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NATIONAL PRESS CLUB: Rev. Jerimiah Wright--Black Church Is Under Attack, Not Me (with video)

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   WASHINGTON (CBS) ― April 28, 2008

In a defiant appearance before the Washington media, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright said Monday that criticism surrounding his fiery sermons is an attack on the black church and rejected those who have labeled him unpatriotic.

Reverend Jeremiah Wright speaks to the National Press Club in Washington on April 28, 2008.

"I served six years in the military," Barack Obama's longtime pastor said. "Does that make me patriotic? How many years did (Vice President Dick) Cheney serve?"

Wright spoke at the National Press Club before the Washington media and a supportive audience of black church leaders beginning a two-day symposium.

He said the black church tradition is not bombastic or controversial, but different and misunderstood by the "dominant culture" in the United States.

He said his Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago has a long history of liberating the oppressed by feeding the hungry, supporting recovery for the addicted and helping senior citizens in need. He said congregants have fought in the military, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"My goddaughter's unit just arrived in Iraq this week while those who call me unpatriotic have used their positions of privilege to avoid military service while sending over 4,000 American boys and girls to die over a lie," he said.

Wright said he hopes the controversy will have a positive outcome and spark an honest dialogue about race in America. Wright says black church traditions are still "invisible" to many Americans, as they have been throughout the country's history.

He said he hopes "the most recent attack on the black church - it is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright - it's an attack on the black church," he said to applause, "just might mean that the reality of the African-American church will no longer be invisible."

"Rev. Wright is calling for a continued conversation about race and religion, one which Obama himself began in a much-heralded speech last month," said senior political editor Vaughn Ververs. "But it's quite a different discussion when led by a preacher and not a presidential candidate and one that can't be helpful to Obama's campaign." 

Videos clips of Wright's sermons, circulated widely on television and the Internet, knocked Obama's presidential campaign off-stride. The Illinois Democrat distanced himself from the comments of Wright, whom he has known for 20 years.

In a sermon days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Wright said "America's chickens are coming home to roost" after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan and "supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans."

Asked about some of the comments after the terrorist attacks, Wright challenged the reporter questioning him.

"Have you heard the whole sermon? No? The whole sermon?" he responded. When the reporter shook her head, he said, "That nullifies that question."

He said criticism comes from people who only have heard sound bites playing repeatedly on television and have never listened to his entire sermons.

Wright said he's told Obama that if he is elected in November and is inaugurated in January, "I'm coming after you." He said that's because his differences are not with the American people, but U.S. policies.

"Whether he gets elected or not, I'm still going to have to be answerable to God on November 5 and January 21," Wright said.

Obama was asked yesterday if he believes Wright's recent appearances will hurt his chances of winning upcoming primaries, reports CBS News reporter Maria Gavrilovic. Obama dodged the question, telling reporters, "I'll let you prognosticate."

In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Obama said he did not discourage Wright from making appearances and understands why his desire to speak.

"Look, he is a former pastor of mine. He is somebody who has obviously been the subject of, you know, some pretty sharp attacks over the last. And it's understandable that somebody after an entire career of service would want to defend themselves."

Last night, Wright told a 10,000-strong audience in Detroit that his critics get it wrong when they call him divisive and polarizing.

"I describe the conditions in this country," Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., the former pastor of Obama, said during the NAACP's 53rd annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner.

"I'm not here for political reasons. I'm not a politician. I know that fact will surprise many of you because many in the corporate-owned media made it seem like I am running for the Oval Office," Wright said. "I am not running for the Oval Office. I've been running for Jesus a long, long time and I'm not tired yet."

Receiving a lengthy and loud standing ovation, Wright followed in the footsteps of Obama, President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton in his speech at the event, a $150-a-plate fundraiser billed as the largest sit-down dinner in America.

Obama, who is vying with Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, distanced himself from Wright after publicity over the minister's sharp criticism of America's racial history and government policies.

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, stirred the crowd with an animated introduction to Wright. He let the audience know, among other things, that Wright speaks five languages and is an Egyptologist, writer, author, family man and "innovator and sustainer of the word of God."

"No this ain't about Barack Obama. This ain't about Hillary Rodham Clinton. This ain't about John McCain. It's bigger than all of them," Anthony said.

"This is about the African-American church. This is about our people. This is about our right to speak truth to power."

Anthony said at a press conference before the dinner that he was excited to invite the "hottest brother in America right now - outside of Barack Obama."

Wright, who is retiring as pastor of the 8,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, followed the dinner's theme of "A Change is Gonna Come."

He drew numerous contrasts between racial and ethnic groups in language, music and other aspects of American culture. He danced, beat-boxed and even sang an aria from the podium in the massive exhibition hall that served as an impromptu pulpit to make his points.

"In the past, we were taught to see others who are different as somehow being deficient," Wright said.

But he also responded to Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who called Wright "divisive" during an April 18 forum attended by the leaders of Detroit and Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties.

"I am not one of the most divisive" black spiritual leaders, he said. "Tell him the word is `descriptive."'

Wright also called out Detroit political consultant Sam Riddle, who told The Associated Press last week that Wright's presence in Detroit would be "polarizing."

"I'm not here to address an analyst's opinion or a county executive's point of view. I'm here to address your 2008 theme," Wright said, without calling Patterson or Riddle by name.

"I believe that a change is going to come because many of us are committed to changing how we see other people who are different."

Wright became an issue in the presidential race in March after the circulation of videos of old sermons in which he accused the U.S. government of racism and accused it of flooding black neighborhoods with drugs.

In a sermon days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Wright said "America's chickens are coming home to roost" after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan and "supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans."

The videos, circulated widely on television and the Internet, knocked Obama's presidential campaign off-stride. The Illinois Democrat distanced himself from the comments of Wright, whom he has known for 20 years.

In an interview aired Friday on PBS, Wright said publicizing portions of old sermons was unfair and "made me the target of hatred."

Gwendolyn Powell, 62, a retired Detroit teacher, said she is a lifetime member of the NAACP and a supporter of Wright and his teachings. She endorsed his message of tolerance but said the criticism he has faced was regrettable.

"It's the American way, if you want," she said. "There's a need to make him deficient rather than different."

Sunday's event drew local and national clergy members and dignitaries, including Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and several members of the state's congressional delegation. Hollywood actors attending the dinner - Vivica A. Fox, Anthony Anderson, Hill Harper and Morris Chestnut - were loudly applauded when they were introduced.

Anthony said the local NAACP reached out to Wright to allow him a fair hearing acknowledging his 40-plus years in the ministry.

"I'm a clergyman. I'm a pastor," Anthony said. "It's about speaking truth to power. We must not allow anyone to dictate what can come from the pulpit of the African-American church - any church."