In a speech at Cahn Auditorium on Friday, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. stayed away from the controversies that surrounded him during the 2008 presidential campaign and instead encouraged an audience of more than 900 people to pursue a global perspective and acknowledge their history and culture.
“Please don’t worry – I am not going to preach tonight,” Wright said early in the For Members Only “State of the Black Union” keynote address, adding that he could differentiate between a sermon and an academic speech. “You can all exhale.”
Throughout the speech, Wright kept his word, exploring the black liberation movement of the 1960s and historically black colleges and universities as part of his theme, “Redeeming and Reclaiming Our Community.”
“There’s a rupture in generational consciousness and generational understanding,” Wright said. “We need to first teach our students, our children, to teach their own stories and stop depending on someone else to tell their stories.”
His speech, which began more than an hour late and lasted about an hour and a half, drew laughter from a diverse audience in Cahn when Wright compared styles of worship from black and white churches and said that he had to pass examinations on classic literature “from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf” before he could study the black oral tradition.
He discussed the similarities of his experiences at Howard University with the experience of the black students who occupied Northwestern’s bursar’s office in 1968 in efforts to combat racism. He said his perspective offered “one way of reclaiming our community,” but encouraged those in attendance to share their history and culture with others.
“Take everything you learn in here back home to those who gave you birth,” Wright said.
The retired Trinity United Church of Christ pastor spoke only briefly about the most famous former member of his congregation, President-elect Barack Obama, calling Obama’s election “awesomely inspiring and history-making” and saying that he had supported Obama throughout the campaign, although the Illinois senator severed ties with Wright before the election.
In a question-and-answer session following the event, Wright encouraged Obama’s administration to help the urban poor, adding that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot during his campaign to combat poverty.
“Oprah, Michael Jordan and Barack do not change the reality in which most African-Americans live,” he said.
Friday’s speech was closed to outside media. In answer to a question about NU rescinding its offer of an honorary degree, Wright said media manipulation had led University President Henry Bienen to withdraw the offer, a decision he called “painful.”
FMO invited Wright to speak six months after Bienen’s decision in what coordinator Zachary Parker said was a show of support for the reverend, whom he called “our hero.”
Bienen met Wright at a private reception earlier in the evening but was unable to attend the speech, Parker said.
In the question-and-answer session, Wright accused the media of “public harassment.”
“My family’s getting lynched in the process,” Wright said. “Never in the history of this country has there been a demonization of a person like I’ve been demonized.”
NU students and community members, including some members of Wright’s church who had traveled from the South Side of Chicago, began lining up at 4 p.m. in hopes of gaining admission after tickets sold out at the Norris Box Office.
Weinberg junior Ana Calvert-Kilbane waited for at least an hour and a half before being admitted, wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops on a 40-degree night.
“I think in light of the election, his remarks are particularly topical,” said Calvert-Kilbane, who said she hadn’t known she needed a ticket to the speech because it was not advertised on FMO’s flyers.
Those still in line after Wright arrived, including Calvert-Kilbane, were admitted to fill empty seats in Cahn.
Wright was preceded by two student speakers.
Weinberg senior Mark Crain discussed the issue of diversity and the lack of multicultural resources at NU.
“It’s only a crisis if you care,” he said. “Northwestern doesn’t understand diversity.”
Parker also gave a speech on issues facing NU’s black community. The Communication senior developed a personal relationship with Wright over the summer, one of the reasons he spoke at NU.
“It’s not that the president of the university is racist, per se,” Parker said in reference to the low number of black students at NU.
Several attendees said Wright was unfairly treated by NU last spring.
Loyola University of Chicago senior Micah Uetricht said NU’s initial decision to extend the honor to Wright was a small but important step in correcting racial injustice.
“The vilification was race-based in the first place,” said Uetricht, who is white. “The revoking was just an extension of that in the first place.”
Although the discussion focused on issues still present in the black community, the event was “an educational experience for the entire university,” Parker said.
“From black to white to everyone in between, it was very important for these topics to be presented in an uplifting way,” he said.
Christina Chaey contributed to this report.