Was the President’s eulogy at Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s homegoing service an example of a truly liberated Obama who is now nearing the end of his term? Or did his performance reflect the events unfolding in this country and Obama stepping up?
Ultimately, it was a little bit of both, not to mention a man who is certainly thinking about his place in the world and what his legacy will mean to the nation.
On Friday afternoon at the TD Arena in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama paid tribute to Rev. Pinckney, a state senator and one of nine Black people gunned down by White supremacist Dylann Roof at Emanuel AME Church.
With victories for Obamacare, the Fair Housing Act and marriage equality in the U.S. Supreme Court, it was a tremendous week for the commander in chief. And yet in the midst of tragedy and soul searching (forced to grapple with its centuries’ old curse of slavery and a virulent symbol of racial oppression in the form of the Confederate flag), South Carolina may have had its finest hour when President Obama honored the fallen Rev. Pinckney.
If you have not viewed the eulogy, please do so, for it was a proud time to be Black, and to be American. Never in recent history, or in any part of history for that matter, have we witnessed a president say what Barack Obama said that day.
“Rev. Pinckney once said: ‘Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history,’” Obama told the audience. “Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free too. That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.”
But the president did far more. It was a eulogy for the ages, a sermon on the meaning of God’s grace and a political speech cutting to the chase on race and gun violence in what may very well be his finest oratory yet.
Aside from the obvious reason he was there, President Obama had a daunting task beyond speaking at this funeral. He has found himself at a rare moment in time in which so many of America’s evils and promises have bubbled up to the surface.
Obama gave a history lesson on the Black church.
“To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in your grief. Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church,” the president said. “The church is and always has been the center of African American life (applause)—a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.”
Further, the president spoke of removing the Confederate flag: “a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation” as a moral imperative. “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 an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.”
Gun violence was another topic President Obama discussed.
“For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. (applause.) Sporadically, our eyes are open: When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theatre, 26 in an elementary school. 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.”
Finally, the president put to rest the notion that America needs more discussions on race.
“None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight. Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race. There’s no shortcut. And we don’t need more talk,” he said.
Perhaps the most stirring part of Obama’s eulogy was his rendition of the song ‘Amazing Grace.’ Addressed by the AME clergy as “Rev. President,” Obama took America to church. And it was fitting that he was surrounded by the Black church to articulate Black suffering, comfort us and help us through.
With one and a half years left of the Obama presidency, this past week represented a phenomenal intersection of events: the almost universal repudiation of the Confederate flag following the Charleston massacre and a sudden clarity on issues of racial violence and White supremacy. While it is too early to tell, the aftermath of the Emanuel AME shooting could represent a turning point in U.S. history, and Obama was prepared to show leadership as the circumstances were thrust upon him. Extraordinary times give presidents the opportunity to step to the plate and prove themselves.
Meanwhile, we have witnessed in recent days an apparently free Black man who is unencumbered by reelection concerns and cares little about his adversaries. Singing at the Pinckney eulogy, using the ‘n-word’ and telling a heckler at a White House event, “You’re in my house!” are examples of a leader who now feels comfortable speaking truth and calling people out.
President Obama is a politician and effective communicator who knows good political theatre and is using his bully pulpit.
Whether he is stepping up, liberated or both, this is the Obama people voted for and always wanted in the first place.