The simple message that being different doesn't mean a person is deficient was delivered with passion, anger, even humor Sunday night by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as the controversial Chicago minister captivated a sell-out crowd at the NAACP's Freedom Fund dinner.
Through language, music and the ways people learn, Wright showed that African Americans and European Americans are merely different from each other, not inferior or superior in any way.
"In the past, we were taught to see others who are different as deficient, and that anybody not like us was abnormal," said Wright, former pastor of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. "But a change is coming because we no longer see others who are different as deficient; we just see them as different."
The theme, repeated throughout a 40-minute speech, was especially powerful coming from Wright, who has been targeted in recent weeks as an anti-American, anti-white preacher because of snippets from sermons he has given over the years that have been played and replayed on network news shows.
The furor caused Obama to give a speech on race, in which he disavowed some of Wright's remarks, but not the man.
But Wright took a shot at the news media and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson for demonizing him over the controversial passages.
"The NAACP has been built on a primary premise: that all men and women are created equal. The nation's oldest civil rights organization has changed America's history despite violence, intimidation and hostile government policies.
"Somebody please tell the Oakland County executive that the sentence starting with the words 'despite violence,' is a direct quote from the NAACP. Otherwise, he will attribute the quote to me and continue to say that I'm one of the most divisive people he's ever heard speak, when he's never heard me speak," Wright said.
"I know some say that just my appearance in Detroit will be polarizing. But I'm not here for political reasons. I'm not a politician. Many in the corporate-owned media have made it seem that I'm running for the Oval Office. I've been running for Jesus for a long, long time, and I'm not tired yet," he added.
"I'm sorry your local political analysts are saying I'm polarizing and my sermons are divisive. I'm not here to address an analyst's opinion. I stand here as one representative of the African-American church tradition, believing that a change is going to come."
Exploring the differences
The rest of the address was geared toward understanding and accepting differences, which are as much about culture as they are about skin color.
Black children are told they don't speak English well, when people from Boston or Texas, like the Kennedys or former president Lyndon Johnson, aren't ridiculed for their accents, he said.
"After Kennedy got killed, Johnson got up to the podium and said, 'My fellow Americans,' " Wright said, imitating Johnson's Texas drawl. "Well how do you spell 'fello.' How do you spell ''Mericans.' Nobody said to Johnson, 'You speak bad English.' "
Bands from the University of Michigan or Michigan State University aren't criticized because they use classical marching band precision while African-American bands from Florida A&M or Grambling State universities strut and dance onto the football field, Wright said while demonstrating the rhythm that have made those bands famous.
"We just do it different, and some of our haters just can't get their heads around that," he said.
The speech was distinctly nonpolitical, although Wright made a passing reference to Obama, saying, "If I was pushing a candidate, I would say, 'Yes we can,' " which is one of Obama's main campaign slogans.
But the Rev. Wendell Anthony, the president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, said the main reason the organization invited Wright to speak at the dinner was to defend the traditional role of the African-American church, not because there was a heated race for president between Obama and Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
"It's bigger than all three of them. This is about the African-American church. This is about our church. This is about our people. This is about our right to speak truth to power. It is not a white thing, nor is it a black thing. It is the right thing we're doing here tonight," Anthony said.
"We've had a history of inviting the most profound, prolific leaders of our nation," Anthony said during a news conference before the dinner. "We look for the best, and the hottest brother in America right now -- other than Barack Obama -- is Jeremiah Wright."
Tool for understanding?
The crowd responded to Wright with shouts of acceptance and understanding and standing ovations.
"I love the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright. I've been listening to him for many years," said Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, explaining that one of his fraternity brothers at Florida A&M University was a member of Wright's church and shared tapes of his sermons. "He's a prolific prince of prose."
State Rep. George Cushingberry, D-Detroit, said the speech was fabulous, and, he hoped, a tool for understanding between races.
"Maybe people will question the lies that they're told," he said