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Rep. Lewis: Race controversy good for dialogue

  • Story Highlights
  • Rep. John Lewis is a superdelegate who switched from Clinton to Obama
  • Lewis did not mention the Rev. Jeremiah Wright by name during his sermon
  • Some of Wright's past sermons came under scrutiny this past month
  • Obama says he would have switched churches had Wright not retired
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From Rachel Streitfeld and Cody Combs
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis suggested Sunday the controversy over Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor has reignited a conversation about race that could ultimately be beneficial for the country.

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Rep. John Lewis says "we must learn to understand and forgive those who have been most hostile" toward us.

"The civil rights movement had the power to ... what I call bring the dirt, the filth from under the American rug out of the cracks and corners, into the light so we can deal with it," said Lewis, an Obama supporter, at a forum on faith and civil rights at Washington's National Cathedral.

"Just maybe, just maybe, what is happening now will bring something out, so we all can be educated and sensitized."

While he did not mention the Rev. Jeremiah Wright by name during a sermon he gave at the cathedral, Lewis indirectly addressed the Chicago pastor's fiery comments on race.

"During the past few days, the issue of race and the need for reconciliation have emerged through the presidential campaign. We know, and we all know, it's not a secret America had a dark past of division and separation," Lewis said. "But if we are to emerge unscarred by hate, we must learn to understand and forgive those who have been most hostile and violent towards us."

Some of Wright's past sermons came under scrutiny in recent weeks when a news report highlighted ones that included racially charged remarks.

In one, the minister said America had brought the September 11 attacks upon itself. In another, he said Sen. Hillary Clinton had an advantage over Obama because she is white.

Obama, a longtime friend of Wright's and a member of his church for two decades, has repeatedly denounced the remarks, but refused to denounce the minister himself.

Wright retired from Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ earlier this year, before the controversy erupted.

Obama told ABC's "The View" in an interview last week that he would have left the church if his pastor hadn't retired and hadn't acknowledged making "inappropriate" comments that "deeply offended people."

Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, delivered his sermon from the same pulpit where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke 40 years ago, four days before his assassination. Lewis said King's struggle for peace and equality continues today.

"The sermon Martin Luther King gave us is still so timely, so relevant and so fresh," Lewis said, adding that he could have re-read King's words to similar effect today.

He parried several questions about the heated race for the Democratic nomination, joking the audience was trying to put him in hot water.

"Now, you know what you're doing, you're putting me on the spot here," he laughed. "But it's OK. I've been in the hot seat before."

Lewis soon abandoned his hesitance to declare Americans were open to electing a black president, and predicted Obama will win the Democratic nomination and go on to become president. Lewis had backed Clinton, but then decided in late February to endorse Obama. Obama won the Georgia primary February 5.

"I'm convinced he will be elected," he said. "I believe the American people are ready."

Lewis said a win for Obama would send ripples throughout the globe.

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"We will send a message to citizens of the world that America can be looked upon as a model for diversity and a new kind of leadership," he said.

Lewis is a member of the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives and a Democratic superdelegate -- one of the elected officials and party leaders who are not bound by the results of primary elections or caucuses when they vote on the party's presidential nominee at its August convention in Denver. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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