In Defense of Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Why Barack Obama’s Smooth Talk Contributes Nothing to the Liberation of the African American People

by Tom Barrett


As Illinois Senator Barack Obama has marched improbably toward the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, he has put a section of the party’s leadership into a quandary. The young handsome Senator, whose inspirational speaking style is said to be reminiscent of John F. Kennedy’s, has attempted to run a positive campaign, appealing to idealism rather than to resentment, and in so doing has put up a serious challenge to New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who at one time thought the Democratic nomination was hers for the taking. It was only a matter of time until someone found something with which to tarnish Obama’s silver-plated image.

For some months there has been a semi-underground campaign to portray Obama as “disloyal” to the United States—asserting falsely that he refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance, that he is a Muslim (also false) with the implication that he is sympathetic to al-Qa’ideh, and even criticizing him for not wearing an American flag lapel pin. Obama’s opponents have also attempted to capitalize on a remark by his wife, Michelle Obama, that she had only become proud of the United States of America since her husband’s campaign began.

Up until now, the Internet slander campaign has not been effective. Obama has captured the imagination of a number of vital Democratic constituencies, not only African Americans nearly in their entirety, but the pro-Democrat wing of the antiwar movement, a section of the trade union leadership, and the Kennedy family and the faction which they lead. Obama has more convention delegates pledged to him than does Hillary Clinton, though neither can win a first ballot victory at the convention with elected delegates alone. It is likely that the so-called “superdelegates,” those who have a convention vote by virtue of their elected office in government or the Democratic Party, will decide the nominee. Clinton is attempting to convince them that Obama cannot win in a general election against John McCain.

During the first weeks of March, the Clinton campaign seemed to find the ammunition they thought they could use against Obama. For twenty years the Obama family has attended the Trinity United Church of Christ in the South Side of Chicago. Its congregation is almost entirely African American. The home page of its website (click here to access) features African drumming and an outline map of the African continent. Its pastor, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, is a sixty-seven-year-old veteran of civil rights struggles and has ministered to a congregation in a section of the city which epitomizes Black oppression in the industrial northern cities. It should therefore be no surprise to anyone that Dr. Wright is angry at the oppression facing African Americans in the United States and that his anger finds expression in his Sunday morning sermons.

It has been said that 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon on Sunday is the most segregated hour in American life, meaning of course that African Americans and “white” Americans (i.e., those of European descent; sometimes also called “Caucasians”) do not worship together. Additionally, for the most part, African Americans in northern cities brought their religious practices with them from the South. Whites who are accustomed to the stuffy decorum of Presbyterianism, Anglicanism, or other mainstream Protestant denominations, not to mention Roman Catholicism or Judaism, are not entirely comfortable with the congregational expressiveness and uncompromising preaching that one experiences in a Southern Baptist or Pentecostal church service, whether the congregation is “Caucasian” or African American.

There are exceptions, of course: during my own youth, my family belonged to one of the few truly mixed-race Episcopal parishes in the city of Baltimore. And there are, of course, Black Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Unitarians. However, the African American religious tradition is Southern and Protestant, usually Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal, and even the Nation of Islam’s religious services have a surprising amount in common with those of African American traditional churches, as I found out in the 1970s when, under the Honorable Wallace D. Muhammad’s leadership, the group briefly reached out to whites.

The churches in the Black community have always been the organizing centers for the civil rights struggle. Their ministers have been the most eloquent and outspoken leaders of that struggle, from the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X until our own day. African Americans are accustomed to their clergy taking a strong stand on social and political issues, both at the pulpit on Sunday morning and in the public life of the Black community during the rest of the week. But “white” people, especially in the North, are not so used to it, and when they see a two-minute clip on the YouTube website of Rev. Dr. Wright preaching, many have a negative reaction to it and are not sure they are willing to vote for a candidate who attends a church whose pastor preaches this way.

The major news media who “broke the story” about Rev. Dr. Wright have done a disservice to their readers and listeners by quoting him out of context and only showing the most inflammatory snippets of his sermons. Cable News Network’s (CNN) reporter Roland Martin, however, has examined Dr. Wright’s sermons in their entirety, and he reports something very different in a March 21, 2008, article on CNN’s AndersonCooper360˚ blog, an article entitled, “The Full Story Behind Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s 9/11 Sermon.” In fact, in the most commonly excerpted part of the sermon, Dr. Wright is in fact quoting the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq! Here is the entire quote, as presented by Martin:

“I heard Ambassador Peck on an interview yesterday. Did anybody else see or hear him? He was on FOX News, this is a white man, and he was upsetting the FOX News commentators to no end, he pointed out, a white man, an ambassador, he pointed out that what Malcolm X said when he was silenced by Elijah Muhammad was in fact true, he said America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”

“We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the Apache, Arikara, the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism.

