The Return of Jeremiah Wright

By William A. Cook

‘There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.’ (Frederick Douglass, ‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July,’ 1852)

One hundred and forty seven years ago that charge was leveled at the United States by a former slave who judged America’s actions since its founding against the principles that this nation presented to the world as the basis for its existence: the rights of humans to self governance, to life, to liberty, and to happiness. These are his words as he addressed his fellow citizens on the 4th of July: “… your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; … your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your sermons and thanksgivings … mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Today, what has changed? True, we no longer sell humans like cattle in our town squares, no longer confine slaves to the whips of overseers, no longer create unjust laws to discriminate those we find inferior, no longer subdue our fellow humans with force of chains or cudgel or hose or noose, not here, not in these United States. But today America is not confined to an east coast or a west coast; today America occupies Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine and under International Law must provide for those who live under its occupation.

Isn’t this the conundrum Obama faces as he confronts the inevitable vote he must make at the United Nations Security Council when it acts on the UNCHR Goldstone Report? How does this man, whose wife is a descendent of slaves, whose father comes from a land that has suffered under colonialism, sit before the council of the world devoted to the security of all, and veto a motion that would force the nation of Israel to face the consequences of its inhumanity to its neighbors and its disregard for International Law? What has changed? Does Obama’s vote raise the specter that the United States could be prosecuted for its crimes as well? Listen again to Frederick Douglass:

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

What has changed? It is America that invaded Gaza; it is America that dropped the bombs on the schools and hospitals and homes; it is America that spread white phosphorus on the hapless people of Gaza charring their bodies black as they burned in insufferable pain; it is America that sent its drones overhead to savage families in their homes; it is America that pulled the snipers trigger as he targeted a child or a mother; it is America that chose to invade a sliver of land packed with 1.5 million people, caged like animals, unable to hide or run or protect themselves against the barbarity of the IDF that practiced its war games on a defenseless people, and it is America that votes in its own Knesset to support such savagery and stands naked in its hypocrisy before the assembly of the world. What has changed?

What has changed is the ancestry of the man in the White House, a man of color that knows the America Douglass describes. He has heard these words before, for twenty years before he was elected to the Presidency, words spoken by a preacher he admired, a preacher that married him to Michelle, a preacher that lived through the years of segregation but refused to be subjugated. These are the words of Reverend Jeremiah Wright: “We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arikara, the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism. We have supported state terrorism versus the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff that we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost. Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. And terrorism begets terrorism.”

What has changed that this President must confront or be the face of falsehood before the world? Both Jeremiah Wright and Frederick Douglass identify the same shameful source that marks indelibly this country as savage, one living in slavery, the other bonded in segregation, both products of a mindset that accepted and tolerated the ethnic cleansing by its founders as legitimate practice to establish a nation while proposing that all men are created equal. Today, the state of Israel, our “only friend in the mid-east and the only democracy in the mid-east” cites that very mindset as accepted rationale for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. “Israel is … unfortunately located, gentrifying a pretty bad neighborhood. But the world is full of dislocated peoples, and we ourselves live in a country where the Indians were pushed out of the way so that – oh, what irony! – the owners of slaves could spread liberty and democracy from sea to shining sea. As for Europe, who today cries for the Greeks of Anatolia or the Germans of Bohemia?” (Richard Cohen, July 25, 2006, “No, It’s Survival”). How ironic indeed, that a people given international approval to form a homeland on someone else’s land would find genocide acceptable as a means to establish a democracy that offers self-government to members of a religion but not to others, liberty for the chosen but oppression for the occupied, and happiness for those who conform and obey but not for those segregated and imprisoned.

Martin Luther King broke the law in order to correct the law; defied the government in order to save the nation from further terror; and confronted power with principle to save the nation’s soul. Perhaps it’s time for this President to stand tall against those who control by stealth, who wrap and so enslave our representatives in chains of campaign contributions, who shackle our military and hence our children in unending wars that benefit the merchants of munitions, and seek self-gratification at the expense of selflessness.

Now is the time for this President to stand against the Eurocentric colonial mindset that has enslaved too many for too long. Now is the time for this President to stand against those who continue America’s centuries of plunder and pillage at the expense of the masses who bare the brunt of our merciless power. Now is the time for meaningful change, even at the expense of personal power, if the principle that drives the decision recognizes the inherent right of all that fall beneath the boots of America’s force to a life of dignity and respect. Now is the time to break the bonds that tie the United States and its people to the criminal state being brought before the Security Council to face justice, to free America to walk in peace in the world and to feel the life giving force of the ideals that give America meaning. Then and only then will America be able to bury the words of Douglass and King and Wright as jeremiads that taught the way to truth by condemning the path of falsehood.   

-William A. Cook is a professor of English at the University of La Verne in southern California and author of Tracking Deception: Bush’s Mideast Policy. He can be reached at:

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