DETROIT — Rev. Jeremiah Wright spoke in Detroit to a crowd of 10,000 at an annual NAACP dinner on April 27, one of a series of outspoken public appearances that eventually prompted presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama to denounce his former pastor “very clearly and unequivocally” on April 29.
Obama, after a particularly controversial appearance by Wright on April 30 at the National Press Club, angrily criticized the retiring minister for implying that the U.S. government was involved in the spread of AIDS, for praising Minister Louis Farrakhan and for equating U.S. military efforts with terrorism.
The retiring minister first became an issue in the presidential race in March after the circulation of videos of old sermons in which he accused the U.S. government of racism, of flooding black neighborhoods with drugs and implied that the U.S. was partly to blame for the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Obama initially made statements that he disagreed with some of his pastor’s beliefs, stopping short of denouncing his friend of 20 years. But after the pastor’s latest string of appearances, and as Obama struggles to gain support among white working-class voters in Indiana and North Carolina for upcoming primary elections, the Illinois Senator severed his ties with Wright, saying he was “outraged” and “saddened” by his “divisive” and “destructive” words.
NAACP Detroit branch President Rev. Wendell Anthony introduced Wright at the group’s 53rd annual Fight For Freedom Fund dinner at the Cobo Conference Center, bashing his fist on the podium and saying “This is bigger that Barack Obama! This is bigger than Hillary Rodham Clinton! This is bigger than John McCain! This is about the African American church and our right to speak truth to power!”
In his keynote address, Wright described himself as not a “divisive” figure, but a “descriptive” figure.
“I describe the conditions in this country. Conditions divide, not my descriptions.”
Wright’s message focused on tolerance and acceptance between people of different faiths and lifestyles. In a section of his speech highlighting the importance of how we treat each other, Wright made special mention of the need to change how heterosexuals treat homosexuals.
He went on to discuss treatment of Arabs.
“Please run and tell my stuck-on-stupid friends that Arabic is a language, it’s not a religion. ‘Barack Hussein Obama. Barack Hussein Obama. Barack Hussein Obama!’ There are Arabic-speaking Christians, Arabic-speaking Jews, and Arabic-speaking atheists. Arabic is a language. It’s not a religion. Stop trying to scare folks by giving them an Arabic name as if it’s some sort of a disease.”
Earlier on, Wright had expressed “a special shukran [thank you] to Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights for his courgage, his conviction and his support.”
Elahi called for support for Wright in a statement on April 25, criticizing what he said has been unfair treatment of the pastor “by some media members who are ignoring this faith leader’s decades of dedication and services to this country.”
Wright said that at one time, it was Irish Americans who experienced the sort of prejudice now faced by Arab Americans and American Muslims, citing the names O’Malley, Shaughnessy, and O’Reilly. He then mused that perhaps “they might have been right” with respect to the last name, a thinly veiled jab at conservative Fox News presenter, Bill O’Reilly.
The speech was not entirely focused on politics and the backlash that Wright and Obama have faced as a result of the pastor’s past statements.
The theme of his address was “different is not deficient,” a statement he repeated many times, often with assistance from the audience.
He spoke about education and the need to recognize differences in the ways in which children of different ethnic groups learn.
He said that according to some studies, white children are more likely to learn from books, videos and toys, while black children are more likely to learn from people and stories.
Wright also discussed the importance of recognizing cultural differences in the interest of tolerance. He said an example of inherent differences between groups is that people of African descent hear and feel music differently from white people, emphasizing beats two and four of a four-beat phrase, as opposed to beats one and three, which white people are more likely to stress.
When asked his opinion on the speech, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer told The Arab American News; “I think [Reverend Wright] shared with those here who he really is and anybody walking out of here will have found him to be a knowledgeable, bright, and compassionate person.”