“We took Africans away from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism.

“We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel.

“We bombed the Black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard-working fathers.

“We bombed Qaddafi’s home, and killed his child. Blessed are they who bash your children’s head against the rock.

“We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to pay back for the attack on our embassy, killed hundreds of hard-working people, mothers and fathers who left home to go to work that day not knowing that they’d never get back home.

“We bombed Hiroshima. We bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye.

“Kids playing in the playground. Mothers picking up children after school. Civilians, not soldiers, people just trying to make it day by day.

“We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff that we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.

“Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. And terrorism begets terrorism.”

A white ambassador said that, y’all, not a Black militant. Not a reverend who preaches about racism. An ambassador whose eyes are wide open and who is trying to get us to wake up and move away from this dangerous precipice upon which we are now poised. The ambassador said the people we have wounded don’t have the military capability we have. But they do have individuals who are willing to die and take thousands with them. And we need to come to grips with that.”

But, as Martin shows, Dr. Wright’s main point was not to protest the wrong that the United States has done:

He went on to describe seeing the photos of the aftermath of 9/11 because he was in Newark, N.J., when the planes struck. After turning on the TV and seeing the second plane slam into one of the twin towers, he spoke passionately about what if you never got a chance to say hello to your family again.

“What is the state of your family?” he asked.

And then he told his congregation that he loved them and asked the church to tell each other they loved themselves.

His sermon thesis:

1.     This is a time for self-examination of ourselves and our families.

2.     This is a time for social transformation (then he went on to say they won’t put me on PBS or national cable for what I’m about to say. Talk about prophetic!)

“We have got to change the way we have been doing things as a society,” he said.

Wright then said we can’t stop messing over people and thinking they can’t touch us. He said we may need to declare war on racism, injustice, and greed, instead of war on other countries.

“Maybe we need to declare war on AIDS. In five minutes the Congress found $40 billion to rebuild New York and the families that died in sudden death, do you think we can find the money to make medicine available for people who are dying a slow death? Maybe we need to declare war on the nation’s healthcare system that leaves the nation’s poor with no health coverage? Maybe we need to declare war on the mishandled educational system and provide quality education for everybody, every citizen, based on their ability to learn, not their ability to pay. This is a time for social transformation.”

3.     This is time to tell God thank you for all that he has provided and that he gave him and others another chance to do His will.

This sermon was actually preached over six years ago, on September 16, 2001, the first Sunday after 9/11 itself. It is hardly breaking news.

Nor is it any more than the simple truth!

Dr. Wright’s words may very well be intemperate; they are not tactful. They certainly may make many “white” people uncomfortable. But they were not spoken to white people; they were spoken to a predominantly African American congregation, long before there was any idea that one member of the congregation might be running for the presidency of the United States. If his sermons cost Obama the presidency it says more about the level of racism within the white population — and the willingness of Obama’s political opponents and the media to exploit it — than it says either about the Rev. Dr. Wright or about Senator Barack Obama.

Before discussing the speech on race that Obama delivered in Philadelphia partially in response to the controversy over Dr. Wright’s preaching, it is worthwhile to look at exactly who Barack Obama is, and at his connection to the African American community, its historic oppression, and its struggles for human rights, equality, justice, and economic survival.

Barack Obama has the physical characteristics of the African race: the skin pigment, the hair texture, and other attributes. But he has no personal connection to the African American people of the United States. His mother was a white woman from Kansas; his father was an immigrant from Kenya in East Africa. Obama himself was born in Hawaii, a state where many races coexist, but where there are not many Blacks. No one in Obama’s family tree was ever a slave. None of his relatives ever attended a segregated school. None ever died at the hands of a lynch mob. Dr. Wright in one of his sermons made the point that no one ever called Hillary Clinton a “nigger,” but one may make the same point about Barack Obama. He never experienced directly the full force of American racism, nor did anyone in his family. He may have an intellectual understanding of race and racism (though judging from his speech it is quite limited), and in his public speaking he has clearly mastered the use of Martin Luther King’s oratorical style. But as for his being “Black” it is quite literally only skin-deep.

