The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a polarizing religious leader and former spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama, told a crowd at Southern University on Thursday that black people have historically turned to the wrong direction for help — from Biblical times through slavery, the Civil War and up to modern day.
“Our help doesn’t come from government. It doesn’t come from guns. It comes from God,” Wright said. “If you’re looking to the government for help, you’re looking in the wrong place.”
Wright’s speech, part of a Black History Month program at the historically black college, relied heavily on Scripture — or as he fondly called it, “poetry” of the prophets — but was just short of being a full religious sermon.
Wright called on the mostly black crowd frequently in his speech, urging attendees to finish lines from Biblical passages or sing verses from spiritual hymns and Motown hits.
“If you need help, call on the Lord,” the Chicago pastor said.
Several dozen people gathered after the event to get copies of his book and event programs autographed. Children and adults lined up to have photos taken with him before he was ushered out of the building.
The tone in the room gave no indication to how controversial Wright has become since he was thrust into the national spotlight during Obama’s run for president in 2008 or the offense some could take to his appearance.
Wright had been Obama’s pastor until the Democratic presidential hopeful eventually distanced himself amid widespread reports on controversial statements Wright had made. Obama later publicly denounced his former spiritual mentor.
Critics have labeled Wright as racist, as his speeches frequently home on what he sees as the plight of African-Americans at the hands of white people.
“The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, goddamn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people,” Wright said in a 2003 sermon — one of the statements critics have most frequently cited.
His speech Thursday touched on similar themes and made accusations against those Wright sees as holding black citizens back — primarily, white leaders throughout history.
He vividly described injustices perpetrated against black slaves in Africa and the United States. He said Africans coming to America found a place where white people wrote a Constitution that focused on freedom, while denying them any piece of it. “It not only allowed slavery and condoned slavery, it also pointed out that we were not even human beings,” he said.
He said the war on drugs was a “war on black people” in disguise. He noted the killings of black teens like Trayvon Martin in Florida and Mike Brown in Missouri.
He twice took aim at the modern conservative tea party movement and referred to the Southerners who supported the Civil War as “great-grandparents of the tea party.”
“They fought a civil war to keep black folks enslaved, and they lost the war,” he said.
Later, he referred to the tea party as the reincarnation of the “lynch party.”
“Nothing scares a racist more than a black man who can think,” he said at one point.
Some opponents have compared Wright’s speech to a prayer rally Gov. Bobby Jindal held on LSU’s campus last month. That event drew a backlash because of its sponsor, the American Family Association, a group that also has come under fire for inflammatory remarks in the past. About 400 people protested the prayer event, which consisted of Jindal and other evangelical Christians praying, singing and sharing testimonials in a contemporary-styled religious service.
Wright’s speech, which was entirely paid for by private donations through the private interfaith PICO Louisiana group, attracted no protests on Southern’s campus.
Albert Samuels, a Southern professor who also spoke at the event, defended the decision to invite Wright.
“What does a university exist for but to provide opportunities for people to be exposed to those who will discuss the important issues of the day?” Samuels asked.