What Michelle Obama's 'Becoming' Misses About Jeremiah Wright

Commentary
Jeremiah Wright (behind the I.V. pole) as a Navy Corpsman Tending to President Lyndon B. Johnson. A letter of thanks on behalf of the President is superimposed on photo. Public Domain.

The former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, recently published Becoming, a remarkable memoir that is the best-selling book of the season. I greatly enjoyed the book, but I admit that I am very troubled by her description of Jeremiah Wright as a wild-eyed, out of touch extremist who is “paranoid” and “careening through callous and inappropriate rage … at white America.” I don’t question the sincerity of her opinion, but as a long-time friend and admirer of Wright, I see him quite differently.

The Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. is the son of a highly respected old-line Philadelphia minister and the vice principal of a local high school. An ex-U.S. Marine who volunteered for the armed forces, he served as a trained cardiopulmonary technician for six years. On Wright’s office wall hangs a framed photograph of him monitoring the vital signs of President Lyndon Johnson during one of Johnson’s two surgeries while president. Hanging beside it is a personal post-operation letter from Johnson thanking Wright for his role in Johnson’s medical care.

Wright is not the crazed radical that some have portrayed him. He is a brilliant, erudite man. He speaks seven languages and holds four earned academic degrees, including a doctorate in ministry. At the prestigious University of Chicago Divinity School, he completed all the requirements for the Ph.D. except his dissertation, which he put aside in 1975 to devote all his time to his pastorate of Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago. Beginning with 87 active members, by the time Wright retired in 2007, he had built a vibrant congregation of some 8,000 members, with more than 60 ministries serving the church and its surrounding community. These included ministries for HIV/AIDS care, drug and alcohol recovery, hospice care, senior citizen health care and housing (two separate residences), a child care program (federally funded), a reading program for the poor, and 22 ministries for youths.

For the full 36 years of his Trinity pastorate, Wright was what can be best described as a servant leader. Unlike most megachurch pastors, he knew most members of his congregation by name and made himself fully accessible to them, including sharing his personal email address with the entire congregation. Wright daily arose at 4:00 a.m. to respond to every one of his parishioners’ emailed questions, concerns and needs, no matter how small.

For years, it has been Wright’s practice to correspond with 30 incarcerated young men and young women per month. One of his prison correspondents was so inspired by Wright that after regaining his freedom, he returned to school, excelled as a student, and is now a practicing physician. Wright’s inspiring correspondence was not limited to those in prison. After only meeting him briefly, an esteemed professor at an Ivy League university received a letter from Wright that she found so spiritually inspiring that today it hangs in a place of honor on her office wall.

One of the charges against Wright is that he is a racist and a hate monger. This is contradicted, however, by several seldom unacknowledged facts. His denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC), is predominately white. Trinity has a number of white congregants, including the presiding conference minister of the Illinois Conference of the UCC – a white woman. Wright is held in such high esteem by his white UCC ministerial colleagues that the Rev. John Thomas, the UCC’s general minister and president from 1999-2009 and a white man, said of the press’s depictions of Wright and Trinity, “It has saddened me,” he said, “to see news stories reporting such a caricature of a congregation that has been such a blessing.”

In March of 2008 a caravan of white UCC ministers from around the nation journeyed to Trinity to voice their support for Wright. From Trinity’s pulpit Thomas declared, “Those who sifted through [29] hours of sermons searching for a few lurid phrases and those who have aired them repeatedly have only one intention. It is to wound a presidential candidate. In the process a congregation that does exceptional ministry and a pastor who has given his life to shape these ministries is caricatured and demonized. You don’t have to be an Obama supporter to be alarmed by this.” There is no way Wright would have been supported by his predominately white denomination if he is the racial extremist he has been called.

The Grammy Award-winning rapper and actor, Common, has been a member of Trinity UCC since childhood. The popular performer took umbrage at media portrayals of Wright as a hate-filled racist. He shared in a 2007 interview: “[Wright] never really was against white people or another race. It was more against an establishment that was oppressing people.” Indeed, those who know Wright are baffled by the press’s portrayal of him as a hateful man. Although Wright the ex-Marine can admittedly be acerbic and combative, congregants and colleagues alike overwhelmingly laud him as a sensitive, deeply caring, and extremely generous man. An oft-repeated description of him is, “Jeremiah Wright will give you the shirt off his back, then give you an IOU for the next one.”

In his long career before the press tarnished his reputation and made him a pariah in some circles, Wright was a much sought after speaker at church revivals and conferences, as well as academic symposia. He has lectured at seminaries, colleges, and universities throughout the United States too numerous to name, including some of the nation’s finest. He has been awarded eight honorary degrees (a ninth was rescinded in the wake of the media furor) and has served as a trustee at several colleges and theological institutions. Jeremiah Wright was such a widely respected religious leader that he was the only minister to be invited more than once to President Bill Clinton’s annual Interfaith Prayer Breakfast.

Yet all his accomplishments were totally discounted in the wake of the release of the cherry-picked sound bites violently wretched out of context to appear un-American and un-Christian, rather than the fully biblically grounded statements that they were.

Jeremiah Wright was collateral damage in the right-wing’s attempt to defeat Barack Obama, a victim of white America’s preoccupation with vilifying any black person who challenges their political supremacy. There is no other plausible reason to attack with such malice a widely respected clergyman who has dedicated his life to serving others.

I choose not to believe that Michelle Obama intended to further wound Wright. Like anyone, he has his flaws. It is simply my hope that in the future anyone who chooses to write critically about Jeremiah Wright would also acknowledge the truly admirable man that he is.

Obery Hendricks, Ph.D., teaches Religion and African American Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of The Politics of Jesus: Reclaiming the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted.

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