On June 26, 2015, the president came to the College. Arriving in Charleston nine days after the tragedy at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, President Barack Obama delivered a speech that was instantly regarded as one of his finest. Eulogizing the slain Rev. Clementa Pinckney in the College’s TD Arena, Obama touched on themes that included the legacy of racism, gun violence and the historical importance of the black church in the United States. Here are the president’s words, as well as commentary from five College of Charleston professors.
words by Barack Obama
photos by Mike Ledford
Giving all praise and honor to God.
The Bible calls us to hope. To persevere, and have faith in things not seen.
“They were still living by faith when they died,” Scripture tells us. “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on Earth.”
We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith. A man who believed in things not seen. A man who believed there were better days ahead, off in the distance. A man of service who persevered, knowing full well he would not receive all those things he was promised, because he believed his efforts would deliver a better life for those who followed.
To Jennifer, his beloved wife; to Eliana and Malana, his beautiful, wonderful daughters; to the Mother Emanuel family and the people of Charleston, the people of South Carolina.
I cannot claim to have the good fortune to know Reverend Pinckney well. But I did have the pleasure of knowing him and meeting him here in South Carolina, back when we were both a little bit younger. Back when I didn’t have visible gray hair. The first thing I noticed was his graciousness, his smile, his reassuring baritone, his deceptive sense of humor – all qualities that helped him wear so effortlessly a heavy burden of expectation.
Friends of his remarked this week that when Clementa Pinckney entered a room, it was like the future arrived; that even from a young age, folks knew he was special. Anointed. He was the progeny of a long line of the faithful – a family of preachers who spread God’s word, a family of protesters who sowed change to expand voting rights and desegregate the South. Clem heard their instruction, and he did not forsake their teaching.
He was in the pulpit by 13, pastor by 18, public servant by 23. He did not exhibit any of the cockiness of youth, nor youth’s insecurities; instead, he set an example worthy of his position, wise beyond his years, in his speech, in his conduct, in his love, faith, and purity.
As a senator, he represented a sprawling swath of the Lowcountry, a place that has long been one of the most neglected in America. A place still wracked by poverty and inadequate schools; a place where
children can still go hungry and the sick can go without treatment. A place that needed somebody like Clem.
His position in the minority party meant the odds of winning more resources for his constituents were often long. His calls for greater equity were too often unheeded, the votes he cast were sometimes lonely. But he never gave up. He stayed true to his convictions. He would not grow discouraged. After a full day at the Capitol, he’d climb into his car and head to the church to draw sustenance from his family, from his ministry, from the community that loved and needed him. There he would fortify his faith, and imagine what might be.
Reverend Pinckney embodied a politics that was neither mean, nor small. He conducted himself quietly, and kindly, and diligently. He encouraged progress not by pushing his ideas alone, but by seeking out your ideas, partnering with you to make things happen. He was full of empathy and fellow feeling, able to walk in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes. No wonder one of his Senate colleagues remembered Senator Pinckney as “the most gentle of the 46 of us – the best of the 46 of us.”
Clem was often asked why he chose to be a pastor and a public servant. But the person who asked probably didn’t know the history of the A.M.E. church. As our brothers and sisters in the A.M.E. church know, we don’t make those distinctions. “Our calling,” Clem once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation, but … the life and community in which our congregation resides.”
He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the “sweet hour of prayer” actually lasts the whole week long – that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity, but the imperative of a just society.
What a good man. Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized – after all the words and recitations and résumés are read, to just say someone was a good man.
You don’t have to be of high station to be a good man. Preacher by 13. Pastor by 18. Public servant by 23. What a life Clementa Pinckney lived. What an example he set. What a model for his faith. And then to lose him at 41 – slain in his sanctuary with eight wonderful members of his flock, each at different stages in life but bound together by a common commitment to God.
Remembering the Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Like President Barack Obama, I remember the Rev. Clementa Pinckney fondly. Our relationship was mainly but not entirely professional; I worked with him on church and community projects since his arrival in Charleston. Pinckney was also easy to know as a man because he often described his personal life, his family and growing up in Jasper County, S.C., when discussing his twin avocations: the African Methodist Episcopal Church ministry and public service. The A.M.E. Church was established to promote the Gospel, while bearing prophetic witness to the injustices suffered by African Americans in a slaveholding society. The sacred mission of the church continues unabated today, and confronting racial injustice remains a crucial part of its social gospel mission.
