Obama's former pastor to give speech at Detroit NAACP dinner

Rev. Jeremiah Wright speaks with PBS's Bill Moyers on April 23, 2008.

DETROIT – The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. has no problem speaking his mind about black self-determination in sermons to the 6,000-member congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's south side.

But what the outspoken, retiring pastor says in Detroit on Sunday during his keynote address before 10,000 people at an NAACP fundraiser could affect race relations between the mostly black city and its majority white suburbs -- and the presidential race of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

Wright -- Obama's former pastor -- is expected to follow the Fight for Freedom Fund dinner's theme of "A Change is Gonna Come." The content of his speech has not been revealed."If he shows up and just recites the Lord's Prayer and sits down, the media will still write about his past sermons," Detroit political consultant Sam Riddle said.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who has been a racially polarizing figure in his 2 1/2 terms as mayor, is expected to share the dais with Wright on Sunday. Kilpatrick -- facing his own share of controversy amid a text-messaging sex scandal involving his former top aide -- has come to Wright's defense.

WHAT IS IT: The 53rd Annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner, a Sunday fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Detroit branch.

WHO'S COMING: 10,000 people are expected to attend what's billed as the largest sit-down dinner in the nation.

WHAT IT COSTS: $150 a plate.

WHAT'S THE DRAW: A keynote speech by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. The outspoken former pastor of presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has drawn fire from many in the wake of Internet-circulated sound bites from some his sermons. The activist has said that America brought the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on itself and is "damned" by God for its history of slavery and racism.

"In America, everyone has the freedom to speak and express their concerns, especially a man who has spent his life inspiring God's people," he said in a written statement released Thursday.

Internet-circulated sound bites from several of Wright's sermons have served as ammunition against Obama's campaign since they were aired in March.

Among the most remarked upon was Wright proclaiming from the pulpit "God damn America" for its racism. He accused the government of flooding black neighborhoods with drugs.

Obama, in a tight race with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, has condemned the statements, but said he supports Wright. Wright, 66, is stepping down.

In excerpts from a PBS interview scheduled to air Friday night, Wright said making those sound bites public was "unfair" and "devious," and done by people who know nothing about his church.

Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who is white, said he's angered by Wright's upcoming appearance in Detroit.

"I think he's one of the most divisive people I've ever heard speak," Patterson said during an April 18 forum that brought together the leaders of Detroit and Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties.

"If he gives the same speech he gave before, I think he'll do irreparable damage to race relations" in the area, Patterson said.

Kilpatrick, who has stressed the importance of strong ties between Detroit, which is more than 80 percent black, and its more affluent suburbs, disagreed with Patterson's assessment. But Kilpatrick himself has stoked those racial fires during times of personal strife.

The black Democratic leader was accused of race-baiting during his recent State of the City address, when he used the N-word on live television to describe threats he and his family have received from people outside Detroit since the text-messaging scandal surfaced in January.

Now his political future is in doubt as he and former Chief of Staff Christine Beatty face perjury, misconduct and obstruction of justice charges stemming from their testimony at a whistle-blowers' trial.

They are accused of lying under oath when each denied having a romantic relationship in 2002 and 2003. Embarrassing and sexually explicit text messages left on Beatty's city-issued pager appear to contradict their testimony. Kilpatrick also is accused of lying under oath about his role in the firing of a top police official.

Kilpatrick's staff has said he will take his place on the dais at Sunday's dinner but didn't know if he would give any remarks.

Both Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton have given the keynote address at the dinner, the largest fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Detroit branch. So has Obama.

Wright was not invited "because of -- or in spite of -- Barack Obama," said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the NAACP Detroit branch.

"This was a key opportunity for us to stand up with the African-American church, which has come under assault, and say to the nation that we have the right to be able to articulate the issues in the way the true African-American church has been doing," Anthony said.

He said demand for the $150 tickets has been the strongest in years.

"This has nothing to do with the mayor, nothing to do with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain," Anthony said. "This is the NAACP. We don't ask who we can have speak. We don't base who the speaker is because of how it will affect one and another."

But Riddle thinks Wright's appearance will be polarizing.

"Quite frankly, he scares mainstream white America," Riddle said. "Anytime there is a discussion of Jeremiah Wright and race, Obama loses mainstream white support. In Detroit, it definitely is bad news for Obama."

The Rev. William Revely of Detroit's Holy Hope Heritage Church said he thinks because of the controversy over his past sermons, now may be the best time for Wright to speak.

"He needs to be heard," Revely said. "When you talk about the liberation of our people, you have to start with the understanding of what we've gone through and what we're going through. Jeremiah has been one of those that have been sounding the trumpet for a long time."

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