That does not necessarily disqualify him from a leadership role in the African American struggle, should he make such a choice. One of the most important early Black leaders, W.E.B. DuBois, had very little Black ancestry and was born and raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the Berkshire mountains, as far from the cotton fields as one can imagine. (At the time of DuBois’s birth, not quite three years after the abolition of slavery, a majority of African Americans were directly involved in the production of cotton.) Nevertheless, he devoted his life to the cause of civil rights and was one of the founding leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. However, DuBois’s lack of direct experience with Southern racism had an effect on his political agenda, especially in his early years.

Nor does Obama’s lack of connection with the African American experience disqualify him necessarily from being elected president. What we all need to understand is this: should Barack Obama become president (and his chances are quite good), there is no reason to believe that he would be any different than any previous opportunist politician who has held the office. There is no reason to assume that he would not, to the best of his ability, protect and defend the interests of the capitalist class against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Because Obama has neither the understanding nor the instinct that the capitalist power structure is the enemy of Black people, the capitalist class does not consider him a threat, and a significant section of it is willing to use his considerable talents — and his ability to co-opt a potential radicalization of African Americans or youth — for its own benefit.

The speech which Obama gave in Philadelphia (click here for the text) was consistent with the image he is attempting to project in his campaign: it was serious and dignified, appealing to lofty ideals and expressing reverence for the “founding fathers” and the republic which they brought into being in that same city of Philadelphia. There are no clever one-liners or polemical “zingers.” There are no attacks on political opponents nor any expression of the anger that one might feel is justified coming from a person of color in these United States. The speech is intended to convey the idea that Obama is more interested in “public service” to the United States than in advancing his career as a politician and being elected to the most powerful political office on earth. It’s even possible that he really believes this. In any case, the speech, which Obama wrote himself, was quite excellent in its tone and delivery. The only thing wrong with it was what he actually said.

Of Rev. Dr. Wright’s sermons, Obama said:

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

No, Dr. Wright’s view of this country is not distorted at all. Racism is endemic to American capitalism. How could it be otherwise? African slavery had been a foundation of the colonial economy in the Western Hemisphere (under the Spanish and Portuguese) for a full century before the English colony at Jamestown was even settled. Just as slaves were necessary for the profitable production of sugar cane in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, they were necessary for the profitable production of tobacco in Virginia. Africans were not enslaved because of prejudice against people with black skin. It was completely a matter of economics and practicality: the native peoples did not make good slaves — they knew the country and for that reason had a much better chance of escaping; if they did not escape they simply died under the strain of servitude and the whites’ diseases. People with black skin were easy to identify and far from home; consequently it was not so easy for them to escape. The first advertisements for slaves in the Jamestown colony emphasized that they had been exposed to smallpox and were no longer susceptible to it.

In the Americas slavery was an essential component of the early accumulation of capital by the merchant class. Without the “triangular trade” of slaves, sugar cane, and rum –– later to include textiles and other manufactured goods — the bankers would never have had the cash on hand to invest in the industries that formed the foundation of the capitalist economy and society. So, for the first two-and-a-half centuries following the first English settlement in what is now the United States, Blacks lived and worked here as slaves. The capitalist economy developed with slavery as an integral factor in that economy.

The abolition of slavery in 1865 did not eliminate the need for cheap labor in Southern agriculture. The textile mills still needed inexpensive cotton after slavery was abolished, just as they needed it before slavery was abolished. In the 1880s and 1890s Southern legislatures imposed the “Black Codes,” the system of segregation which became known as “Jim Crow.” The purpose was to keep African Americans bound to the cotton fields almost as medieval serfs and to deprive them of any political power which might enable them to break free. This system of enforced white supremacy remained in force until the 1950s and 1960s. Though the civil rights movement struggled valiantly from the early years of the twentieth century, it was not until after World War II –– when Southern agriculture was extensively mechanized and the need for cheap Black labor was no longer so acute — that the federal government intervened for its own reasons on the side of the civil rights struggle. This happened within Barack Obama’s own lifetime. This is not the dim and distant past.

