Obama pastor’s words ring familiar in Chicago

PERSPECTIVE: Mary C. Johns, covering a war protest Wednesday in Chicago, edits a newspaper for public-housing residents. She says many of her readers found the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments about race reflective of their truth.
PERSPECTIVE: Mary C. Johns, covering a war protest Wednesday in Chicago, edits a newspaper for public-housing residents. She says many of her readers found the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments about race reflective of their truth.
(Anthony Robert La Penna / For The Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Carolyn Devine wiped the sweat out of her eyes and glanced up at her gym’s TV sets, where a national debate over race was roiling.

Newscasters heatedly debated Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s recent speech about his longtime pastor’s incendiary comments. They analyzed video clips of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose church is about a mile from this South Side gym, preaching “God damn America” and condemning the government for “treating our citizens as less than human.”

Devine, who is African American, doesn’t break her stride on the treadmill.

“The race debate? It’s always this way here,” said Devine, 42, who runs a beauty business. “It always gets people hot under the collar, and it’s always going to. I’m stunned that the rest of the country seems shocked that racism still exists.”

In Chicago, where whites and blacks have lived together and clashed with one another for generations, the racial divide is spoken about with heart and passion -- and sometimes with rage.

It is a part of the fabric of life, particularly in the city’s southern and southwestern sections, where attitudes can seem both urbane and deeply rural. Neighborhoods here are an ethnic mix: European immigrants, like the Southern African Americans who arrived in the Great Migration, came looking for work and a better life amid the cozy brick bungalows and oak-tree-lined streets.

When locals speak of race riots in the city’s past, their memories of bloodied streets date to 1919. And 1953. And 1968.

Both before and after this city’s favorite adopted son gave his speech about his recently retired pastor’s comments, people had plenty to say. They argued over Wright’s words at cafes in the middle-class Beverly Hills/Morgan Park area, and debated Obama’s Tuesday speech in college dorms in the presidential candidate’s home neighborhood of Hyde Park.

They’ve prayed for guidance on street corners in Washington Heights and exchanged knowing nods inside barbershops right down the street from where Wright spent more than three decades turning tiny Trinity United Church of Christ into a spiritual empire -- in an area where nearly 95% of the population is African American, according to U.S. Census data.

Inside Trinity Church on Wednesday afternoon, the Rev. Barbara Heard told a small prayer group, “We came through segregation. We came through Jim Crow. . . . We will come through this, though we’re going through the storm now.”

Church members -- a mix of working-class and well-to-do parishioners -- say the media’s portrayal of Trinity and Wright, a former Marine, is unrecognizable to them. On Wednesday, a couple dozen of the faithful shared their concerns with one another:

“It’s a crucifixion of our own pastor.”

“You can’t escape it.”

“My daughter called from Phoenix. It’s on the TV all the time.”

But for some Chicagoans, like Marcia Walsh, Wright’s words were outrageous.

“We are the children from the Greatest Generation, and there are some things you just didn’t say. You don’t say ‘damn America,’ even if it’s from a Marine,” said Walsh, 54, who moved to a racially diverse neighborhood in the Beverly Hills area in 1984. Yet there’s also recognition that the problems underscored by Wright’s remarks are far from being solved -- a point, Walsh said, she was glad to see Obama address in his speech.

When Walsh, who is white, moved here, her neighbors warned her about “panic peddling”: Communities in south and west Chicago had been fighting real-estate speculators who would provoke racial fears by hiring African Americans to walk through neighborhood streets -- and then urge white homeowners to sell before their property values fell.

Her relatives also questioned why she moved south.

“I kept telling my family, ‘The houses are beautiful. The streets are safe. My neighbors are black and white. But we all want the same thing,’ ” said Walsh, who works for the nonprofit Beverly Area Planning Assn. “Good schools. Safe neighborhoods. A great place to raise a family.”

Still, Walsh said, there’s a difference between being geographically -- versus socially -- integrated.

“We’re not there yet,” Walsh said. “We don’t talk about completing the reconciliation. Maybe, finally, now it’s time to get it out in the open.”

That distinction is painfully clear to Mary C. Johns.

The Chicago native is the editor in chief of Residents’ Journal, a nonprofit newspaper written by former and current public-housing residents and distributed across the city.

Her readers often talk about feeling isolated and about their fears that the city wants poor blacks to disappear so wealthy whites can move into their neighborhoods. They worry that their history will be lost in the city’s current multibillion-dollar plan to overhaul public housing.

That is why many people didn’t see Wright’s comments as particularly controversial, Johns said.

To them, she said, the Lord was simply helping Wright voice an interpretation of biblical Scriptures -- and of their truth.

“People need things to get better,” Johns said.