COLUMBIA — The Rev. Jeremiah Wright has never been afraid to give his opinion on the often-tenuous state of race relations in the U.S.
As part of a local conference discussing how black clergy and churches can get involved in social action, Wright was scheduled to give a sermon at 7 p.m. Thursday at Missouri United Methodist Church.
Widely known for his remarks on the history of the U.S.'s racial wrongdoings and his role as former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago to President Barack Obama, Wright spoke with the Columbia Missourian on Thursday before speaking at the J. Alfred Smith Conference on Church and Social Action.
Here are excerpts of that conversation:
Q: Could you explain any similarities or differences we've seen with the Black Lives Matter movement and the Civil Rights Movement in terms of leadership and/or tactics?
A: I think, interestingly enough given your field of journalism, the primary difference is the media, from the perspective of a 74-year-old who was in the Civil Rights Movement and was at the sit-ins. The media coverage and the media making and deciding whom our leaders should be.
The media back in the Civil Rights Movement absolutely wanted to make Martin Luther King the leader after he was dead. They didn’t like him while he was alive. But he became the martyr and the nonviolent prophet of social justice who was held up as ‘Please follow this leader, black people. Don’t follow Muhammad Ali, don’t follow Malcolm X, don’t follow SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). ...'
Today, the media is frustrated because they can’t name a leader — Black Lives Matter and the young millennials. They want to know who is leading this movement, who can we zero in on and focus on and lift up and interview and talk to. Their names are legion, there are hundreds of them. You can find the three ladies who started Black Lives Matter, you can find Traci Blackmon in Ferguson, you can find Jamal Bryant in Baltimore. But there’s no Jesse Jackson, there’s no Al Sharpton, there’s no national leader we can hone in on for the movement of equal and human rights today. ...
The church up North and out West were not involved in the civil rights. In fact, the church up north was anti-King. I live in Chicago. In Chicago, J.H. Jackson, president of the then-National Baptist Convention, was rabidly opposed to Dr. King. And so was the whole National Baptist Convention, the largest black convention at the time of Baptists. Church of God and Christ weren’t involved at all. Pentecostal ... not at all. And up North? Not at all. It was not a church movement. And neither is Black Lives Matter.
The second thing that’s tickling me in terms of similarities is what people forget because of years that have passed. Dr. King was killed in 1968. He was what, 39? He was in his 30s. Everybody in the movement was young back then, just like everybody in the movement today is young. ... There are a lot of similarities I see in terms of where the church is, where the church was, where the church is not today. Some of our activists in the Black Lives Matter movement are put out with the black church because it’s so silent, or so laid back, or so uninvolved. So was the black church in the Civil Rights Movement. The black church became mobilized by King after he was dead.
Q: Is it a problem that Black Lives Matter doesn't have a figurehead?
A: No. I don’t think it’s a problem. I love it.
Q: And why do you love it?
A: Because you can’t pin somebody down and make them the target of all your criticisms, of all your conversations, your analyses. Young leaders are all over the place, some lesbian, some gay, some straight, some in church, some who wouldn’t put a foot in church if you paid them. … It’s a people’s movement. It’s a movement of the people. Mandela did not lead the fight, it was the people’s fight, 'Sizwe.' He was a person, in fact he was an exile in prison. ... It’s a people’s movement, and that’s why I love it. It’s people-led. Not person-led, not personality-led, but people.
Q: Do you think it's important that the church inspires social action and movement on the ground, or do you think that it's more of their job to react to the movement and keep it ethical?
A: If they’re following the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and calling themselves Christians, then they inspire the movement themselves. They don’t react to what happens. They attack poverty. They attack illiteracy. They attack inequities. They don’t wait for some outside movement and then react one way or the other to try to calm them down. Jesus didn’t wait. In quoting Isaiah 61 he said, 'The spirit of the Lord is upon me … to preach the gospel to the poor.' Not, 'to wait until I see how the social movement on the ground is operating and then run out like a politician and get in front of that movement and react to it.' I initiate. If we’re following in his footsteps, in terms of calling ourselves Christians, then our job as a church is to initiate those movements that address the inequities in the societies where our churches are sitting.
Q: I know you've been asked about this a lot, probably more than you'd like, but regarding the controversy over you condemning America, do you think there's anything that can be done to atone for America's past mistakes?
A: ... Absolutely. You can start with reparations. We paid reparations to the Japanese, we paid reparations to the Jews. We ain’t paid Africans nothing. ... The 15 nations of the Caribbean have sued Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England for the unconscionable wealth they gained trading black flesh. You can start there. Or in terms of process theology, the step preceding reparations is to say 'I’m sorry.' To repent. But most people are not interested in true repentance because if I have to repent, I have to repay. Luke, 19th chapter, Jesus goes into Jericho and there’s a very rich tax collector there who got rich off ripping people off — his own people, as an agent of a colonizing government, the Roman government. And after Jesus talked to him, he repented by saying what? 'I’m going to give back everything I stole, four times as much, to the people I sold to, the poor people. I’m going to pay back.' That’s called reparations. Let’s start there.
This country won’t repent because this country doesn’t want to repay. And by repay I don’t mean ‘he’s going to get a check for 50 thousand, he’s going to get a check for 50 thousand.’ No, I mean let’s put money into the school systems to address the inequities in resources from grammar school to high school in oppressed inner cities. That’s a part of reparations. Putting in programs where kids who are born in economic depressed neighborhoods will have an opportunity to go to school, go to college, get jobs. … And we can start with the Native Americans. You’re talking about what we did to the Native Americans? We broke every treaty we ever had. Start with the Native Americans, then move to African Americans. In terms of atoning for what we did, yeah, lots of things that can be done.
