On perhaps the most remarkable day of his presidency, Barack Obama touched a crowd of thousands in Charleston, S.C., leading them in singing 'Amazing Grace' after issuing a stirring call to action as he eulogized state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and the others slain a week ago.
It was a moment that's hard to imagine any other president pulling off: Addressing thousands from a historically black congregation after an act of unspeakable racial violence and speaking in the rhythms of a preacher — with organ accompaniment and frequent interruptions from the faithful.
It came after a day that had already made history with the legalization of gay marriage by the Supreme Court, and capped a week that had also seen his health care law upheld and his hard-fought trade agenda sent to his desk.
For the second time today, he mentioned the country seeking a "more perfect union," and he praised Gov. Nikki Haley and others for acting to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Capitol.
But his speech at the College of Charleston's arena — heavy in religiosity — called for far, far more than symbolism from the politicians and parishioners in attendance, who included among them Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who flew down to South Carolina on Air Force One with the president.
Obama drew an indirect line from the Confederage flag to the murders in the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
"It’s true a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge, including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise, as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride," Obama said.
"For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.
"We see that now.
"Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness. It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong."
But Obama quickly pivoted to a sweeping call for action — on education, policing, voting rights, sentencing and gun violence, and spoke about racial bias in a very direct way.
"I don’t think God wants us to stop there.
"For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present.
"Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty or attend dilapidated schools or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.
"Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate.
"Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal-justice system, and lead us to make sure that that system’s not infected with bias, that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement, and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure.
"Maybe we now realize the way a racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal, so that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote, by recognizing our common humanity, by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American. By doing that, we express God’s grace."
Obama also said the nation had only sporadically paid attention to the ravages of gun violence.
"But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day, the countless more whose lives are forever changed, the survivors crippled, the children traumatized and fearful every day as they walk to school, the husband who will never feel his wife’s warm touch, the entire communities whose grief overflows every time they have to watch what happened to them happening to some other place.
"The vast majority of Americans, the majority of gun owners want to do something about this. We see that now.
"And I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions, ways of life that make up this beloved country, by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace."
You can read the full transcript here:
Transcript: Obama Delivers Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney
Correction: Monday 8:33 a.m.
An earlier version of this post misidentified the location of the funeral service.
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