On June 26, 2015, the president came to the College. Arriving in Charleston nine days after the tragedy at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in downtown Charleston, 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.

Following the speech, five faculty members reflected on the president’s words. Below are their thoughts, as first published in the Fall 2015 issue of the College of Charleston Magazine.

Bernard Powers Jr., College of Charleston

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.

[pullquote align=”right”]The Rev. Clementa 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.[/pullquote]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)

Jon Hale, College of Charleston

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.

[pullquote align=”right”]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. [/pullquote]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)

Mari Crabtree, College of Charleston

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.

[pullquote align=”right”]Why does it take so many deaths to see, to appeal to the nation’s conscience?[/pullquote]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)

Heath Hoffmann, College of Charleston

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.

[pullquote align=”right”]To deny the relevance of race is a disservice to the nine parishioners who died at Emanuel A.M.E. Church.[/pullquote]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)

Brian McGee, College of Charleston

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.

[pullquote align=”right”]“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.[/pullquote]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 (communications)