Pinckney was perfectly suited to Emanuel A.M.E. Church. First, he was a nurturing and teaching pastor to his congregation. Second, he understood that the church’s mission only began with the congregation. He believed that a pastor and indeed all Christians were called to transform the communities where they lived according to godly standards. These concepts were rooted in biblical principles, in his family traditions and in the history of his church. Pinckney was descended from a line of ministers who were also civil rights leaders. He also reveled in the activist history of his own congregation, whose post–Civil War leader was the Rev. Richard Cain, a state legislator and later a congressman.
Public service was an extension of Pinckney’s ministry. He entered politics to become a state senator, representing a very impoverished area of the South Carolina Lowcountry whose population often falls on the bottom end of important socioeconomic indices. He promoted bills that sought to empower people.
For example, he stood against restrictive voter identification laws and promoted higher wages for hospitality workers, Medicaid extension and a port development project for Jasper County as a source of needed jobs. Most recently he played a pivotal role in passing legislation requiring South Carolina police to use body cameras. The body camera legislation was prompted by the killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed African American, by a white police officer in North Charleston, S.C. Promoting the bill in the State Senate, Pinckney demonstrated why he has been described as the “moral conscience” of the S.C General Assembly. In a speech to his colleagues regarding the killing of Scott, Pinckney extended his sympathies to the family of the victim and also to the family of the alleged perpetrator because, as he said, “the Lord teaches us to love all.”
As President Obama reminds us, we must be inspired to act with that same generosity of spirit.
– Bernard Powers Jr. (history)
Cynthia Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lance. DePayne Middleton-Doctor. Tywanza Sanders. Daniel L. Simmons. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Myra Thompson. Good people. Decent people. God-fearing people. People so full of life and so full of kindness. People who ran the race, who persevered. People of great faith.
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 church is and always has been the center of African American life – a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.
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.
The A.M.E. Church as Sanctuary and Foundation for Activism
President Barack Obama alludes to a long history of the black church when he referred to “hush harbors” and “a sanctuary from so many hardships.” Since the era of slavery, black churches inspired collective resistance in response to attempts to silence black religiosity. More than a sanctuary, black churches, as the president noted, were “community centers where we organize for jobs and justice.” The African Methodist Episcopal Church defined how black churches emerged as spaces of resistance that provided a moral compass during our nation’s problematic past.
The A.M.E. Church was born in protest, affiliating itself with the Free African Society, established in 1787 by Richard Allen, who denounced the discrimination of black parishioners. Pastors of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston provided an ecclesiastical interpretation of “black liberation theology,” which preached a message of justice rooted in Scripture. Denmark Vesey, a free black in Charleston, plotted a rebellion in 1822 based on his interpretations of social justice that stemmed from the sanctuary of A.M.E. When the church was burned in response, the Emanuel A.M.E. Church congregation went underground, particularly after a law was passed in Charleston in 1834 that banned black religious gatherings without the supervision of whites. The church remained open despite ongoing attempts to silence the resistance the A.M.E. Church and other black churches engendered.
The A.M.E. Church emerged from the ashes of the Civil War as a sanctuary and a moral authority for the nation as it attempted to recover from the horrors of slavery. The church was, as Obama noted, a “bunker for the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.” In Charleston, Booker T. Washington addressed the Emanuel A.M.E. congregation in 1909. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in 1962 and Coretta Scott King spoke there in 1969. The clergy who led the A.M.E. Church blazed a path that drew no distinction between religious ministry and political activism. Church leaders served in the state legislature and guided their communities as civic leaders, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Pinckney’s maternal great-grandfather, the Rev. Lorenzo Stevenson, initiated a lawsuit against the state Democratic Party to end segregated primaries. His maternal uncle, the Rev. Levern Stevenson, worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to desegregate school buses and sued the governor to create single-member legislative districts. Pinckney’s call for fair policing, a just economy and educational equity within the legislature exemplified a long tradition of demanding justice for all while also pastoring Emanuel A.M.E. Church.
