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Obama Speaks in Philadelphia as Race Debate Flares

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Obama Speaks in Philadelphia as Race Debate Flares

Election 2008

Obama Speaks in Philadelphia as Race Debate Flares

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It may not be the way he'd like, but a Chicago pastor is getting more exposure than ever. TV networks and Web sites have endlessly repeated sermons like this one on black men in prison.

Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Trinity United Methodist Church of Christ): The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strikes law and then wants us to sing "God Bless America." No, no, no. Not God bless America, God damn America. That's in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human.

INSKEEP: That's part of a 2003 sermon by Jeremiah Wright that's been much quoted in recent days. And it's in the midst of all that attention that a member of Wright's former congregation delivers a speech today.

Barack Obama's campaign he'll give a, quote, "Major address on race, politics and unifying our country." NPR's David Greene will be listening. And, David, how does the pastor's rhetoric fit into Obama's talk about transcending race?

DAVID GREENE: I think that's a question that Obama's going to try to answer today, Steve. His campaign is calling the speech an important moment, and I think it really is a moment where he's going to be trying to reassure his supporters and any doubters that he really is the kind of leader they think he is.

We've had this whole debate in the campaign - Hillary Clinton talking about that leadership is more than words and oratory. It's solutions. And Barack Obama, meanwhile, has made a pretty powerful argument that words and message can be inspiring and can bring people together. So if he's that kind of leader, this is the moment when the conversation becomes a little bit uncomfortable, when talk of race has sort of come into the conversation, the discourse.

And I think people would look to a leader like him. So it's the kind of time where I think Obama needs to showcase the strength that he thinks he has, and there's no escaping a really serious conversation about race in this campaign. It's been there, it's bubbling to the surface a bit right now.

What Obama today is trying to do is really drive the narrative rather than respond to it, I think.

INSKEEP: And other people, of course, are trying to drive the narrative in different directions, for example, by playing clips like this of Jeremiah Wright who was, until recently, the pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Rev. WRIGHT: It just came to me within the past few weeks, y'all, why so many folks are hating on Barack Obama. He doesn't fit the mold. He ain't white. He ain't rich, and he ain't privileged. Hillary fits the mold.

INSKEEP: Okay. Let's emphasize, David. We're hearing short clips of a guy who's delivered thousands of sermons, but there's a good handful of clips that have certainly gotten people's attention. What is Obama saying to date about what his pastor has said?

GREENE: That's right. Enough attention that Obama really had to respond to some of these clips that have been all over the place. And Obama has called some of what Wright has said appalling, inflammatory. And it's pretty extraordinary for a man Obama has followed for much of his life.

You know, Obama says he lives his life by the gospel that Wright preaches, and Wright plays a very important role in Chicago. But he says that Jeremiah Wright is not his political advisor, but his pastor. So Obama has been forced to distance himself, but also acknowledge that this is a man who has played a substantial role in his life.

And I think we'll be hearing Obama sort of explain that today in Philadelphia.

INSKEEP: How much has the issue of race shaped this campaign, David?

GREENE: Well, we've seen a couple of things recently. One of them was Geraldine Ferraro, who, of course, we know as the only woman to run in a major presidential party ticket in the United States, came out and suggested in an interview with a California newspaper that Barack Obama is the frontrunner in large partly because he's black. And Hillary Clinton had to come out and say that she disagreed with that. Ferraro stepped away from his campaign.

So it's - race is going to be a part of this campaign, and there's no getting around that.

INSKEEP: David, thanks very much.

GREENE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Greene, one of our correspondents covering the 2008 campaign. And that campaign continues today as Barack Obama delivers what's described as a major address on race in the United States. And we'll bring you more as we learn more.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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