ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER: Senator Barack Obama was on the defensive this week, as a controversy surrounding his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, gained momentum. The presidential hopeful gave a speech on racial issues in America. Senior news editor Paul Jay spoke to professor of theology Dwight Hopkins, a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Rev. Jeremiah Wright was a pastor.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR NEWS EDITOR: So, Professor Hopkins, there’s been a tremendous, to use Barack Obama’s words, firestorm in relation to Rev. Wright’s comments. I thought it would be good just to look at these words, and we can discuss what he said with a little bit less of the emotion of the day. “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. We supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans. And now we’re indignant because the stuff we’ve done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” Professor Hopkins, Barack Obama’s immediate response on March 14 opened like this:
BARACK OBAMA: “Let me say at the outset that I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy. I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies.”
What was interesting, and I think what doesn’t seem to be getting discussed very much in the media about this, is that Reverend Wright’s comments, a great deal of them actually had to do with US foreign policy. Reverend Wright used the terminology “state terrorism against the Palestinians.” Obama answers that Israel is a stalwart ally and won’t participate in any kind of critique of Israel. The whole idea that chickens come home to roost, that US foreign policy may have had something to do with the forces that led to 9/11.
PROF. DWIGHT HOPKINS, MEMBER OF TRINITY UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST: If we do carefully, as you have done, cut out the sound and just read the statement in a more rational way, which you did do as a lead-in to this conversation, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, no one can deny the facts of history in terms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No one can deny that the US government was a major supporter of apartheid in South Africa, in fact. You know, unfortunately, Vice President Dick Cheney now, earlier had called Nelson Mandela one of the top terrorists in the world at that time. So, yes, if we look at the factual statements of Reverend Wright’s sermons, there are some rational, historical, factual evidence that he provides.
JAY: Professor Hopkins, you attend the same church? You’ve been to Reverend Wright’s church?
HOPKINS: I’ve been a member for 12 years.
JAY: What’s the response, do you think, of the congregation to this whole controversy, but more specifically to Obama’s fairly stinging critique of Reverend Wright?
HOPKINS: I think when ABC released these 30 seconds of Wright’s sermons, a lot of people at the church were hurt because of the firestorm that the media unleashed, the mainstream media in the United States, that is. And then I think there was some sort of [inaudible] letdown or feeling injured. But by Sunday, people were in church, you know, packed to the rafters. Both [inaudible] sections were full to the max. And people were dancing and singing, and said that, you know, we will speak out and we will embrace both our pastor and our favorite son. But I think the issue here is that a lot of people feel that Obama’s part of the extended family, and if anything, they feel that there’s a racial attack against Obama that is not warranted.
JAY: But Obama’s, you know, distancing himself from Reverend Wright, used very strong language. Was there no offense taken by members of the congregation?
HOPKINS: I think there might have been some confusion on some members of the congregation with his statement that he released on Friday, Friday afternoon, Chicago time. But I think that his speech did something which he hadn’t done. He spoke clearly to why black people are angry. Why was Dr. Wright’s sermon so animated, so intense? And Obama had never spoken to the material conditions, the reality of many African-Americans who deal with issues that many white brothers and sisters may not deal with. So I think people could exhale, and said, “Wow. Okay, he finally got it. He finally laid it out. He can disagree with what we think in terms of Reverend Wright’s snippets of sermons., but at least he heard that this is what black people deal with.”
JAY: Let me quote a piece written by a Reverend Samuel B. McKinney, who’s a pastor in Seattle, Washington. If I understand correctly, he emailed this to you, and you forwarded it to the press. And here’s what Reverend McKinney wrote. He says, “Now, there’s always been accommodationist preachers, those who go along to get along. In biblical terms, they’re false prophets. And Jesus, the son of God, was not politically correct. Jesus upset the status quo. He disrupted the comfortable. Remember, Jesus got angry and threw the money changers out of the temple. Jesus raised some holy hell. So why can’t Dr. Wright?” And then it ends by saying, “An attack on this man of God is an attack on all those of the cloth who believe in a social gospel of liberation. And I will not stand for it, not on my watch, not today.” Isn’t Barack Obama’s critique of Reverend Wright more or less what is being criticized in the statement from Reverend McKinney?
HOPKINS: Yeah. I think there are two statements that Senator Obama put out. One was on Friday, March 14, which came out around 4:30 in the afternoon, and that was the statement where he says, you know, he distances himself, he vehemently condemns. And I think probably around about Saturday night Senator Obama said, “Look, you know, just look. I’m just going to write my own speech. It’s got to be me. It’s going to be authentically me. And we’ve got to put this issue in a larger context of trying to bring together America.” For the first time Senator Obama said, “Look,” you know, “America, I disagree with these snippets of the sermons of my pastor, but at the same time, two things need to be understood. One, I’m not going to disavow him. I mean, if I disavow him, I may as well disavow my white grandmother.” That was one thing. But the other thing he said was that America has to understand that, you know, the righteous anger, the social conditions that give rise to the type of sentiment that many African-Americans have, particularly in urban areas and some poor rural pockets in the United States, that were expressed or enunciated by Reverend Wright. And then he went on to say something which I think no other presidential candidate, Democrat, Republican, independent, has ever done, that is, to talk about race in such a public way that the black condition is acknowledged. At the same time—and here’s probably the balanced new piece—that a lot of white ethnic workers in the United States, they too have some anger and some resentment. Senator Obama’s running for president. And I think he’s trying to bridge this gap between different generations, bridge the gaps between various races and ethnic groups, you know, Jews and blacks, Latinos and blacks, whites and blacks. And so probably from his perspective, what he wants to do is to lay out a larger framework for the discussion of race and ethnicity in the United States.
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