The history and ongoing struggle of the A.M.E. congregation has deep moral and national implications. As noted by Obama, the church and its commitment to justice was “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.”
– Jon Hale (teacher education)
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.
We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.
Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.
He didn’t know he was being used by God. Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group – the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court – in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.
The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley – how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond – not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life. Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood – the power of God’s grace.
This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals – the one we all know: 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.
According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God – as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.
As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other – but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.
For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens. It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge – including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise – as we all have to 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.
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. It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.
But I don’t think God wants us to stop there. For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.
Do Only Black Deaths Matter?
I was not in Charleston during the massacre. Nor was I here for the march across the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge or the funerals of the nine men and women murdered in their sanctuary just blocks from my office. By the time I returned, the flowers and letters left at Emanuel A.M.E. Church had been cleared away, but on the grounds of the state Capitol in Columbia, S.C., the Confederate flag still flew at full staff, as it had throughout the massacre’s aftermath.
This June was not the first time South Carolinians of all races demanded the removal of the Confederate flag from the state Capitol. And so, when I listened to President Barack Obama’s eulogy, I found myself wondering who he meant by “we” when he said, “For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens.”
For Obama, the removal of the flag was a symbolic recognition that slavery and Jim Crow were wrong, that supporters of both causes used the flag as their emblem, that terrorist attacks on black churches had a deep history in the South. However, for some South Carolina politicians who supported the removal of the flag, their motives, as Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in The Atlantic, stemmed from a “matter of manners” and “politesse.” They signed on to the bill to appease African Americans offended by the flag, but remained blind to the white supremacist roots of the flag, which is to say, they avoided sharing in the embarrassment that in 2015 such a symbol was given official sanction by virtue of its proximity to the Capitol.
To answer Obama’s call to action – his call to not squander God’s grace – local activists organized a rally this summer in Marion Square, which very much resembles the Confederate flag with its rectangular shape and walking paths that stretch from corner to corner and cross at an “X.” The Rev. William J. Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, gave a rousing speech in which he implored why, despite so many previous calls to take down a symbol of white supremacy, it took nine black deaths to finally lower the flag. And if only black deaths mattered rather than black lives, then what did that say about our society and its tolerance for injustice? During his eulogy, the president sang “was blind but now I see,” but Barber’s question tugs at my conscience. Why does it take so many deaths to see, to appeal to the nation’s conscience?
And have Americans truly seen if some continue to deny that the central issue of the Civil War was slavery? Have Americans truly seen if most turn a blind eye to the racial injustices that linger, the very injustices Clementa Pinckney, the slain state senator and leader of Emanuel A.M.E. Church, worked tirelessly to combat? Or, is the majority of this nation still blind?
– Mari N. Crabtree (African American studies)
Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate. Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system – and leads us to make sure that that system is not infected with bias; that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure.
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. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote. By recognizing our common humanity by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born, and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American – by doing that, we express God’s grace.
For too long – for too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. Sporadically, our eyes are open: When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 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 – the survivors crippled, the children traumatized and fearful every day as they walk to school, the husband who will never feel his wife’s warm touch, the entire communities whose grief overflows every time they have to watch what happened to them happen to some other place.
The vast majority of Americans – the majority of gun owners – want to do something about this. We see that now. And I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions and ways of life that make up this beloved country – by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.
Confronting Criminal Injustice
In his eulogy, President Barack Obama implores us to look closely at how “past injustices continue to shape the present.” America’s criminal justice system offers one setting for doing so.
Injustices appear early in the lives of American schoolchildren, where black children are more likely than their white counterparts to be expelled and suspended for misbehavior. This is the origin of a “school-to-prison pipeline” that extends beyond the schoolyard and into adulthood.
African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately represented among America’s poor and thus live in neighborhoods characterized by highly concentrated poverty, few economic opportunities, disadvantaged schools and high crime rates. As a result, black and Latino communities are subject to higher levels of police surveillance. New York City’s “stop and frisk” policing strategy illustrates this well. Between 2002 and 2013, New York City police officers made more than five million “stops,” a quarter of which were of young black men even though young black men constitute less than 2 percent of New York City’s population. Nearly 90 percent of all people stopped in this program were not in possession of any illegal guns or drugs.
