Obama Urges U.S.: 'Move Beyond Our Old Racial Wounds'

Barack Obama spoke Tuesday in Philadelphia about his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, and addressed the nation's racial struggles. Video by washingtonpost.com
By Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, March 18 -- Sen. Barack Obama delivered a blunt and deeply personal speech here Tuesday about racial division in America as he sought to quell a political controversy that threatens to engulf his presidential candidacy.

The 37-minute speech was Obama's most developed response to the storm of criticism that erupted over angry and racially charged sermons that included denunciations of the United States delivered by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama's spiritual mentor and until recently a pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. It was a topic he had long considered addressing directly as the first African American with a serious chance of becoming president, but one that took on a sense of urgency because of Wright's words.

Obama (D-Ill.) sought to distance himself from the specifics of Wright's sermons in the speech, saying they offered "a profoundly distorted view of this country." But he used the controversy to speak directly to the grievances and resentments on both sides of the racial divide and to urge all Americans to "move beyond our old racial wounds."

"Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," Obama told an audience of local ministers and community leaders assembled at the National Constitution Center. "We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America -- to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality."

Noting that the politically safe course might be to hope that the current controversy will fade away, Obama said: "The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together."

The speech drew praise for its forthright expression of black-white divisions and for its call to all Americans to begin to reconcile those differences. Whether it will solve the potentially serious political problems that Wright's long-standing relationship with Obama has created is a far different question, and one upon which political strategists disagreed on Tuesday after the address.

Obama's comments came after two weeks in which racial issues had again come to forefront of the Democratic presidential race. His loss to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the Ohio primary two weeks ago and the voting patterns among some whites raised questions about whether racial factors had contributed to her victory.

Soon after, former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro severed her relationship with Clinton's campaign after making comments about Obama that were deemed racially demeaning. She had said his success in the campaign was attributable to his being black.

Then came the wide circulation of excerpts of Wright's sermons, which Obama immediately denounced. But the controversy continued to swirl, forcing the candidate to confront one of the most volatile issues in American life and politics.

Obama was emphatic Tuesday in his criticism of what his former pastor has said, but he refused to walk away from the man who had brought him to Christianity, performed his marriage and baptized his children. He spoke from a biracial perspective, as the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother.

"Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive," he said, "divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems."

Obama acknowledged that he had heard his pastor say controversial things with which he disagreed, but he also said that in personal conversations he never heard Wright speak in a derogatory way about any ethnic group. And the senator described his congregation as typical of African American churches in embodying "the struggles and successes, the love, and, yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America."

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