Obama's former pastor addresses Detroit NAACP dinner

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. acknowledges the audience at the Detroit NAACP's 53rd annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner on Sunday.

DETROIT — An outspoken minister whose words have rallied many but also riled up others told a 10,000-strong audience squarely in the first group that his critics get it wrong when they call him divisive and polarizing.

"I describe the conditions in this country," Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., the former pastor of Barack Obama, said during the NAACP's 53rd annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner.

"I'm not here for political reasons. I'm not a politician. I know that fact will surprise many of you because many in the corporate-owned media made it seem like I am running for the Oval Office," Wright said. "I am not running for the Oval Office. I've been running for Jesus a long, long time and I'm not tired yet."Receiving a lengthy and loud standing ovation, Wright followed in the footsteps of Obama, President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton in his speech at the event, a $150-a-plate fundraiser billed as the largest sit-down dinner in America.

Obama, who is vying with Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, distanced himself from Wright after publicity over the minister's sharp criticism of America's racial history and government policies.

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, stirred the crowd with an animated introduction to Wright. He let the audience know, among other things, that Wright speaks five languages and is an Egyptologist, writer, author, family man and "innovator and sustainer of the word of God."

"No this ain't about Barack Obama. This ain't about Hillary Rodham Clinton. This ain't about John McCain. It's bigger than all of them," Anthony said.

"This is about the African-American church. This is about our people. This is about our right to speak truth to power."

Anthony said at a press conference before the dinner that he was excited to invite the "hottest brother in America right now -- outside of Barack Obama."

Wright, who is retiring as pastor of the 8,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, followed the dinner's theme of "A Change is Gonna Come."

He drew numerous contrasts between racial and ethnic groups in language, music and other aspects of American culture. He danced, beat-boxed and even sang an aria from the podium in the massive exhibition hall that served as an impromptu pulpit to make his points.

"In the past, we were taught to see others who are different as somehow being deficient," Wright said.

But he also responded to Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who called Wright "divisive" during an April 18 forum attended by the leaders of Detroit and Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties.

"I am not one of the most divisive" black spiritual leaders, he said. "Tell him the word is 'descriptive.'"

Wright also called out Detroit political consultant Sam Riddle, who told The Associated Press last week that Wright's presence in Detroit would be "polarizing."

"I'm not here to address an analyst's opinion or a county executive's point of view. I'm here to address your 2008 theme," Wright said, without calling Patterson or Riddle by name.

"I believe that a change is going to come because many of us are committed to changing how we see other people who are different."

Wright became an issue in the presidential race in March after the circulation of videos of old sermons in which he accused the U.S. government of racism and accused it of flooding black neighborhoods with drugs.

In a sermon days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Wright said "America's chickens are coming home to roost" after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan and "supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans."

The videos, circulated widely on television and the Internet, knocked Obama's presidential campaign off-stride. The Illinois Democrat distanced himself from the comments of Wright, whom he has known for 20 years.

In an interview aired Friday on PBS, Wright said publicizing portions of old sermons was unfair and "made me the target of hatred."

Gwendolyn Powell, 62, a retired Detroit teacher, said she is a lifetime member of the NAACP and a supporter of Wright and his teachings. She endorsed his message of tolerance but said the criticism he has faced was regrettable.

"It's the American way, if you want," she said. "There's a need to make him deficient rather than different."

Sunday's event drew local and national clergy members and dignitaries, including Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and several members of the state's congressional delegation. Hollywood actors attending the dinner -- Vivica A. Fox, Anthony Anderson, Hill Harper and Morris Chestnut -- were loudly applauded when they were introduced.

Anthony said the local NAACP reached out to Wright to allow him a fair hearing acknowledging his 40-plus years in the ministry.

"I'm a clergyman. I'm a pastor," Anthony said. "It's about speaking truth to power. We must not allow anyone to dictate what can come from the pulpit of the African-American church -- any church."

Wright was scheduled to speak Monday at the National Press Club in Washington.

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