Ronald Kessler: Obama's Mythology About Pastor Wright
[New York Times bestselling author Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of www.Newsmax.com , from which this story was adapted.]
In his speech on race, Barack Obama tried to explain away his longtime minister's denunciations of America by saying that for blacks of his generation, memories of"humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away."
But an examination by Newsmax of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.'s background reveals that Obama's characterization of his upbringing is mythology.
Described by Obama as his sounding board and mentor for more than two decades, Wright was born in Philadelphia in 1941. He lived in a racially mixed section called Germantown, which consisted of homes on broad tree-lined streets in northwest Philadelphia. The owners then were middle-class families.
For 62 years, Wright's father, the Rev. Jeremiah Alvesta Wright, was pastor at Grace Baptist Church of Germantown. He was one of the first blacks to receive a degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
Wright's mother, Mary Elizabeth Henderson Wright, was a schoolteacher. She was the first black to teach an academic subject at Roosevelt Junior High, the first to teach at Germantown High, and the first to teach at the Philadelphia High School for Girls. She became vice principal of Girls High in 1968.
Rather than attend the more racially mixed Germantown High School at 40 East High St., Wright traveled a few miles to the elite Central High School at 1700 West Olney Ave., graduating in 1959. Opened in 1838, Central High has a distinguished past and admits only highly qualified applicants who are privileged to attend from all over the city. It is comparable to the Bronx High School of Science and Boston Latin School, both public schools known for academic excellence.
When Wright attended Central High, the student body was 90 percent white, according to students who attended around the same time. At least three-quarters of the students were Jewish. Former students of the period say racial tension did not exist.
Bill Cosby, who attended the school until transferring to Germantown High, has referred to Central as a"wonderful" school. In contrast to Wright, Cosby has denounced blacks who take refuge in self-pitying victimhood and seek to blame whites for problems in the black community.
"Central High was a marvelous academic environment," says Tod Mammuth, who graduated in 1965 and is now a Philadelphia-area lawyer."You had to have high academic credentials to be accepted and a high IQ score. Many later said it was more rigorous than college. We had no racial friction."
In college,"I was so far advanced from the normal kids, it was almost unbelievable," says H. Yale Gutnick, who graduated from Central High in 1960 and is a Pittsburgh lawyer."In my freshman year, I didn't have to do anything. I had already read most of what we had to read in English class, and I was equally advanced in the other academic areas."
The 211th class yearbook described Wright as a respected member of the class.
"Always ready with a kind word, Jerry is one of the most congenial members of the 211," the yearbook said."His record in Central is a model for lower class [younger] members to emulate."
Saying Wright can be compared to the school handbook's description of"an educated man," the description said Wright was"the epitome of what Central endeavors to imbue in its students."
Next to a photo of Wright wearing black-rimmed glasses, the yearbook listed seven extra-curricular activities, including junior varsity football, band, school orchestra, and swing band.
In contrast to Wright's comfortable upbringing, Morton A. Klein, who also attended Central High around the same time, lived in a poor, virtually all-black section called West Oak Lane.
"Four times a year, we would go to get big boxes of used clothing that was our wardrobe for the year. I never resented it. I was thrilled with my clothes," says Klein, who was an economist in the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations and is now president of the Zionist Organization of America.
"We never went out to eat," says Klein."We had no car. We did not go to summer camp or take vacations. I had dozens of black friends. We played in the street every day. I remember my childhood as wonderful, and it certainly did not breed hatred of America. I loved America."
In contrast, the man Obama describes as being like an uncle has blamed America and whites for starting the AIDS virus to kill off blacks, training professional killers, importing drugs, and creating a racist society to oppress blacks.
"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," Wright has said.
In a similar vein, Michelle Obama has said she is proud of America for the first time. Last week, Obama said Americans in small towns are"bitter" and cling in frustration to"guns, or religion, or antipathy to people who aren't like them..."
In his speech on race, Obama sought to evoke sympathy for Wright. He described a"lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family..."
Obama said this was"the reality in which Rev. Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted....Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Rev. Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years."
