Black History Month: Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.

(c) Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.  2013

This past Friday, I had the pleasure, once again, of listening to a spell-binding lecture by the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. Although I attended the renown church in Chicago that he built up, Trinity United Church of Christ, for many years, Dr. Wright became pastor emeritus while I was living out of the state of Illinois, so it has been a long time since I was treated to one of his cogent, well-researched, power-packed talks. (From what I understand, he continues to be a highly sought after speaker and leads travel study tours abroad to places like Egypt and Brazil.)

On this occasion, Dr. Wright spoke for Black History Month about religion and politics at St. Sabina Parish on the South side of Chicago. As he commenced, he reminded the crowd that he was delivering a speech and not a sermon. Then, for about an hour, he held forth, effortlessly, and gave a phenomenal lecture that seamlessly encompassed history, religion, music, linguistics, sociology, and psychology. He talked about acts of resistance by Africans who overtook slave ships in Surinam and freed other Black people after they had freed themselves in a mutiny. He explained that, although most people are familiar with the Amistad rebellion (that ended up in the United States Supreme Court), in reality there were hundreds of slave ships on which Africans mutinied during the slave trade. He talked about the Moors, the Haitian Revolution, and songs and sayings indigenous to African culture, as well as the Second Confiscation Act, Abraham Lincoln, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Forced Into Glory, historian Lerone Bennett, Jr.’s book about Lincoln. He said we have gone from having a Black church that “confronted” government about issues of injustice to one that “cooperates” with it.

Regarding structural racism and White supremacy, he gave an allegorical story about baking a cake and forgetting one of the main ingredients: sugar. He said, even if you sprinkle sugar on top of the result, “that mess will never be a cake.”

It was a memorable evening with the man whose church was attended by, not only President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, but many, many Black professionals from all over the Chicago metropolitan area. Traveling from the Western suburbs all the way to the South side was an arduous task for me, because one had to get there at least an hour early to be guaranteed a seat in the sanctuary, despite the fact that Wright held three services every Sunday. Every service was packed! Friday night, I was reminded why Black people, like me, passed right by innumerable churches in Chicago to get to Trinity.

What I am posting to the healing blog today is a Black History Month offering. It is a newspaper article I authored that ran in The Huntsville Times (Alabama) on April 20, 2008 in the midst of the right-wing Republicans’ revolting and vile attempts to destroy Dr. Wright and his brilliant then 40 year ministry as they endeavored to defeat then candidate Barack Obama. (I was teaching at Alabama A&M University in 2008.)

Mine was one of the many voices that pushed back and defended this extraordinarily gifted scholar. I am one of many people who love BOTH Barack and Jeremiah, and who felt very hurt by the attacks on both men, as well as by the rupture of their relationship under the weight of pure unadulterated racism. (Did you know that Jeremiah was one of the people whom Barack consulted before he ran for president, and Jeremiah enthusiastically encouraged him to run? Also, the name of Barack’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, came from the title of one of Jeremiah’s many deeply moving sermons.)

One of my professional colleagues warned me not to publish the article you are about to read (“This is Alabama, girl!”), but I refused to listen. I refused to be a coward. If people who know the truth will not stand up when needed, then we, as a people, will never get where we want to be. And you know what? I received call after call, from Blacks and Whites who thanked me for giving them another, more intelligent, and enlightened perspective on Dr. Wright. As that awesome thespian and activist, the late Ossie Davis, said in Spike Lee’s movie, one should always just “Do the right thing.” I hope you feel this article… So, here it is:

The Dr. Wright I Know Is Far From The One That’s Portrayed

published April 20, 2008

What people need to know in assessing Dr. Jeremiah Wright is that he is wholly and completely against all forms of oppression and racism.  His inclusive ministry appeals to people the world over precisely because it casts concern for people suffering all over the world.  He clearly subscribes to what Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and he clearly believes “all God’s children” have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

To call this military veteran “unpatriotic,” “anti-American” and “racist” is intellectually lazy and a crude attempt to reconstruct the nation’s inglorious racial history and ignore its not-very-pretty present.  It is an easy way to skirt the issues of injustice and inequality that Wright will continue to raise, for he is part of a long tradition of Black intellectuals who have mustered the courage to challenge America to achieve the greatness envisioned in the Declaration of Independence, and, ultimately, in the Constitution.

Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X, and King are just a few of Wright’s brilliant forerunners who made invaluable contributions to the spiritual, social, and cerebral development of this nation by speaking out in uncompromising language against oppression.

Wright is a linguist and a world-class biblical scholar with wide-ranging knowledge about history, world events, and various international cultures.  An erudite and thought-provoking orator, he preaches with an audacious message of hope and deliverance.

Wright’s church is brimming with extremely well-educated, fair-minded professionals who consider Trinity a sanctuary that affirms them in a society that has historically tried to denigrate black skin, intellect, aesthetics, culture, language and history.

Wright’s theology includes combating all White supremacist notions and actions that attempt to assault and undermine the psychological well-being of Black people.  That is what Trinity’s motto — “unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian” — is all about.  It is not racist dictum; it is a balm of unconditional love for a people with a certain body of collective understanding who continue to endure racism but in less obvious forms.

The Trinity Black Value System plank that promotes “disavowal of the pursuit of ‘middleclassness’” evinces a philosophy that encourages wealthy and poor parishioners to form a much needed alliance that seeks to stabilize many Black communities that lack essentials like decent housing, humane police services and schools that really educate.

To suggest that a value system that promotes self-determination for a historically oppressed group is “racist” is in and of itself arrogant, undemocratic and lacking in compassion.  While some white commentators engage in academic discussions about a so-called “post-racial” society, most Black people (and many Whites, too) are sophisticated enough to know that structural racism continues to exist.

On a personal note, Wright is a kind-hearted, committed, and responsive pastor of a church with an array of vibrant outreach ministries.  At a time when I was a parishioner completely unknown to him among the thousands, a family member was facing major surgery.  I left a message with his staff requesting that he call my relative.

The next night as I sat with her, the phone rang.  It was Wright calling from another country.  He talked to her for almost an hour.  Wright immediately placed her (a non-member) on Trinity’s sick and shut-in list.  Someone from that ministry called every single week during her 10-week recovery period, offering to do everything from running her errands to providing her meals.

So, despite the politically motivated, ad hominem attacks upon Wright, I know that he will be all right.  An uncorrupted assessment of Wright’s sermons that I heard for 12 years suggests that he inveighs against oppression with a divinely inspired desire for worldwide fellowship.  Voila, Barack Obama.

English: Jeremiah Wright and Bill Clinton at 1...

English: Jeremiah Wright and Bill Clinton at 1998 White House Prayer Breakfast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Jeremiah Wright (behind the I.V. pole...

English: Jeremiah Wright (behind the I.V. pole) as a Navy Corpsman Tending to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Bill Moyers was the President’s Press Secretary at the time, and is behind Wright. Identity of two men standing at center needed. A letter of thanks on behalf of the President is superimposed on photo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cover of "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts ...

Cover via Amazon

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Dr. Marti...

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meet at the White House, 1966 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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One thought on “Black History Month: Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.

  1. Dr. Sherrod – Thanks for writing the enlightening article on Dr. Jeremiah Wright. He has lived the motto of his Church. “Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian.
    Mary Morris

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