By Bill Moyers
Bill Moyers Journal
May 3, 2008
I once asked a reporter back from Vietnam: 'Who's
telling the truth over there?'
'Everyone,' he said. 'Everyone sees what's happening
through the lens of their own experience.'
That's how people see Jeremiah Wright.
In my conversation with him and in his dramatic public
appearances since, he revealed himself to be far more
complex than the sound bites that propelled him onto
the public stage.
More than 2,000 people have written me about him, and
their opinions vary widely. Some sting: 'Jeremiah
Wright is nothing more than a race-hustling, American-
hating radical,' one of my viewers wrote. Another
called him a 'nut case.'
Many more were sympathetic to him. Many asked for some
rational explanation for Wright's transition from
reasonable conversation to the shocking anger they saw
at the National Press Club.
A psychologist might pull back some of the layers and
see this complicated man more clearly, but I'm not a
Many black preachers I've known-scholarly, smart, and
gentle in person-uncorked fire and brimstone in the
pulpit. Of course, I've known many white preachers like
But where I grew up in the South, before the civil
rights movement, the pulpit was a safe place for black
men to express anger for which they would have been
punished anywhere else. A safe place for the fierce
thunder of dignity denied, justice delayedI think I would have been angry if my ancestors had
been transported thousands of miles in the hellish hole
of a slave ship, then sold at auction, humiliated,
whipped, and lynchedOr if my great-great-great grandfather had been but
three-fifths of a person in a Constitution that
proclaimed: 'We, the people.'
Or if my own parents had been subjected to the racial
vitriol of Jim Crow, Strom Thurmond, Bull Conner, and
Even so, the anger of black preachers I've known and
heard and reported on was, for them, very personal and
cathartic. That's not how Jeremiah Wright came across
in those sound bites or in his defiant performances
since my interview
What white America is hearing in his most inflammatory
words is an attack on the America they cherish and that
many of their sons have died for in battle - forgetting
that black Americans have fought and bled beside them,
and that Wright himself has a record of honored service
in the Navy.
Hardly anyone took the 'chickens come home to roost'
remark to convey the message that intervention in the
political battles of other nations is sure to bring
retaliation in some form, which is not to justify the
particular savagery of 9/11 but to understand that
actions have consequences.
My friend Bernard Weisberger, the historian, says, yes,
people are understandably seething with indignation
over Wright's absurd charge that the United States
deliberately brought an HIV epidemic into being.
But it is a fact, he says, that within living memory
the U.S. public health service conducted a study that
deliberately deceived black men with syphilis into
believing that they were being treated while actually
letting them die for the sake of a scientific test.
Does this excuse Wright's anger? His exaggerations or
distortions? You'll have to decide for yourself, but at
least it helps me to understand the why of them.
In this multimedia age the pulpit isn't only available
on Sunday mornings. There's round the clock media - the
beast whose hunger is never satisfied, especially for
the fast food with emotional content.
So the preacher starts with rational discussion and
after much prodding throws more and more gasoline on
the fire that will eventually consume everything it
touches. He had help - people who, for their own
reasons, set out to conflate the man in the pulpit who
wasn't running for president with the man in the pew
Behold the double standard: John McCain sought out the
endorsement of John Hagee, the war-mongering, Catholic-
bashing Texas preacher, who said the people of New
Orleans got what they deserved for their sins.
But no one suggests McCain shares Hagee's delusions or
thinks AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuality. Pat
Robertson called for the assassination of a foreign
head of state and asked God to remove Supreme Court
justices, yet he remains a force in the Republican
After 9/11, Jerry Falwell said the attack was God's
judgment on America for having been driven out of our
schools and the public square, but when McCain goes
after the endorsement of the preacher he once condemned
as an agent of intolerance, the press gives him a pass.
Jon Stewart recently played tape from the Nixon White
House in which Billy Graham talks in the Oval Office
about how he has friends who are Jewish, but he knows
in his heart that they are undermining America.
This is crazy and wrong -- white preachers are given
leeway in politics that others aren't.
Which means it is all about race, isn't it?
Wright's offensive opinions and inflammatory
appearances are judged differently. He doesn't fire a
shot in anger, put a noose around anyone's neck, call
for insurrection, or plant a bomb in a church with
children in Sunday school.
What he does is to speak his mind in a language and
style that unsettles some people, and says some things
so outlandish and ill-advised that he finally leaves
Obama no choice but to end their friendship.
We're often exposed to the corroding acid of the
politics of personal destruction, but I've never seen
anything like this - this wrenching break between
pastor and parishioner played out right in front of our
Both men no doubt will carry the grief to their graves.
All the rest of us should hang our heads in shame for
letting it come to this in America, where the gluttony
of the non-stop media grinder consumes us all and
prevents an honest conversation on race.
It is the price we are paying for failing to heed the
great historian Jacob Burckhardt, who said, 'beware the
[Bill Moyers is managing editor of the weekly public
affairs program "Bill Moyers Journal," which airs
Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at
The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers. The video for
this essay can be found on YouTube.]