This aspect of racism — its central and historic role in the foundation of American capitalism — was completely absent from Obama’s “discussion” of race. Instead, he focused on skin-color prejudice, a serious problem to be sure, but something which grew out of economically-based racism. Economically-based racism does not necessary involve hatred of whites for African Americans — so long as the Black folks know their place! All one needs to do is to read Margaret Mitchell’s self-justifying Gone with the Wind to get an idea of how the slave masters “loved the darkies.” To this day Southern apologists for racism will argue that “Northerners,” from the Abolitionists to the civil rights activists of our own day, never understood Southern ways, and will contrast the virulent hatred that Blacks have faced in Northern cities with the genteel (read: patronizing) affection with which Southern aristocrats treated their Black maids and gardeners. There is some truth in what they say: it is hard to imagine more vicious race hatred than that which exploded, for example, in South Boston in 1974 but has hardly been unique to that city.

Racism is rooted in the need for cheap labor for certain jobs necessary to the local capitalist economy. Skin-color prejudice is fundamentally based in competition between Blacks and immigrants (or their descendants) for jobs. By the 1840s there were significant communities of free Blacks in many cities, especially along the coasts in the Southern states, from Baltimore, Maryland, all the way to New Orleans, Louisiana. Many trades were reserved for them: for example, in the Baltimore shipyards, the caulking trade was reserved for free Blacks. (Frederick Douglass even worked briefly as a caulker in the Baltimore shipyards.) When Irish immigrants, fleeing the Potato Famine, arrived in many of these cities and saw signs in front of workplaces reading, “No Irish need apply,” there were often free Blacks working there.

The employing class has made use of racial competition for jobs and economic position ever since, often bringing in Black workers as replacement for white strikers and using poor Southern whites to carry out violence against Blacks who challenged the Jim Crow system. However, the early Communist Party successfully combated white workers’ race hatreds in the trade unions, and in the 1930s and 1940s the employing class was unable to use racial competition to defeat the greatest labor upsurge ever witnessed. After the McCarthy era had destroyed radical leadership in the trade union movement, however, white racism returned to challenge the civil rights movement’s struggles against job and housing discrimination in Northern states.

The facts clearly show: militant working-class solidarity is the only true antidote to the poison of racial prejudice. However, one hears nothing of this from Barack Obama. While acknowledging the misplaced resentment by white workers who are struggling in an increasingly unfavorable economy, the only answer Obama can give is a paternalistic liberal answer: a few more crumbs from the master’s table. That will hardly suffice when any fool can predict that competition for those crumbs will increase racial tension, not reduce it.

So, Obama has a completely insufficient answer to the problem of white-skin prejudice and not even an acknowledgment of the racism which forms a key part of the foundation of American capitalism itself. And this speech is being praised as a serious discussion of the race problem in the United States?

Rev. Dr. Wright spoke out eloquently against the imperialist foreign policy of the United States, citing the military action in Grenada, Panamá, and Iraq, and even the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. He criticized Washington’s support for “state-sponsored terrorism” against Black South Africans and Palestinian Arabs. Dr. Wright was correct on all counts. Justice demands that we speak out against these crimes, and there can be no lasting peace short of the final defeat of imperialism throughout the world. But Barack Obama takes issue with Dr. Wright on this as well, describing the apartheid state of Israel as a “stalwart ally” and blaming the conflict in the Middle East on the “perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”

The only way Obama could make such a statement is by being either completely ignorant of the entire Middle East conflict as well as the history of U.S. involvement in that region or by simply lying and hoping that the American people have as short a memory and as little understanding of the world as the cynical politicians seem to believe.

Since the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the “hostage crisis” of that year, and especially since the events of September 11, 2001, “radical Islam” has replaced “Communism” as the “enemy,” with all the hysteria, dishonesty, and militaristic “patriotism” that one can expect. But what role has it played in the conflict between Zionism and the Arab people of Palestine? In fact, its role has been small until quite recently.

The Palestinian people are Muslim in their majority, but it is not an overwhelming majority. A substantial number are Christians, and some of the central leaders of the Palestinian resistance movement, have come from the Christian community, including the revered George Habash, the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 1968 the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by al-Fateh’s Yassir Arafat, adopted the Palestine National Charter, which set as its goal the establishment of a “Democratic Secular State” in Palestine, a state in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims would have equal rights and responsibilities.

