Barack Obama has received the blessing of the most senior African-American in Congress for his decision to sever ties with Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor who has cast a cloud over his presidential campaign.
By Andrew Ward in Washington
James Clyburn, majority whip in the House of Representatives, said Mr Obama had no option but to denounce Mr Wright, who drew fresh attention to his controversial views on US foreign policy and race relations this week.
“He needed to do that – there’s no question,” Mr Clyburn told the Financial Times. “What he said and did was appropriate and I hope that it reversed whatever damage may have been done.”
The South Carolina congressman was “saddened” by Mr Wright’s “inexplicable” decision to make a series of defiant public appearances in which he repeated allegations that the US created the HIV virus to kill black people and brought the September 2001 terrorist attacks upon itself.
Mr Obama made clear on Tuesday that his relationship with Mr Wright was over. In an acclaimed speech on race relations in March he had refused to disown the man whose Chicago church he attended for 20 years.
Some commentators believe Mr Obama was initially reluctant to denounce Mr Wright, one of America’s most influential black preachers, in part because he feared alienating African-American supporters.
But Charles Ellison, a senior fellow at the University of Denver’s centre for African-American policy, said there was widespread acceptance among black leaders that Mr Obama had to put more distance between himself and Mr Wright.
“He has received the blessing of the black political establishment to cut Wright loose,” Mr Ellison said. “They are saying: ‘Do what you have to do. This guy is out of control.’ ”
Mr Clyburn is one of nearly 800 Democratic “super-delegates” whose votes are likely to decide the party’s presidential race between Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton. He plans to wait until after the last primary contest on June 3 before making an endorsement and is expected to back Mr Obama.
He said the Wright affair “posed a serious challenge” to Mr Obama but insisted that super-delegates would not be influenced by it – provided the Illinois senator avoided a “meltdown” in the remaining primaries.
It would be “quite a setback” for race relations if Mr Obama were perceived to lose the nomination or the presidency because of Mr Wright, Mr Clyburn said. He questioned the “extraordinary” amount of media attention dedicated to Mr Wright, contrasting it with the more sparing coverage of ties between John McCain, the Republican candidate, and John Hagee, a white evangelical leader accused of being anti-Catholic.
Kevin Boyle, a civil rights historian at Ohio State University, said Mr Wright had become a focal point for “deep-seated fears” about black people among some white Americans. “If [Mr Obama] is denied the nomination because of this issue it would send a very depressing message that we are not at a stage where we can put race behind us,” he said.
Mike Huckabee, the former Republican presidential candidate and Baptist preacher, rejected suggestions that racists were seizing on the Wright affair.
“His campaign is not being derailed by race; it’s being derailed by a person who doesn’t want him to prove that we have made great advances in this country,” he told a rally this week. “Jeremiah Wright needs for Obama to lose so he can justify his anger, his hostile bitterness against the United States of America.”