E.J. Dionne: Jeremiah Wright is not as far outside the African-American mainstream as many would like to think.





... One black leader who was capable of getting very angry indeed is the one now being invoked against Wright. His name is Martin Luther King Jr.

An important book due out next month on King's rhetoric by Barnard College professor Jonathan Rieder offers a more complex view of King than the sanitized version that is so popular, especially among conservative commentators. In "The Word of the Lord is Upon Me," Rieder--an admirer of King's--notes that the civil rights icon was "not just a crossover artist but a code switcher who switched in and out of idioms as he moved between black and white audiences."

Listen to what King said about the Vietnam War at his own Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Feb. 4, 1968: "God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war.... And we are criminals in that war. We've committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I'm going to continue to say it. And we won't stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation. But God has a way of even putting nations in their place." King then predicted this response from the Almighty: "And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power."

If today's technology had existed back then, I would imagine the media playing quotations of that sort over and over. Right-wing commentators would use the material to argue that King was anti-American and to discredit his call for racial and class justice. King certainly angered a lot of people at the time.

I cite King not to justify Wright's damnation of America or his lunatic and pernicious theories, but to suggest that Obama's pastor and his church are not so far outside the African-American mainstream as many would now suggest. I would also ask my conservative friends who praise King so lavishly to search their consciences and wonder if they would have stood up for him back in 1968.

These are realities that Obama has forced us to confront, and they are painful. Wright was operating within a long tradition of African-American outrage, which is one reason why Obama could not walk away from his old pastor in the name of political survival. Obama's personal closeness to Wright would have made such a move craven in any event....



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