President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney—massacred Pastor of Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina—was one of the finest I’ve heard, and deserves standing among the most important speeches in our history.
Think about his problem for a moment. What could he say to the wife, daughters, extended family, colleagues, and co-religionists of a Pastor and State Senator who had been murdered in his own church, along with eight other peaceful souls, during a prayer meeting to which the intruder-killer had been warmly welcomed? What would you say to a nation born in unapologetic slavery and tormented still by fanatic racism after a bloody civil war that ended 150 years ago and after almost 239 years of national independence? Lincoln’s problem in drafting his second inaugural came to mind, an interminable civil war, massive casualties, malaise, spiritual despair. Mourning and despair were also palpable in Charleston.
The President told his audience that he had been thinking for a week about the meaning of the word “Grace.” God’s Grace was what he was going to talk about. Grace was not something, he explained, you earn, win, or deserve. You’re given Grace by God whether you want it or not. “God works in mysterious ways.” The question is whether and how you receive it, what you do with it. The killer thought he was kicking off a race war. But beautiful souls among the families of victims at Mother Emanuel found within their broken hearts the grace to forgive him. They took the opportunity in their suffering to receive God’s Grace and do something good with it.
This theme emanated from a man whose country’s alchemical rules of racial identify denied him, and countless others, prime identity with the person most like him biologically in all the world, his white mother. Brought up mainly by his mother and his white grandparents in Hawaii, he had been required to work hard to learn how to be African-American, and to learn what the fuss was all about, but he had been a good student, and he had learned his lessons well. He would wholeheartedly embody his assigned race today and speak for black people. He would recount racial history on their behalf: he would explain the black church; he would tell the nation about the African Methodist Episcopal church, and about Mother Emanuel; and he would talk about slavery, lynchings, burnings, and intimidation, and about faith, community, renewal, and redemption. He would tell truth. Standing proudly in front of a gathering of renowned ministers and church officials, he would minister to the nation today. He would speak as a Pastor would and teach the deep significance of Christianity and faith to African American people, and to Americans all across the nation.
In the President’s telling, the murderous acts of the shooter—preceded we now know by considerable study and a farewell tour of confederate cemeteries, bookstores, and sites, and a self-portrait before the confederate flag—had opened our eyes, taken our blinders off to hate and racism, and its costs to African Americans across the nation.
I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.
We were invited to receive this removal of blinders, with its gift of sight, clear vision, and generous insights, as “God’s Grace.” This concept allowed the President to weave a grace-received agenda of reforms to inaugurate a new era in the search for a more perfect union. He told simple, indisputable truths to the country about racism and the way the shell game works, that the prison system swallows up young black men’s lives well beyond reasonable probability and any relationship to crimes committed. That once again, gun violence had destroyed innocent lives, and that can’t be allowed. That Jamaal doesn’t get the call back for the second interview because of the color of his skin. He would also say, perhaps for the first time, that taking down the confederate flag:
would simply be an acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.
All of this was done to acclaim and with the concordance of his audience. This was a speech the nation needed. It energized us. Rev. Pinckney, and the other dead, will not be allowed to have died in vain. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought: here is a set of proposals the President should ask Congress to consider next year, inaugurating his final two years in office. Likewise, presidential candidates of both parties would do well to consider the President’s ideas in crafting their programs.
Then the President sang Amazing Grace a cappella, and a bit off-key, but beautifully nonetheless. The assemblage of church dignitaries arose behind him and joined along in the singing, aided by a deeply moved, on-their-feet audience. Everyone realized, I think, that the President meant every word he had sung, and every word he had spoken. America will one day be redeemed of slavery and its racist past. That day will be glorious, Grace recieved, Grace fulfilled.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
July 2, 2015
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good