The organization associated with “radical Islam” in the Zionist-Palestinian conflict is Hamas, which began to take shape in the Gaza strip during the first Intifadeh of the late 1980s, that is, twenty years after the Palestine National Charter. Outside of Gaza very few people knew what was going on; however, I heard a report from a young Palestinian Arab who worked in the Alternative Information Center, an anti-Zionist alliance of Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews, that Israel was financing the “Muslim Brothers” in Gaza. He explained that Israel was trying to create a conservative religious — and therefore anti-Communist — formation as an alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization. This was consistent as well with U.S. policy. The CIA and other U.S. agencies were providing money and weapons to the most reactionary Islamic forces in Afghanistan to help them fight against the left-leaning Afghan government and the Soviet troops who were supporting it. One of the leaders of the Islamic anti-Communist forces was one Usama bin Ladin, who used his family’s considerable wealth to build up a network of fighters loyal to the Sa’udi Arabia–based Wahhabi sect of Islam. He called his network “The Foundation,” the Arabic word for which is “al-Qa’ideh.”

Not only is “radical Islam” not the cause of conflict between Israel and the Arab people of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, “radical Islam” has developed with the aid and support of both Israel and the United States as an instrument of imperialist foreign policy. This cannot possibly be news to Barack Obama. One might expect such ignorance from George W. Bush, but not from Obama. No, I believe that Obama is cynically lying to the African Americans and young people who are supporting his campaign and sending a signal to the business community that he will loyally defend their interests.

Washington’s “stalwart ally” Israel, by contrast, has indeed been the cause of violent conflict in the Middle East since the period immediately following the First World War — yes, First World War, not Second. Zionist settlers, originally welcomed by the Arabs of Palestine, began the process of ethnic cleansing as soon as they were able to acquire land for their early settlements. They would buy the land from absentee landlords and then expel the peasants who had been working the land as tenant farmers. The displaced fallaheen fought back, and in the 1930s thousands of British troops were sent into Palestine to try to keep order. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Zionists carried out acts of terrorism, including the bombing of the King David Hotel and the massacre of civilians at Deir Yassin, as part of their campaign to clear the future territory of Israel of unwanted native Arabs.

Once the state of Israel was established, the Arabs within its borders were subjected to second-class citizenship, similar to that suffered by African Americans in the pre–Civil Rights South or the native Black Africans in South Africa. Indeed, Israel and South Africa maintained a close relationship starting during Israel’s early years. South Africa allowed its Jewish citizens to fight in the Israeli armed forces without losing their South African citizenship, and Israel, whose primary export in its first decades was cut diamonds, was a major buyer of rough diamonds from South Africa. The Israeli foreign minister at the time of the Six-Day War, Abba Eban, was himself South African. The apartheid system ended in South Africa in 1994, but it continues in the state of Israel today, as Arabs are subjected to checkpoints, water restrictions, and even demolition of their homes. As a member of Trinity United Church of Christ, there is no way that Barack Obama was not aware of this situation. If he can make the unqualified statement that Israel is a “stalwart ally,” knowing what he knows, then one can only conclude that he approves of Israel’s actions.

If Barack Obama is elected President, he may very well bring about “change” as he has promised, but it won’t be change that benefits working people, either here or abroad. It certainly won’t be change that benefits African Americans, Latinos, or Native Americans. The kind of change he is talking about is change that will make government more efficient in protecting big business’s ability to make profit. The change he seeks to make is to bring about class and racial peace so that workers will accept a lower standard of living and people of color will forego equal rights and opportunity in the “national interest,” which really means massive profits for multinational corporations. The real debate in the 2008 election is not that kind of change, which John McCain and Hillary Clinton support as much as Obama does. The real question is, Which candidate is best able to bring it about the kind of change that will benefit the capitalists? And in his Philadelphia speech on race, Barack Obama has made a good case that he is indeed that candidate.

Jeremiah Wright has spent the past several decades ministering to one of the most oppressed communities in the United States, to people suffering the effects of poverty, crime, police brutality, drug addiction, and terrible diseases including HIV/AIDS. He has consistently preached the truth as he has seen it, and he has devoted his life to public service on the level of individuals and families. When all is said and done and the ledger is tallied, it will very likely show that it was Dr. Wright who did more in service to others than did Barack Obama, even though Obama has already risen to great power and may rise to the most powerful political office on earth. In the words attributed to Jesus Christ, in Mark 8:35–36, “For whosoever will save his life will lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Rev. Dr. Wright has been true to his moral principles and has done his best to tell the truth as he as seen it. He will be remembered as a good man.