Future Hope column, April 11, 2009
By Ted Glick
On this Easter weekend, it is appropriate to write about Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rev. Edward Pinkney, two African American ministers in the upper Midwest who have made a good faith effort to live their lives as Jesus of Nazareth lived his, and who have suffered for it as a result.
Rev. Wright, of course, is much more well known. He was Barack Obama’s minister for 20 years at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. In his book, “Dreams From My Father,” Obama describes the personal impact of attending a Sunday morning church service in the mid-80’s presided over by Rev. Wright:
“I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories—of survival, and freedom, and hope—become our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black. . . I felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.”
Last year, however, right around this time, Barack and Michelle Obama decided that they would leave this church that, unquestionably, had been a major influence on their lives. They did so, it is very clear, because they felt that there was no chance Barack would ever become President if he didn’t. The corporate and right-wing media had distorted comments made years before by Rev. Wright, and the media frenzy forced Obama into choosing between his Presidential ambitions and loyalty to a man who had been a friend, a mentor, an inspiration and more.
Wright understood what was going on. He said at the time, “I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do. I am not running for office.” He also said, presciently, referring to Obama, “November 5th, I’m coming after you, because you’ll be representing a government whose policies grind under people.”
He hasn’t changed those views. In an Associated Press interview on March 5th, 2009, Wright was quoted as saying in Selma, Alabama, that “he’s like any other president. He’s a politician and he’s got to do what politicians do.” During a speech that day in Selma, he is quoted as saying, “Barack’s name ain’t Jesus. There are things we’ve got to do on our own.”
To his credit, Rev. Wright seems to have handled well the tremendously negative, essentially racist attacks on his character and credibility. He retired last year as minister of Trinity church, but he has been traveling the country speaking, letting people see and hear for themselves. He continues his life of prophetic witness on behalf of the least of these, the victims of imperialism, a word he doesn’t hesitate to use, in opposition to oppressors and on behalf of the oppressed.
So has Rev. Edward Pinkney of Benton Harbor, Michigan, doing so effectively, and as a result he has been under indictment, under house arrest, in prison, and/or fighting ridiculous charges for over three years.
Benton Harbor is a town of about 11,000 people on the southwestern side of Michigan, 90% black and overwhelmingly poor. It burst onto the national scene in 2003 when its young people rose up in response to a series of local police killings and beatings.
Rev. Pinkney and a local community organization, BANCO, have been involved for years working to change the conditions of life for Benton Harbor’s residents. In 2005 he helped lead a successful recall election of a notoriously racist and abusive city commissioner. The local white-dominated power structure had that result overturned and then went after Rev. Pinkney with false charges of paying people to vote the right way. They failed to gain a conviction in their first trial in 2006, so in their second trial they made sure that there were no blacks on the jury, and in March of 2007 an all-white jury convicted him. He was sentenced to one year in prison and five years on probation. From May to December of that year he was kept under house arrest on an electronically monitored tether.
In December of 2007 Rev. Pinkney wrote an article in the People’s Tribune newspaper in which he quoted a part of the Bible in reference to the judge, Berrien County Chief Judge Alfred Butzbaugh, who had presided over Pinkney’s trial. The Bible quotation said, in part, “The Lord shall smite thee with consumption and with a fever and with an inflammation and with extreme burning.”
For writing this article, Butzbaugh revoked Pinkney’s probation and sent him to jail, and in June of 2008 another Berrien County judge added a three to ten year sentence for Pinkney’s literary “crime.”
After a year in jail, and after his case was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union, he was released on bail just before Christmas, 2008, once again confined under house arrest. Just recently, a June 9th date was set for a hearing on his case before the Michigan Court of Appeals in Grand Rapids.
Just prior to that hearing, ex-President George Bush will make what may be his first domestic post-presidency speech to the Economic Development Club of Southwestern Michigan in Benton Harbor on May 28th. The primary corporation of this “club” is the Whirlpool Corporation, headquartered in the Benton Harbor area and a major force behind plans to build a private golf course in the city’s lakefront park. In the words of The Michigan Messenger, “Last year, after heavy lobbying from local Republican congressman Fred Upton, the National Park Service approved a plan to swap public lakefront and dune property for a series of inland parcels that are contaminated with industrial waste. In an ongoing federal suit locals are suing to reverse federal and state approval of the project.”
Rev. Pinkney is not keeping quiet about this land grab. He and BANCO are calling for a world-wide boycott of Whirlpool. In a letter sent out recently, he explains:
“We must stop Whirlpool, Rep. Upton, and Harbor Shores developers. We are calling for an International Boycott of all Whirlpool Products to begin May 1, and all stores which sell Whirlpool products.
“We appreciate any effort you can make to spread the word: BOYCOTT WHIRLPOOL AND ALL SUBSIDIARIES, MAY DAY, 2009”
On this weekend when hundreds of millions of people worldwide celebrate the continued inspiration of a man who, 2,000 years ago, threw the corrupt money-changers out of the Jerusalem temple, we would do well to remember and appreciate our present-day prophets, people like Reverends Wright and Pinkney.
Ted Glick has been a progressive social change organizer since 1968. More information and past writings can be found at http://www.tedglick.com.