Obama Parses Wright & Wrong in Race Speech

Obama uses pastor's remarks to talk about nation's history of racial grievances.

ByABC News
March 18, 2008, 12:55 PM

PHILADELPHIA, March 18, 2008 — -- Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., today further condemned inflammatory remarks made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his longtime pastor, while acknowledging he had heard some of the "controversial" remarks while sitting in the pews of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

But in an attempt to move beyond the controversy -- which has threatened to scuff the postracial unifying sheen of his campaign's promise -- Obama used Wright's anger as a way to explain racial grievances of both white and black Americans to focus on "problems that confront us all" and move beyond "a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years."

"We can dismiss Rev. Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias," Obama said, reading a speech he'd worked on largely by himself and been writing until early this morning. (Senior Adviser David Axelrod and Chief Speechwriter Jon Favreau worked on the speech as well.)

Ferraro, a former vice presidential nominee, was quoted last week saying Obama wouldn't be where he is were he white.

Obama today described her assertions as "the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it's based solely on the desire of wild and wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap."

"Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Rev. Wright made in his offending sermons about America -- to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality," Obama said, to an auditorium packed with invited guests and the media at the National Constitution Center. The small forum for the speech was intentional, the campaign did not want this speech to have the rah-rah feel of a rally.

Without question, the Illinois Democrat found himself speaking about race in the city of brotherly love because some rather unloving comments made by Wright have been publicized. In a 2003 sermon that has seen much media play in the last week, for instance, Wright said, "The government gives them drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants to sing 'God Bless America. No, no, no, not 'God Bless America' -- 'God Damn America.'"

That clip and others like it led Obama to distance himself from his longtime spiritual adviser and late last week Wright left the campaign's African American Religious Leadership Committee.

Today, Obama called Wright's statements "divisive," "racially charged" and "views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation." But Obama sought to explain his spiritual history with Wright, a man he described as an achiever of good deeds.