Being black or Latino not only increases the likelihood of being arrested, but also puts offenders at a disadvantage when prosecutors decide who should be indicted, who is offered a plea bargain and the length of recommended sentences. Further, black defendants in capital cases are nearly twice as likely as white defendants to receive a death sentence. Similarly, defendants whose victims are white are four times more likely to receive a death sentence than are cases involving black victims. Finally, while constituting only 30 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans and Latinos make up 57 percent of the population in state and federal prisons. Once released from prison, these men and women of color are disproportionately affected by policies that limit former inmates’ access to employment, housing, voting and education.
These are contemporary examples that reflect a long history of American “justice” – both formal and informal (e.g., lynchings) – that has targeted people of color, especially African Americans in the Jim Crow South. Yet, this reality for people of color is obscured and denied by a culture that embraces the myth that America has become a post-racial society. The “Black Lives Matter” movement emerged in rejection of the post-racial narrative by shedding light on the devaluation of black and brown bodies at all levels of America’s legal system.
Fortunately, the tide might be turning. Politicians, activists and faith groups are working to end the discrimination that women and men of color experience in the criminal justice system. Until these institutionalized mechanisms of racialized social control are dismantled, it is dishonest to chant “All Lives Matter,” which perpetuates the fiction that race is irrelevant in how justice is practiced in America. To deny the relevance of race is a disservice to the nine parishioners who died at Emanuel A.M.E. Church.
– Heath Hoffmann (sociology and anthropology)
We don’t earn grace. We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway. And we choose how to receive it. It’s our decision how to honor it.
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. None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy. It will not. People of goodwill will continue to debate the merits of various policies, as our democracy requires – this is a big, raucous place, America is. And there are good people on both sides of these debates. Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete.
But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again. Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual – that’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society. To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change – that’s how we lose our way again.
It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits, whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism.
Reverend 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.” What is true in the South is true for America. 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 – how to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world. He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind – but, more importantly, an open heart.
That’s what I’ve felt this week – an open heart. That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think – what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do for each other in the ordinary cause of things.”
That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace. Amazing grace.
Amazing grace [singing] – 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.
A Speech for the Ages
Grace was the theme of President Barack Obama’s eulogy for State Sen. Clementa Pinckney. The power of grace was the speech’s message for our age and all ages.
Thanks to television and the Internet, contemporary political speeches are rarely unified by a single theme. The expectation that speeches will be heard only as fragments, replayed in 10-second excerpts, discourages the speech that builds to a larger conclusion. For today’s politicians, the only story that matters is the one that will be told in the briefest of moments on CNN.
In Charleston, on a hot day in June, Obama’s eulogy of Pinckney was a reminder of an earlier age of political eloquence, only occasionally glimpsed in recent decades.
The speech made good use of the ancient devices of the orator. To give a few examples, the president uses prosopopoeia, giving his own words more weight and consequence because of their attribution to Pinckney. Obama also uses epistrophe in the speech’s closing, repeating “found that grace” after naming each of the nine victims.
Moreover, the speech may eventually be famous in large part because a president burst into song, using “Amazing Grace” to signal the eulogy’s conclusion. This choice is unusual for a serious political speech, though hymnody has been more common for African American orators, from Sojourner Truth to the present.
But “Amazing Grace” at this moment is much more than a familiar hymn, easily appropriated for what was, after all, a religious service.
The eulogy’s 35 references to grace, especially in its closing passages, emphasize the unity of its three dimensions: Admiration for Pinckney and all those murdered by the stranger they welcomed. Praise for the spirit of healing and forgiveness found at Emanuel A.M.E. Church and in Charleston. Calls for changes in public policy.
Having received a divine grace, the victims showed grace to others. With the hope of instigating violence, a racist thug succeeded only in showing the nation and the world an example of transcendent grace. And this grace must inspire a more perfect union, where grace will be manifested in both word and deed.
“Amazing Grace” was not merely a famous hymn borrowed for rhetorical effect, but the admiring summary of lives well lived, a city in which love conquered fear, an America in which the better angels of our nature will and must prevail.
– Brian McGee (communication)