Three days after his former parishioner Barack Obama was elected President, and six months after it emerged that the university withdrew its honorary degree for him, the pastor best known for saying “God damn America” will speak to upward of 1,000 people for the “State of the Black Union” at Cahn Auditorium.
To avert any confusion about the man before Wright takes the stage Friday evening at 7 p.m., we spoke to History Professor Martha Biondi, who specializes in 20th century African-American History and has done research on African-American politics and social movements. We also spoke with For Members Only President Zachary Parker to learn more about why Wright will be coming to Northwestern, particularly after such an historic night as Tuesday.
Here are your Rev. Wright FAQs answered:
Students likely know Wright mostly from the controversy surrounding his ties to Barack Obama and his honorary degree last year. Who is the Jeremiah Wright that we don’t know?
“Jeremiah Wright comes out of a tradition — sometimes termed black liberation theology — that began in the 1960s,” Biondi says. That tradition of black church leadership “embraced a social mission and embraced a role of critique. And this is what Jeremiah Wright, his sermons and his public remarks in the summer are most notable for — for bringing a voice to a critique of society, and that means a critique of war, a critique of white supremacy, a critique of racial inequality, bringing that kind of critical dissonant perspective to bear on his Christian teachings and practice.”
The mission of his church is to represent the disenfranchised, Biondi says. “So he feels emboldened and really obligated to represent that voice.”
She adds, “The Rev Wright who we don’t know is somebody who led a church for decades that was very involved in trying to solve community problems.”
Rev. Wright and Sen. Obama have been linked in the media throughout Obama’s campaign. But one is a reverend and the other a senator. How are they different and why is that significant?
Obama is “a politician, not a protest figure, not an activist. In one time in his life, he was a community activist,” Biondi says. “Now, of course, he’s seeking to represent all Americans, he’s seeking to head the government of the most powerful nation in the world. So that’s obviously a really different context than Rev. Wright.”
“He needs to build a coalition, he needs to bring blacks and whites together to get elected. And he’s interested in downplaying that critical voice and that critical stance that Rev. Wright represents. So that’s the really important context of their difference.”
Rev. Wright is speaking soon after Obama’s historic win. Was this intentional?
“When I met with his this summer, he would not agree to speak before the election,” Parker says, adding, “he didn’t want to give the Republican Party — John McCain, etc. — any ammunition to use against Barack Obama or further defile the name of the black church or his family or those in support of him.”
What’s the significance of Rev. Wright speaking on campus? Why was he invited, and what will it achieve?
Parker, who calls himself “the official spokesperson for the Northwestern black community,” says that FMO wants to “show to the university that regardless of what the institution does to Rev Wright, we as a black community at NU will still support and rally around him. We still honor him as a hero and as a pillar in our community.”
But, Parker adds, “It’s obviously clear that I do not represent the views of every black person on campus,” and that “what we are arguing is not that we necessarily condone or accept everything that he believes or that he has said or done, but that we are supporting him because of the totality of his experience and his legacy. We support the man Rev. Wright. We will leave it up to others to question the legitimacy of his argument.”
Has he made a speech to college students before? Before the Obama hoopla?
Yes. He spoke in Johnson Chapel at Amherst College in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2007. While his talk, “The State of the Dream”, began as a traditional sermon on Moses and Joshua leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, he used it as an opportunity to take shots at the current administration and teach people about how to deal with change.
“Our leaders were human and our leaders messed up,” Wright said. “Moses made mistakes, it’s in his bio. But Moses didn’t lie about it…he doesn’t say he served in the National Guard when the record says something else.” Instead of living in the past, one must live in the present, he told the audience, which consisted not only of Amherst students but also of faculty and members of the community. Being unable to adapt to one’s current situation is a recipe for disaster, he said.
“You learn from the past, but you live in the present. So many churches have failed because of the seven last words: We’ve never done it that way before.”
While he conceded that “we need to look at the past and learn from the past,” Wright said that focusing on the opportunities presented by crisis was more crucial.
“A lot of people don’t want you to move on, they want to drag you back to who you used to be,” he said.
And he certainly didn’t shy away from the issue of race: “Racism is still alive, well, and living in America, unconfessed and unafraid.”
Who will be attending? And how many?
FMO advertised the event beyond campus, to people in Evanston and to Wright’s 8,000-member church, where “it’s been in their bulletin for over a month now.” Of the 1,000 available tickets, about 300 remain and will be available at the door.
Aubrey Blanche and Kelli Greenberg contributed to this report.