I once asked a reporter back from Vietnam:
�Who�s telling the truth over there?� �Everyone,� he said. �Everyone sees
what�s happening through the lens of their own experience.�
That�s how people see Jeremiah Wright.
In my conversation with him and in his dramatic public
appearances since, he revealed himself to be far more complex than the sound
bites that propelled him onto the public stage. More than 2,000 people have
written me about him, and their opinions vary widely. Some sting: �Jeremiah
Wright is nothing more than a race-hustling, American-hating radical,� one of
my viewers wrote. Another called him a �nut case.�
Many more were sympathetic to him. Many asked for some
rational explanation for Wright�s transition from reasonable conversation to
the shocking anger they saw at the National Press Club. A psychologist might
pull back some of the layers and see this complicated man more clearly, but I�m
not a psychologist.
Many black preachers I�ve known -- scholarly, smart, and
gentle in person -- uncorked fire and brimstone in the pulpit. Of course, I�ve
known many white preachers like that, too. But where I grew up in the South,
before the Civil Rights movement, the pulpit was a safe place for black men to
express anger for which they would have been punished anywhere else. A safe
place for the fierce thunder of dignity denied, justice delayed.
I think I would have been angry if my ancestors had been
transported thousands of miles in the hellish hole of a slave ship, then sold
at auction, humiliated, whipped, and lynched. Or if my great-great-great
grandfather had been but three-fifths of a person in a constitution that
proclaimed: �We, the people.� Or if my own parents had been subjected to the
racial vitriol of Jim Crow, Strom Thurmond, Bull Conner, and Jesse Helms.
Even so, the anger of black preachers I�ve known and heard
and reported on was, for them, very personal and cathartic. That�s not how
Jeremiah Wright came across in those sound bites or in his defiant performances
since my interview. What white America is hearing in his most inflammatory
words is an attack on the America they cherish and that many of their sons have
died for in battle -- forgetting that black Americans have fought and bled
beside them, and that Wright himself has a record of honored service in the
Hardly anyone took the �chickens come home to roost� remark
to convey the message that intervention in the political battles of other nations
is sure to bring retaliation in some form, which is not to justify the
particular savagery of 9/11 but to understand that actions have consequences.
My friend Bernard Weisberger, the historian, says, yes, people are
understandably seething with indignation over Wright�s absurd charge that the
United States deliberately brought an HIV epidemic into being. But it is a
fact, he says, that within living memory the U.S. public health service
conducted a study that deliberately deceived black men with syphilis into
believing that they were being treated while actually letting them die for the
sake of a scientific test.
Does this excuse Wright�s anger? His exaggerations or
distortions? You�ll have to decide for yourself, but at least it helps me to
understand the why of them.
In this multimedia age the pulpit isn�t only available on
Sunday mornings. There�s round the clock media -- the beast whose hunger is
never satisfied, especially for the fast food with emotional content. So the
preacher starts with rational discussion and after much prodding throws more
and more gasoline on the fire that will eventually consume everything it
touches. He had help -- people who, for their own reasons, set out to conflate
the man in the pulpit who wasn�t running for president with the man in the pew
Behold the double standard: John McCain sought out the
endorsement of John Hagee, the war-mongering, Catholic-bashing Texas preacher,
who said the people of New Orleans got what they deserved for their sins. But
no one suggests McCain shares Hagee�s delusions or thinks AIDS is God�s
punishment for homosexuality. Pat Robertson called for the assassination of a
foreign head of state and asked God to remove Supreme Court justices, yet he
remains a force in the Republican religious right. After 9/11, Jerry Falwell
said the attack was God�s judgment on America for having been driven out of our
schools and the public square, but when McCain goes after the endorsement of
the preacher he once condemned as an agent of intolerance, the press gives him
a pass. Jon Stewart recently played tape from the Nixon White House in which
Billy Graham talks in the Oval Office about how he has friends who are Jewish,
but he knows in his heart that they are undermining America. This is crazy and
wrong -- white preachers are given leeway in politics that others aren�t.
Which means it is all about race, isn�t it?
Wright�s offensive opinions and inflammatory appearances are
judged differently. He doesn�t fire a shot in anger, put a noose around anyone�s
neck, call for insurrection, or plant a bomb in a church with children in
Sunday school. What he does is to speak his mind in a language and style that
unsettles some people, and says some things so outlandish and ill-advised that
he finally leaves Obama no choice but to end their friendship. We�re often
exposed to the corroding acid of the politics of personal destruction, but I�ve
never seen anything like this -- this wrenching break between pastor and
parishioner played out right in front of our eyes.
Both men no doubt will carry the grief to their graves. All
the rest of us should hang our heads in shame for letting it come to this in
America, where the gluttony of the nonstop media grinder consumes us all and
prevents an honest conversation on race. It is the price we are paying for
failing to heed the great historian Jacob Burckhardt, who said, �beware the
Moyers is managing editor of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers
Journal, which airs Friday nights on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at
The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.
The video for this essay can be found on YouTube.