On Friday morning, President Barack Obama stood in the Rose Garden exalting the “thunderbolt” of justice that had come from the Supreme Court, which guaranteed the right of marriage to gay and lesbian couples after many spent decades in often lonely, perilous activism.
About five hours later, leaning into the microphone at the memorial for the late South Carolina state senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney, Obama sang alone the opening lines of “Amazing Grace,” before a crowd of nearly 6,000 rose to its feet to join him in an extraordinary ending to a eulogy that lamented racial hatred but drew on what Obama called the grace of God to predict its eventual defeat.
Rarely has a single day so completely encapsulated the emotional peaks and troughs of the presidency of Barack Obama. He sought to draw the moments together with a phrase he has employed in the past, using variations to argue that the creation of a “more perfect union” sometimes happens in unexpected ways with unexpected speed.
In the space of nine hours, Obama sought to put starkly different feelings side by side: satisfaction and sadness; the celebration of a historic achievement on civil rights for gay people and the mourning of the country’s stubborn history of white racism.
“Today should also give us hope that on the many issues with which we grapple, often painfully, real change is possible,” Obama said in the Rose Garden. “Shift in hearts and minds is possible.”
He then flew to Charleston to memorialize the tragic events of last week, when Pinckney and others at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church welcomed to their study session a young white stranger who spent an hour with them before pulling out a gun. Dylann Roof, 21, is charged with killing nine of them.
Sustaining a sense of optimism might have seemed a difficult task here given the terrible nature of the killings allegedly carried out by Roof, whose name the president did not utter. Yet Obama spoke in a full arena, with many listeners from the AME church, who sounded notes of reconciliation and energetic faith, punctuated by hymns, applause and laughter.
The president was able to feed off the crowd and draw energy from it while invoking religious themes. “The Bible calls us to hope,” Obama began, “to persevere and have faith in things not seen.”
And from there he delivered a speech that was one part eulogy for Pinckney, whom he called “a good man”; one part tribute to the central role played by black churches in African American history; one part meditation on grace; and one part call to address poverty, gun violence and the unfinished work of racial reconciliation.
“This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace,” the president said, as one person called out, “Come on now, put it out there.”
Obama continued, “The grace of the families who lost loved ones.” The audience murmured agreement.
“The grace that Rev. Pinckney would preach about in his sermons…amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” he said, quoting the hymn. The audience rumbled joyously after each of the four verses Obama recited, then rose in applause.
Grace, he said, is something we do not deserve but God gives us anyway.
Unlike the first time he addressed race in a major way, when he was forced during the 2008 campaign to explain the angry sermons of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama was grappling here with white racism, not the flaws of a black preacher.
“Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race,” he said. “We talk a lot about race. There’s no shortcut. And we don’t need more talk,” he added, provoking another round of applause.
America, he said, is “a big, raucous place,” and there are “good people on both sides of these debates.” But, he added, “it would be a betrayal of everything Rev. Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.”
James Campbell, a professor of American history at Stanford University and author of a book on the AME Church, said the setting suited Obama.
Campbell said this president “has access, symbolically and rhetorically, to a tradition of black oratory – a tradition that has been particularly powerful in reasserting the promise of America precisely because it emanates from people who have all too often been excluded from, who have had to struggle to claim, that promise.”
Obama understands the role black churches have played in cities including Charleston, where they have been targets since before the Civil War. In 1825, for example, a gang of young white men put red pepper into the stove at Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME Church, filling the crowded sanctuary with choking smoke and causing four church members to die in the ensuing stampede.
“Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church,” Obama said, referring to last week’s killings. “The church is and has always been the center of African-American life. A place to call our own in a too often hostile world.”
Obama, who has never settled on a place to worship in Washington, called the church “our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate.”
In his remarks, the president did not gloss over gaps in American society. He touched on job discrimination – why, as he put it, employers call back Johnny but not Jamal for job interviews.
“What is true in the South,” he said, “is true for America…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 – how to break the cycle.”
He talked about the Confederate flag and praised South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, for seeking its removal from the grounds of the state capitol.
“It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders,” he said. “But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge . . . the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.”
Lowering the flag, he said, is not a matter of “political correctness” but rather “an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought – the cause of slavery – was wrong.”