Thursday, January 22, 2009

Revs. Lowery, Wright, and the Black Church


Revs. Lowery, Wright, and the Black Church

It was about 3:00 in the morning, and I was somewhere between browsing the Internet and dozing into never-never land when I read the following post from one of my more conservative White friends regarding his interpretation of Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction at President Obama's inaugural:

"Please dear Lord, make those white pricks embrace what is right.

Suddenly I was wide awake and laughing until tears came to my eyes. I was laughing harder than I'd laughed in years, because I knew exactly what, "Sawdust", the poster, was referring to. But I don't know whether it struck me so funny more because of Sawdust's good humored, but bottom-line take on Rev. Lowery's benediction, or more because of the seeming inability of a stately old war-horse to mask his past experience with White people even through, what I'm sure, was his deep appreciation for what they had helped to bring about.

But as funny as the situation seemed to me at the time, it also points back to an issue that needs to be clarified from the campaign. You see, while Rev. Lowery was actually being conciliatory, his words clearly demonstrated that Jeremiah Wright didn't exist in a vacuum. The fact is, with all the battles that Rev. Lowery has fought in his close to ninety years of life, if that old man really wanted to get loose up there during the inaugural, he undoubtedly could have made Jeremiah Wright sound like a Christian conservative. What much of America fails to understand is that in Lowery's day, Black people didn't just go to church to hear the word of god, they also went there to vent, so through tradition, the hot and passionate sermons of a Jeremiah Wright are routine in the Black community.

The bitterness attendant to racism didn't just go in one direction. In Rev. Lowery's America, Blacks would go all week having to smile in the face of White people while being treated like dogs--in fact, dogs were treated better. So what kind of preacher do you think was most popular and brought in the most money to the collection plate on Sunday? That's right–the one's who were most effective at draggin' the behavior of White folks through the mud–and back then, they had some real superstars in that art, and Rev. Joseph Lowery was one of the best.

Rev. Lowery was born Joseph Echols Lowery on Oct. 6, 1921. He’s a Methodist minister and was the pastor of the Warren Street United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama from 1952 through 1961. When Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955, Lowery helped to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, and headed the Alabama Civil Affairs Association, which was dedicated to the desegregation of buses and public places. He, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., Founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and he served as its president between 1977 and 1997. Also, at the behest of Martin Luther King, Lowery headed the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, and was among the first five African Americans to be arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. during the Free South Africa Movement.

Now don’t get me wrong, Black preachers like Rev. Lowery didn’t just rant, rave and protest, they were quite dedicated to preaching the word of God, and they were also quite emphatic in discussing the virtue of loving thy neighbor. But in addition to that, they were both profoundly and prolifically eloquent when it came to graphically describing the "evils" of racist White behavior–they had to be, in order to be effective in organizing against it.

In that regard, Americans should ask themselves, where do they think Jesse and Al Sharpton learned their craft? When it came to preaching the evils of racist behavior, some of those old Black preachers could put Jesse, Al Sharpton, and Jeremiah Wright to shame, and all on the same Sunday morning and without bustin' one sweat bubble–and that old man that you saw up there giving that inaugural benediction was one of the best of them. In fact, he was so good at fighting and preaching the evils of racism that in Georgia, they have streets named after him.

But political campaigns are all about political positioning and sound bites, so Obama couldn't take the time to try to explain to the nature of the Black church to America. If he could have, he would have explained that Jeremiah Wright was just one of a community full of preachers that not only preached the word of God, but also the realities of being Black in America .

So when conservatives asked how Obama could sit up and listen to Rev. Wright spew hatred against America for twenty years, there was two answers to that question. The first is, Rev. Wright wasn't spewing hatred against America--he loves America--he was spewing reality. After all, Rev. Wright served this nation in both the United States Marine Corps, and the Navy, while Bush and Cheney did everything in their power to avoid any military service at all, and Cheney succeeded. And the second is, the only way that Obama could have avoided the realities of Rev. Wright's message in the Black community was to stop going to church altogether.

The fact is, preachers like Jeremiah Wright, and that stately old man that you saw up there at the inaugural, actually performed a public service by helping their congregations to vent their frustrations. If it weren't for preachers like them, there would have been a lot more violence coming out of the Black community, so the nation actually owe them a debt of gratitude. Yes, they deal in hyperbole, but if you closely examine that hyperbole, you'll find that it also contains, often painful, but unmitigated truth.

That said, I must also admit that Jeremiah Wright did crossed the line–but not in the way that many White folks think. Initially he was a political victim, because it wasn't his fault that political operatives dug up thirty seconds of hyperbole out of a lifetime of dedicated service. When Rev. Wright crossed the line was when he allowed his vanity to jeopardized the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans across this country, both Black and White, in order to pursue his ten minutes of fame.

But Rev. Lowery wasn't going to make that mistake. While he comes from a tradition of speaking his mind, he had worked too long and too hard for that moment, and probably recognized better than any of the millions of people watching and in attendance, the awesome significance and gravity of the moment.

But on the other hand, knowing that old Black preacher's background, in spite of how appreciative I know he was to all of the White people across this land who contributed to making his life's dream a reality, I was virtually certain that he had a second sermon in his pocket and at the ready, just in case Rick Warrne decided to act a fool.

That's what was funny.
Eric L. Wattree
A moderate is one who embraces truth over ideology, and reason over conflict.

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