Obama Delivers Searing Speech on Race in Eulogy For Rev. Clementa Pickney and Church Shooting Victims

Wrapping his words in the cloak of a church sermon, deploying the inflections and oratorical rhythms of a pastor, Barack Obama delivered one of his most searing speeches on modern race relations in America at a funeral service in Charleston on Friday.

In the course of eulogising Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Mother Emanuel African American church who was shot dead in his own sanctuary along with eight of his flock last week, Obama addressed several of the most contentious debates that have erupted since the shooting.

He referred to the gun rampage by an avowed white supremacist as an act of terrorism, linking it to America’s long history of racist church bombings and arsons.

He said the shooting was not a random act, “but a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress”. He said the alleged shooter, who he did not name, had imagined his deed would “incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion”, as “an act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin”.

In the course of a eulogy in which Obama had the audacity to sing Amazing Grace in front of a rapt audience of 5,500 mostly African Americans in the College of Charleston TD Arena, the president also made a robust case for the tearing down of the Confederate flag. As debate continues to rage over the enduring presence of the old secessionist symbol across much of the deep south, Obama said bluntly that the flag was a “reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation”.

The flag did not cause the murder of nine churchgoers at a Bible-study meeting on 17 June, Obama said. “But as people from all walks of life – Republicans and Democrats – have acknowledged, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride.”

He said taking down the flag from the grounds of South Carolina’s state capitol in Columbia “would not be an act of political correctness, it would not be an insult to the valour of Confederate soldiers, it would simply be an acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought – the cause of slavery – was wrong.”

Speaking in front of political leaders from both sides of the partisan divide, including Hillary Clinton and the Republican leader John Boehner, as well as African American household names such as Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton, Obama also called for action to address what he called the “mayhem” of gun violence in America.

He also touched on police brutality towards black communities, endemic poverty in many African American neighbourhoods and Republican attempts to introduce new voting laws that would make it more difficult for people to cast their vote.

“None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight,” Obama said, adding that whenever a tragedy happened such as the massacre at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston there were calls for a debate.

“We talk a lot about race,” he said. “There is no short cut, we don’t need more talk. People of goodwill will continue to debate the merit of various policies as our democracy requires. There are good people on both sides of these debates. Whatever solutions we find will be incomplete. But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again. To go back to business as usual as we so often do.”

He said that after a week of reflection on the Charleston shooting he had concluded that what was required now was “an open heart. That more than a particular policy or analysis, that’s what I think is needed.”

Then, after what must be one of the longest pauses he has ever held in the middle of a public speech, the president of the United States began to sing Amazing Grace. The arena burst into song alongside him.

Obama first met Pinckney in 2007, during the early stages of his first run to the White House. Pinckney was an early supporter of Obama’s bid for the presidency.

The president said he did not know Pinckney well, but he did a little. He described the pastor as a “man of God who lived by faith … when Clementa Pinckney entered a room it was like the future had arrived.”

Pinckney, 41 when he died, made an impact on those around him from an early age. He was only 13 when he had what he took to be a message from God calling him to preach and by 18 he enjoyed his first appointment as pastor. He was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1996, aged 23, the youngest African American to hold a seat in the assembly, going on to become a state senator just four years later.

A massive crowd of mourners descended on the College of Charleston well before the official funeral service began. Thousands came in hope of securing a place inside the arena, standing from soon after dawn in a line that ran down three blocks and snaked all the way around the corner.

In the blazing heat, mourners huddled under umbrellas and relied on bottles of water handed out among the crowd.

“We expected a large turnout,” a White House official said. “But this is overwhelming.”

The tone of the funeral service that preceded Obama’s eulogy was one of celebration of Pinckney’s life rather than dwelling on the unconscionable act of racial hatred that ended it.

“Senator Pinckney’s last act was to open his doors to someone he did not know, who did not look like him,” said the Honorable Reverend Joseph Neal, referring to Dylann Roof, the suspected shooter. “So let us not close the doors. Do not let race and politics close the doors that Senator Pinckney opened.”

A succession of speakers from South Carolina’s church as well as political circles remembered Pinckney for his booming voice, his skills as a preacher, and his loyalty as a father, husband and friend.

“Tell the people that Reverend Clementa Pinckney walked the talk,” said Reverend George Flowers. “He was the embodiment of the sermon. He was humble, caring, compassionate, supportive, a man of integrity.”

Only one speaker referred directly to Roof, albeit without using his name. Reverend John Gillison told the crowd: “Someone should have told that young man! He wanted to start a race war, but he came to the wrong place.”

In moving messages to their father published in the official order of service, Pinckney’s two young daughters said their goodbyes. Malana, who hid with her mother Jennifer in a side room in the Mother Emanuel church while her father was being killed along with eight others, wrote in her message:

“Dear Daddy

I know you were shot at the Church

And you went to Heaven.

I love you so much!

I know you love me”


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