President Barack Obama tapped into the black church’s soaring rhetorical traditions Friday afternoon to deliver a bold and brilliant eulogy honoring the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the 41-year-old preacher and state senator who was gunned down, along with eight others, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
Grace proved to be the theme running through Obama’s message, a sermon that used the recent massacre as a clarion call for national action on issues of racial equality, gun violence and social justice in America.
“For too long,” said Obama, “we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens.” The president argued that Charleston’s tragedy offered an opportunity for Americans to examine the world with new eyes, seeing with a vision unclouded by deep-seated myths that allowed for millions to uneasily co-exist with symbols of racial slavery and white supremacy.
But an act of racial terror, one that elicited shockwaves large enough to move South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to call for the Confederate flag’s removal from the Statehouse grounds, produced a grace note amid rancorous debates over racial justice, gun violence and white supremacy.
“The flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride,” remarked Obama. Against the backdrop of cascading applause from several thousand in attendance, he continued, “For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.”
Removing the flag did not dishonor or disrespect soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, said the president; it only acknowledged that “the cause for which they fought, slavery, was wrong.”
These remarks, perhaps the most forceful on race ever given by an American president, elicited a standing ovation. Obama was not finished. “The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong.”
Sounding like the strong race man that many have wished to see during the course of his presidency, Obama interpreted the flag’s removal as the beginning of an “honest accounting” of the nation’s tortured racial history.
The political and historical reckoning continued over much of the rest of the speech. “By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace,” said Obama. But more important work was required. “For too long we’ve been blind to the way that past injustices continue to shape the present.”
Obama placed Charleston’s tragedy in the larger context of deepening racial and economic inequality, touching on child poverty, failing public schools, rampant unemployment, mass incarceration and the kind of hate that produced this national tragedy.
From a broad acknowledgment of institutional and structural racism’s impact on the black community, Obama discussed potential policy changes in pursuit of racial justice. He noted that changing police behavior could promote trust between communities of color and law enforcement, highlighted the need for compassion toward the “tens of tens of thousands” of young black men ensnared by the criminal-justice system, and chided those who claimed to harbor no racial bias for being willing to call back “Johnny” for a job interview but not “Jamal.” This last line is drawn from data suggesting that applicants with “black-sounding” names fare worse in the job market—even when possessing the same credentials—than their white (or white-sounding) counterparts.
Calling on Americans to “recognize our common humanity,” Obama linked voting rights, racial justice, gun control and economic equality to a moral urgency revealed to the nation through this latest act of racial suffering.
Obama warned against expecting some kind of racial transformation overnight. The president claimed that the nation “talks a lot about race” but now needed to be moved toward decisive action. The larger tragedy of the Charleston massacre would be, said Obama, if the nation “slipped back into a comfortable silence” regarding the issues of racial justice, gun violence and inequality at the heart of the tragedy.
The president said that America’s path toward grace “required an open heart” capable of acknowledging the depth of one another’s history, and that everyone’s freedom was, in fact, linked. He concluded his brilliant and historic eulogy by leading the congregation in a rendition of “Amazing Grace,” a staple of the black church that calls on God’s grace for a way forward.
Obama, as he did during the Selma, Ala., 50th-anniversary commemoration address, proved himself to be a master orator, perhaps the most eloquent president since Abraham Lincoln. On this occasion he showed an ease and forthrightness in discussing the depth of racism and white supremacy that’s been absent for much of his presidency. Obama’s bold words matched the weight of the moment. It was a powerful message that can come to fruition only if accompanied by equally bold and courageous deeds.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.