Friday June 26, 2015 will be noted in the annuls of history as President Obama gave the speech of his Presidency, as he eulogized slain pastor and state representative Clementa Pinkney Pastor of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S. Carolina. It wasn’t a traditional speech, it was electric as he channeled oratory that of a preacher from a Southern Baptist Church.
As with any speech the requisite phrases were there but suddenly it took on spiritual levity as he shifted his focus to the African-American church in American history. In between weaving the message of the Gospel, reminding them that Emanuel AME Church as with churches in the Black community hold significance that extends beyond Sunday services.
Obama gave a history lesson on the importance of the African-American church, in fact he did it better than many pastors can. He defined the church’s role through slavery up to present as the center of life in the African-American community.
“Over the course of centuries, black churches served as ‘hush harbors’ where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.
That’s what the black church means. Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate. When there’s no better example of this tradition than Mother Emanuel a church built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founder sought to end slavery, only to rise up again, a Phoenix from these ashes.
When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, services happened here anyway, in defiance of unjust laws. When there was a righteous movement to dismantle Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from its pulpit, and marches began from its steps. A sacred place, this church. Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country; a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all. That’s what the church meant. “
In the background you could hear them, “amen’s and “preach it” as the President’s speech continued.
In recent weeks, the President has begun saying what the African-American community has known since, uh forever. There is racism that goes beyond using the “N” word. He pointed out the institutional racism is subtle, “Maybe we now realize the way 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.”
The murder of 9 people at the Emanuel AME church by an avowed racist and believer in white supremacy shocked the nation. Scenes of victims’ families tearfully forgiving the shooter tore at the soul.
Then something happened that stunned the audience including those covering the event on television. President, Barack Obama broke into song just as a preacher would, and with perfect timing the church organist began playing to accompany him. “Amazing grace, Amazing grace…(Obama begins to sing) — “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see. 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 L. Simmons, Sr. found that grace. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton found that grace. Myra Thompson found that grace.
Through the example of their lives, they’ve now passed it on to us. May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure. May grace now lead them home. May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.”
How can anyone forgive after such a horrendous act? But, one by one victims’ family members appeared at the arraignment and did forgive and that act moved people. For example, the son of segregationist Strom Thurman called for the flag to be taken off the S. Carolina state house grounds. His call was just a tip of the growing iceberg.
We all know what happened next. Scores of products that weeks ago were deemed okay for sale are suddenly yanked off store shelves. Online sites that sold the flag and merchandise decorated with its image “scrubbed” their sites clean of any items that may fit the criteria for removal.
An act carried out by Dylan Roof to spark a “race war” did the opposite. It galvanized the city of Charleston, South Carolina against hate and symbols associated with such acts. Instead of calling for blood, people called for redemption, forgiveness and love. The courage exhibited by those families in forgiveness is the hallmark of Christian faith.
President Obama in delivering the eulogy once again became, “consoler and comforter-in-chief” delivering a eulogy that elevates him to the Highest Level of His Presidency.