Controversial Reverend Received Colgate Honorary Degree in 1998

Mollie Reilly

Recently, the press surrounding Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has focused around controversial figure Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who received an honorary doctorate degree from Colgate in 1998.

At the Class of 1998’s commencement, Wright was invited to deliver the baccalaureate sermon. A distinguished speaker, usually a religious figure, gives the baccalaureate sermon each year in Memorial Chapel as a farewell to the senior class on the morning of commencement. Wright, along with commencement speaker then-New York Governor George Pataki, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.

Reverend Wright’s connections to Obama go back to the 1980s, when Obama and his wife Michelle joined his congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, IL, a “megachurch” with approximately 10,000 members. Wright served as pastor at the church until early 2008, when he retired after 36 years. Wright went on to marry the Obamas, as well as baptize their children. Wright also served as a member of Obama’s African American Religious Leadership Committee, which consists of over 170 African American religious leaders who support Obama’s campaign, until March of this year.

That month, segments of a sermon delivered after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 were leaked to the press. Portions of this sermon were considered by critics to promote anti-American and racist sentiments.

“The government gives [African Americans] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America,'” Wright said. “No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America – that’s in the Bible – for killing innocent people. God damn America, as long as she pretends to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.”

These statements were used to draw negative attention to Obama, who quickly denounced Wright’s comments and denied his presence at the sermon in question. The controversy compelled Obama to deliver his “A More Perfect Union” speech on March 18, which discussed the lasting impressions of racism left on America by slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws.

Colgate traditionally awards honorary degrees to individuals nominated by the community and selected by a committee of three faculty members and three trustees, chaired by the university President. The commencement and baccalaureate speakers are chosen from this pool, as well as other honorary degree recipients.