There was a time when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was front-page news for controversial comments he made while pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago — statements that might have gone largely unnoticed if then presidential candidate Barack Obama had not been one of his parishoners.
Wright, among other things, called the United States the “U.S. of K.K.K.A.” and suggested the nation’s “chickens are coming home to roost” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks because the U.S. had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during World War II.
On Monday night, during a visit to Fresno State, Wright blamed the media for taking those comments, most from a single sermon, and giving them outsized prominence in their reports. Their motive? To scare voters away from putting an African American in the White House, Wright said.
“That’s just egregious,” said Wright, who retired from Trinity in 2008.
The days of the 2008 presidential election are long past, but many Americans who profoundly dislike Obama have never forgotten Wright or his connection to the president. For that reason, Wright remains a polarizing figure.
He hearkened back to that time during a question-and-answer session after his talk at the university. Wright compared the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks to the Japanese killed by the atomic bombs. Who are the terrorists, he asked.
But for most of the evening Wright shared his experiences of growing up during the era of segregation. He talked about what it was like to take over a black church in Chicago at a time it was losing young people. Wright grew Trinity United Church of Christ into an 8,000-member powerhouse that fought inner-city challenges such as poverty, homelessness and HIV/AIDS.
His visit was part of African Peoples’ History Month. The event featured a dialogue between Wright and T. Hasan Johnson, a professor in Fresno State’s Africana Studies Program, with Johnson asking Wright about his life and struggles.
Wright opened the evening event by telling how he was born in a Philadelphia neighborhood that was half black and half white. His family later traveled to the South to visit his grandparents, and it was there he experienced segregation for the first time.
“I grew up seeing segregated lunch counters,” Wright recalled. “I knew segregation up close and personal and I didn’t understand it.”
His father was a pastor, and Sunday was spent at the church. “I could not take off my shirt and tie all day,” Wright recalled.
Wright did not set out to be a pastor. Instead, he wanted to teach at a seminary, focusing on subjects like ethics, church history and the history of religion.
His career path was interrupted by a six-year stint in the military. He started in the Marines, then moved to the Navy to be a cardiopulmonary technician. Wright served in the years between Korea and Vietnam wars. One of the people he helped treat was then President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1966, he received a letter of thanks from the White House.
While in the Marines, Wright felt the sting of racism. He recalled being called a racial epithet nearly 50 times while in Marine boot camp.
In 1967 he was discharged from the military, and began taking part in civil rights sit-ins. In this time he also stopped attending church. He found white Christians to be hypocrites and black believers to be “charlatans.”
“I went critical,” he said, explaining he was ready to tear down institutions, including the church. But his Christian faith did not waver, and Wright had the calling to become a pastor.
Once he took over Trinity, Wright worked to get good role models, like black professionals, involved in church so young people could see they could too achieve such status.
New challenges have emerged today. Wright said young people now are not growing up in the church as he did. “They get their theology from hip hop, where we got it from Sunday school.”