clinton reached out to clergy across the country for counsel as he sought forgiveness for the damage of the Monica Lewinsky affair, Rev. Wright was invited to the White House for a prayer breakfast.
So how did such an esteemed pastor, preacher, theologian and leader come to be vilified by the media, rightwing conservatives and political pundits? In the tradition of many Black leaders before him, Rev. Wright’s sin was speaking truth to power, a prophet uncompromisingly exposing and condemning the hypocritical and unjust behavior of the nation for which he once abandoned his college education to serve. He simply asked how could God bless America when America illegally invaded Iraq, humiliated and tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; how could God bless America after a long history of overthrowing legitimately elected governments, supporting repressive dictators and invading other nations to advance the interests, not of “we the people” but its corporations and the rich. In the now famous sermon that was heard around the world, Rev. Jeremiah Wright was simply saying that unless America changes its behavior, this nation will not be blessed but damned! While many in White America may not have understood or were dismayed by this unvarnished truth, in our heart of hearts, Black people knew that what Rev. Jeremiah Wright said was right!
Having grown accustomed to the obligatory, perfunctory and reflexive recitation of “God bless America” from aspiring political leaders and elected officials, White America and the corporate media either were in denial or could not stand the truth. Rev. Wright’s expose of the mythology of the nation was too painful. So, they lashed out at the prophet and threatened to turn on his pupil. Politically the expose was untimely and could have derailed Obama’s march to the White House. As a politician, he had little choice but to explain and ultimately distance himself from the righteous indignation of his pastor and mentor. But Africans in America should have understood Obama’s move for what it was; a political palliative to pacify the “madding crowd.” In no way should conscious Black people, or progressives of any race, have been confused. In no way should we have embraced or parroted the frenetic denunciation of Rev. Wright and the effort to exile him from the realm of the sane and rational.
To do so would have been to be in complicity with an insidious campaign to “assassinate” the character of one of our most devoted servant/leaders. We must never forget the shameful way America and some Blacks treated Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois for taking stands deemed “unpatriotic” by the power structure of this country. Enough is enough; it’s time to stop the demonization of Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. Blacks in particular must not tolerate external forces defining and dictating who can “legitimately” be a leader in the Black community and who should be ostracized. It’s time for Black leaders and people of conscience and good will, too many of whom have been silent on this vital matter, to stand with and stand up for one who has so faithfully, courageously, selflessly and effectively served Black people and oppressed humanity.
When the vicious attacks began, it was in this spirit that the Institute of the Black World 21st Century immediately announced that we would be awarding Rev. Wright the Legacy Award at the State of the Black World Conference in New Orleans. Now that an opportunistic “Black” aspirant for Governor of Alabama has elected to endear himself to the lynch mob, we must proclaim loud and clear that we will not tolerate the denigration of our leaders. Now more than ever, those of us who are able must make the Pilgrimage to Selma to embrace Rev. Jeremiah Wright and take the sacred walk with him across the Bridge that became the pathway to the Presidency for Barack Obama.
It was not the timid or Artur Davis types of the day that crossed the Bridge and blazed the trail to the White House. It was the courageous, the Jeremiah Wrights of the time, the prominent and not so prominent, whose “divisive” messages and actions separated the wheat from the chafe so that even calculating and accommodating political aspirants like Mr. Davis might one day be elected to the Congress of the United States. Now from the perch of his “prominence” we do not expect Mr. Davis to betray the struggle of those who crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge by repudiating one of the great freedom fighters of our day. It’s time to stop the demonization of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Right. See you in Selma!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of An Hour with Professor Ron Daniels, Monday-Friday mornings on WWRL Radio 1600 AM in New York and Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essay also appear on the IBW website and http://stateoftheblackworld.blogspot.com. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.