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Wright speaks at mass meeting

Inside the same walls where the Rev. L.L. Anderson held the first mass meeting of the voting rights struggle more than 40 years ago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright urged the audience to learn from the past while looking toward the future.

“You didn’t get from the bridge to the White House on your own,” he said. “We are where we are because some other folks made some awesome sacrifices.”

Wright was the keynote speaker Thursday night at the 44th Annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee’s mass meeting.

Jubilee kicked off earlier in the evening with a welcome program at the Larry D. Striplin Performing Arts Center, where Southern Christian Leadership Conference national president the Rev. Byron Clay spoke.

After Clay’s speech, the crowd moved to the Tabernacle to hear Wright. Three hours before Wright stepped behind the pulpit, every seat on the floor and in the horseshoe shaped balcony was full.

Church member Doris Cox said this was the first time she had seen so many people arrive that early. Cox, who was a high school senior on Bloody Sunday, said she agreed with many of Wright’s statements.

“I thought a lot of what he said was true,” she said. “A lot of the things that he says will get you thinking,”

A number of pastors and civil rights activists spoke throughout the night, including H. James Chatmon, a student at R.B. Hudson High School during the voting rights struggle, and the Rev. Dr. F.D. Reese, who was one of the Courageous Eight that signed a letter inviting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to join the movement in Selma.

The crowd was there for Wright, though. They sang hymns, clapped and shouted “Amen” all night, but when Wright hit his stride about 15 minutes into his sermon, the crowd whipped into a frenzy.

Men stood, pointed and nodded, and women waved hands side-to-side as Wright preached a sermon titled “A word of advice for the Joshua generation.” Wright likened the Israelites’ struggles to the struggles of blacks.

This afrocentric theology drew ire from many around the country when Wright was thrust into the spotlight during the 2008 presidential election. He drew particular criticism for comments from a 2003 sermon where he blamed America for the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

Wright was far from the firebrand millions saw on CNN and Fox News one year ago. While he criticized the U.S. government for its response to Katrina and the Iraq War, Wright also encouraged the congregation to look toward a better future.

“Look to the future but don’t be content,” he said.

Wright warned that black people face new, complex barriers today. He said President Barack Obama’s victory was not the same as the Voting Rights marchers’ victory.

“Don’t be confused,” he said. “The Edmund Pettus Bridge and 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. are not the same thing. The powers we fight today are not the same as the power we fought 44 years ago.”

Tracey Arnold, who traveled to Selma from Columbus, Ga., said she walked away inspired by Wright’s sermon.

“What he did for me was make me realize it’s not about the color of your skin,” she said. “It’s about what you do to embrace this generation.”