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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Barack Obama went to Philadelphia today, to give what was described as a major addressed on race, politics and unifying our country. He spoke at the National Constitution Center within footsteps of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. As a presidential candidate who preaches unity, Obama faced the challenge of explaining the divisive remarks of his longtime pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE: This was not your usual Barack Obama event, the crowd was small just a few hundred people. Obama came in with little fanfare and stood at a bare wooden podium. He talked first about some of the progress he feels he's made in the campaign so far.

(Soundbite of political speech)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African-Americans and white Americans.

GREENE: In truth, Obama's attracted different coalitions from state to state. But in places like South Carolina and Ohio and Georgia, he struggled to appeal to whites. There's always seems to be a rift of racial divide in the Democratic campaign but the rift never seemed so high as over the past week, when sermons given by Obama's Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright have been showing up on cable news. They were sound bites with Wright railing against white America. Today, Obama said his pastor was showing a distorted view of the United States.

(Soundbite of political speech)

Sen. OBAMA: As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive - divisive at the time when we need unity, racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.

GREENE: But Obama also explained his relationship with the man who married him and baptized his two daughters.

(Soundbite of political speech)

Sen. OBAMA: I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street. And who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are part of me.

GREENE: He went on to say that whites, like his grandmother, have reason to be angry too.

(Soundbite of political speech)

Sen. OBAMA: So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town, when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed, when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

GREENE: And then, Obama brought his speech back to Reverend Wright. And he said if his pastor is right about one thing that racism is endemic to America, then, his candidacy loses its foundation.

(Soundbite of political speech)

Sen. OBAMA: The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static. There's no progress had been made.

GREENE: The invited audience was mostly Obama's supporters, many of them religious leaders who've been paying close attention, as Reverend Wright's sermons have made so many headlines. The Reverend Ellis Washington, pastor at St. Matthew AME Church in Philadelphia, said he's been known to give some Jeremiah Wright-style sermons.

Reverend ELLIS WASHINGTON (Pastor, St. Matthew AME Church): Oh, of course. You know, maybe not the same language but to speak to - especially an African-American community that puts it into context of our experience with, you know, racism and prejudice and those kinds of things. It is a part of my ministry and many people I know.

GREENE: Washington said Obama clearly worked hard to find a balance today.

Rev. WASHINGTON: He didn't try to skirt the issue and really spoke to us about race from a very honest and transparent place.

GREENE: But Washington said he feared the headlines about Obama's speech could miss the nuance of his message. Speaking of those headlines, they were already moving across a big news ticker on a building across the street from where Obama spoke. Rabbi Michael Bernstein saw the headlines as soon as he came out of the speech.

Rabbi MICHAEL BERNSTEIN (Beth Am Israel Congregation): I'm looking across the window where I was, where the ticker is and already the ticker says, Obama disavows pastor, refuses to disown him, and I'm afraid that people will get that message he only went halfway.

GREENE: Bernstein said Obama had no easy task digging into his pastor's racially charged remarks to find some uplifting lesson.

Rabbi BERNSTEIN: It's a risk. It's a risk, it's the kind of risk that has kept other people from doing the same things in similar situations, and I think, it dragged our conversation down.

GREENE: As a voter, Rabbi Bernstein said he has no idea if he'll support Obama. He simply said he appreciated the candidate's message on this day.

David Greene, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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