After his rousing, heartfelt eulogy for the slain Rev. Clementa Pinckney, President Barack Obama was called “Rev. President” by several of the AME pastors. His eulogy was part praise for Pinckney and part sermon, with Obama summoning God’s grace.
Throughout the little over 30-minute eulogy Friday afternoon, the president had the crowd at TD Arena in Charleston, S.C., on its feet, their applause loud and sustained. For several slow and thoughtful moments, the president extolled the virtues of Pinckney. “He was in the pulpit by 13, pastor by 18, public servant by 23,” Obama said. “He did not exhibit any of the cockiness of youth, nor youth insecurities. Instead, he set an example worthy of his disposition, wise beyond his years.”
At 21, Dylann Roof, the alleged killer of the nine worshipers, did not possess these traits or understanding, the president continued. “Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what the Rev. Pinckney so well understood: the power of God’s grace.”
These words brought the first standing ovation.
“This whole week,” Obama said, “I have been reflecting on the idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that the Rev. Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals. The one we all know, ‘Amazing Grace.’”
At this time, Obama merely uttered the first lines of the song, dissecting the lyrics, explaining the meaning of some of the words. “Grace is not merited, something we deserve,” he began. “Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God … Grace is a nation out of this terrible tragedy … God has visited grace upon us. For he has allowed us to see where we have been blind.”
That blindness, he said, was symbolized by the Confederate flag. “As we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride,” he said, pausing long enough to allow his listeners to gather the full meaning. “For many Blacks and whites, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.”
With the pressure now to remove the flag from the state’s capitol grounds, even from Gov. Nikki Haley, other states across the South are taking steps to remove the battle flag from license plates, and several major stores will no longer sell paraphernalia and memorabilia related to the Confederacy.
When Obama returned to “Amazing Grace,” he no longer defined the lyrics, he intoned them, and for a moment the church was stunned as he slowly, if not exactly melodically, eased into the old hymn.
Soon, the church was singing with him and he had put into song some of the emotional feelings that matched his oratory.
At the close of the hymn, Obama called out the names of the Charleston victims, noting that each one had found grace: “Clementa Pinckney found that grace, Cynthia Hurd found that grace. Susie Jackson found that grace. Ethel Lance found that grace. DePayne Middleton-Doctor found that grace. Tywanza Sanders found that grace. Daniel Simmons found that grace. Sharonda Singleton found that grace. Myra Thompson found that grace.”
Once again with this senseless slaughter, America and its president had to pause and reflect on how to move forward, how to resume once more a national discussion on race and racism.
Accompanied by his wife, Michelle, with Vice President Joe Biden nearby, Obama shook a multitude of hands, and there were hugs for Rep. James Clyburn and Hillary Clinton.
If left to the president, he would have grasped every extended hand, but with Pinckney’s coffin wheeled from the church, a brigade of Secret Service officers wedged through the crowd and spirited the president and his wife from the church.