Not derogatory, descriptive: Rev. Wright on the preacher and the politician

By Michelle Chen Mar 26, 2009

About a year ago, the media controversy surrounding Reverend Jeremiah Wright threatened to derail Barack Obama’s presidential run. The candidate then deftly seized the moment to display an ability to balance disparate, conflicting perspectives on race in American politics. In the wake of the political fallout, the President and his former pastor have occupied separate public spheres, seemingly with the understanding that they are each fulfilling distinct roles for distinct constituencies. (The spin still lingers, however, as the Wright controversy serves as a media reference point in Obama’s ongoing jujitsu in defining his public image.) Last night on Night Talk, a public affairs program on New York’s WBAI station, Rev. Wright expounded on the difference between "a pastor and a politician." Though he expressed pride in his role in shaping Obama as an individual, Wright incisively described a “paradox” in the Black community’s struggle for representation through faith as well as politics. He focused on the public sentiment that Obama’s election somehow fulfills the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. Here’s a snippet of the interview (available in its entirety as an audio file here), which (as Wright observes) would probably not be read or heard elsewhere without distortion:

“Dr. King would never have desired to see himself or a Black man in the position of being the one who now has his finger on the nuclear trigger. When King was preaching against militarism, he would never have seen himself as: ‘My dream has come true, now we got a Black man who’s the head of the number one killer, the number one purveyor of violence in the world.’… Dr. King would not have wanted to be in the unenviable position of being the Black man at the helm of a country that now is trying to put military bases in Africa, nor the head of a country that still refuses to deal with what happened in Haiti when the United States government got Aristede out of there—the CIA, United States Marines. Nor would he have wanted to see a Black man have to say, because of Jewish pressure, AIPAC pressure, we are not going to send anybody to the international conference the United Nations is presenting on the [review of the Durban conference on racism]… "That’s not the culmination of King’s dream…. King was a preacher! The President is a politician. When I say that, and when it is said, people think it’s a put down. I’m not being derogatory, I’m being descriptive. That’s simply two different roles, two different allegiances, two different worlds, two different realities. And that gets taken, again, out of context. ‘Cause the press will not let you say what I just got through saying—the corporately owned press in America—without cutting you off, interrupting you, or taking what you just said and trying to twist it into something that will send ratings up, it goes against somebody, something negative."

Those prowling for another “gotcha” moment will probably find something worth spinning in these statements (as well as in this prescient 2007 interview with Wright here). But whether you agree or not, the message is most remarkable for its frankness. And when it comes to the division between activists and politicians, Wright’s words are a case in point. Image: Richard Thompson, The New Yorker