In retirement, Wright will continue a life of privilege that dates back to Central High. As a retirement gift, Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ is building him a million-dollar home abutting Odyssey Country Club and Golf Course in the nearly all-white Chicago suburb of Tinley Park. The home sits on land the pastor purchased in 2004 for $345,000. In December 2006, Wright sold the land to his church, which took out a $1.6 million mortgage on the property. In April 2007, the church applied for a building permit for the brick and stone structure.
Wright's new home has 10,340 square feet of space, about four times the size of a typical suburban house. It includes four bedrooms, an elevator, an exercise room, and a four-car garage.
Rather than being a victim of oppression of blacks, as Obama has claimed, Wright is a symbol of the American dream. Rather than meriting sympathy, he exemplifies what my friend Fox News contributor Juan Williams describes as black leaders who orchestrate support for themselves by manipulating blacks into seeing themselves as victims, creating a black" culture of failure."
Obama's attempt to excuse Wright's hate-America rhetoric by deceptively describing his personal history and his failure to condemn him as a bigot speak volumes about the candidate's own character and fitness to lead the country.
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Ronald Harold Fritze - 5/2/2008
Wright was born in 1941 and graduated from Central High in 1959. The wikipedia article on Jeremiah Wright states that Central High School was 90% white when he attended it. The documentation for that statement is a book by Wright.
Jeff Shear - 4/28/2008
Twenty years later? No, 1969. Failure of urban renewal? That's a one-word answer: Nixon.
R.R. Hamilton - 4/28/2008
Mr. Kessler is talking about the time when Rev. Wright was at Central -- to wit, circa 1950. You're talking about what it was like 20 years later (post hip). I think you should dwell on why, as you say, you failed in your "urban renewal" efforts.
Cary Fraser - 4/26/2008
Best-selling author and chief Washington correspondent of www.Newsmaxx.com who has a difficult time understanding why Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama bear witness to the racism and inequality which continue to inform life in America. Is there an assumption that only Katrina should wash away the scales that cover the eyes of privileged Americans like Kessler?
Jeff Shear - 4/26/2008
Oh, I missed that beauty about "West Oak Lane"! Oh, my. I spent many a day in West Oak Lane with my cousins, both of whom attended Central and both of whom grew up to be third-generation bakers -- not lawyers or policy analysts. These were men who graduated Temple University and earned their livings in the family business, working 16-hour days making challahs and pumpernickels. In those early years, we played baseball together on the nasty gravel parking lot on Pickering Street across from what was then Temple Stadium. In the 1950s, West Oak Lane was a roughly Jewish neighborhood of red brick row houses. Perhaps the lesson here is that individuals see their world selectively, particularly children: notoriously myopic observers. Hence the easy route to Ronald Kessler's reportorial bias. If Kessler thinks he's learned something about Philadelphia by talking to his elitist pals (who certainly are polishing their past), he's wrong. Kessler couldn't explain the difference between a hoagie and a hero with his kind of reporting.
Jeff Shear - 4/26/2008
My high school in Philadelphia, Northeast, played Central High School in football every Thanksgiving for 75 years or more. I can tell you with authority as a former (and forever at heart) Philadelphian with many friends and family who graduated from Central that calling the school "elitist" is a humongous distortion. My heavens, even I could have gone to Central had my parents let me. (They refused to allow me to take Philadelphia public transportation to attend the school, and -- more -- they worried about me going to school in a "colored" neighborhood!) Yes, Central was selective; yes, it was an "all boys" school, as was its counterpart across the street, Girls High, was an "all girls" school. But to call it the equivalent of Boston Latin or Bronx HSS is bunk. There is no comparison. Central was a good school and it was an honor to be able to attend Central but, hell, anybody in any Philadelphia public school (which was a notoriously poor system) could get into Central with a parent's advocacy and a "B" average. Even me.
As well, I lived for years in Germantown, and I can tell you, it was hardly all "tree-lined streets." In the 1960s and 1070s, it was a neighborhood fighting decline. And I defy the author of the article to walk down Wayne Avenue or Green Street in Germantown after 11 PM without a bodyguard. When I lived there in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Germantown was a patchwork of counterculture "activists" working at grassroots urban renewal. For certain, we failed.