Q: While most of the protests from the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Baltimore and across the country have been peaceful, there have been some incidents of violence and retaliation. What would you say to someone who has been moved to violence as a result of hopelessness and frustration?
A: Probably the same thing I just heard Allan Boesak ... say. Dr. Boesak was cautioning those of us who live in middle-class, middle-income, cushy, university, pastor kind of positions, about judging people who live in grinding poverty and judging their behavior. And he talked from the perspective of what the kids in Soweto did in '63; what happened to Sharpeville. People who are up under it have a different perspective than those of us from the outside looking in. President Jimmy Carter was saying to Palestinians, 'You must choose nonviolence in your struggle for Palestinian rights.' That’s a nonsequitur. A 25-year-old Palestinian kid said, ‘We appreciate your stance on Palestinian rights. … Don’t presume to tell us who are watching our mothers killed in terms of how we react to our own freedom.’ Before we judge, remembering that we are the most violent nation on the planet, let’s start there. Every week there’s a kill meeting on Tuesday deciding who we’re going to drop a drone on. And telling you to be nonviolent? While we are the purveyors of violence? Dr. King called the U.S. the No. 1 purveyor of violence on the planet. That we should not sit in judgment of people who are pushed against the wall, as to how they react to being pushed against the wall.
Now that’s different from the guys and girls who are interlocutors, who are people from the outside who come in to have some fun and steal some stuff. I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about people who have no options. I’m saying not to prejudge them or sit in judgment because that’s how they choose to respond and react. And to go in not just with stronger police, but to go in with some programs and policies that are going to change the living conditions for them when the anger subsides. That’s the way to address it.
Q: All Southern and Midwestern states are steeped in a history of racial prejudice, but not all areas are hotbeds for conversation like Ferguson. How are small towns and cities across the country, like Columbia, supposed to approach these issues without the leadership resources available to the centers of the movement?
A: Without the leadership is the hook to that question. I would respond by saying, looking at Ferguson, looking at Staten Island, looking at Baltimore, to see what caused that. What can we do to change our situation before it happens here? And that does not mean militarized police, Humvees and armor piercing bullets? No. What can we do to change whatever social situations there are that cause these other places? That’s what I would recommend, then you said not having the leadership. …
I think that conscientious persons of every race, white, black, Hispanic, need to do it. To look at those other situations and other settings and small towns, to see what’s causing that. What caused that? Do we have anything similar here? Let’s fix that before we end up like they ended up. There’s not strong grassroots, but there needs to be leadership that can see some ‘ah-hah’ moments. Not to retaliate, but to address some other kind of social positive steps to change the conditions that created Ferguson, that created Baltimore, that created Staten Island.
Q: There's a march in Columbia this weekend about community violence. Where does community violence fit into the social justice agenda, and is the term "black on black violence" a logical fallacy?
A: Yes, a logical fallacy. Let’s talk about white-on-white crime. I think it’s a smoke screen. Let’s talk about the conditions that cause crime. And then let's talk about white-on-white crime. We don’t wanna talk about that because it’s more fashionable to talk about a nonissue. Let’s take the focus off what’s really going on: 'Well when are you black people gonna stop killing each other?' Well when are you white people gonna stop killing each other? ...
You know, the black-on-black crime, quote-unqoute, because using the term is very tricky; it’s a slick term, blacks killing blacks. In Chicago, for instance, blacks know if I go into the white community and shoot somebody, I’ll be in jail before the night is up. If I kill somebody in the black community, they’re really not gonna prosecute me, even look for me, unless it makes the media. We had, our choir conductor, was murdered. He’s just black. Nobody’s found him. They’re not even looking for him. And black gang-bangers. Let's go to the gang because they call them community organizations, community organizations know in the black community, if they keep whatever it is they do inside the black community, the chances of them being hounded, prosecuted or even arrested are much less than if they crossed the line and go into a white community to do it. That has nothing to do with Ferguson, that has nothing to do with Freddie Gray, that has nothing to do with Black Lives Matter. It has something to do with social conditions in this country as documented by sociologists like Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Aldon Morris since the 1900s, when cops were bringing white politicians into the black community where the whores were. That’s where they’d bring them — the police! Your man got a friend coming in to town? Let’s take him over here to this black whorehouse.
We aid and abet and support that kind of black criminality, but then when a deal goes bad or something goes wrong with drugs, then it’s: 'Look what’s going on in the black community.' No, look what you’re perpetuating in the black community. That’s why I said the conversation should be honest and kept honest. If you’re going to talk about what’s going on in the black community, let's talk about what causes and what supports it, and what are we going to do about it besides having a prayer meeting to help the young brothers get some jobs, some options, some education. What white businesspersons are willing to work with the black youth who are homeless, who are jobless, who are hopeless? We’re not gonna talk about that? Then you can pray till Jesus comes and sing all the songs you want. That ain’t going to change nothing.
Q: What's the biggest truth that Ferguson and surrounding incidents have revealed to the rest of America who might not have been aware of some of the things going on?
That this country was founded on racism, supported by racism, sustained by racism, and it’s still alive and well in 2015, even with an African-descendant president in the White House.
Supervising editor is John Schneller.