Obama's Eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney is More Than Just "Amazing Grace"

July 12th 2015

Emma Bracy

On Friday, June 26, President Obama delivered a eulogy for South Carolina state senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney-- one of nine congregants from Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church slain by a white supremacist on July 17 in a racially motivated attack. Standing before nearly 6,000 mourners, the President called for healing and progress. He asked the nation to reflect honestly on race relations (as he did just that himself). And yes, he sang "Amazing Grace."

In the time since the eulogy, there has been a lot of focus on the song. Just this week there was an entire column in the New York Times devoted to when the president decided to sing. Most highlighting the gospel interlude praised Obama for his performance. But the singing -- and it was only the opening refrain, Obama did not lead a choir in full song-- came after 35 minutes of powerful speaking; and it is the content of Obama’s eulogy that made it so powerful, not simply the fact that he sang. Its strength came from Obama's honest and emotional delivery, the content of the eulogy -- touching on issues of race and history, gun violence, and of course the loss of Rev. Pinckney -- and himself.

The president began his speech by celebrating the life of Reverend Pinckney, recalling the graciousness, smile, reassuring baritone, and deceptive sense of humor of someone “wise beyond his years.”

Obama made sure to point out that as senator, Rev. Pinckney was dedicated to serving the Lowcountry -- an area along South Carolina’s coast “still wracked by poverty and inadequate schools; a place where children can still go hungry and the sick can go without treatment.” In highlighting this, Obama not only added dimension to the narrative of a great man’s life, but called attention to “a place that has long been one of the most neglected in America.”

He spoke about the region Reverend Pinckney served with openness and honesty-- qualities that would elevate the rest of his speaking engagement. Like when he called slavery our nation’s “original sin.” He reflected on the importance of the black church, saying it “is and always has been the center of African-American life.” To understand the historical and cultural significance here, we must know it first. Obama strove to bring this significance to light:

"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.”

Obama highlighted the church’s significance so that all Americans might be able to understand the specific context of this particular attack.

The president also used the history of the church to subtly combat notions that the attack was an isolated incident. He never explicitly called the killer a terrorist, but said of his crime, “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.” If you read between the lines of this politically prudent language, Obama is saying something very telling.

Unapologetically identifying the confederate flag as something which has “always represented more than just ancestral pride,” Obama said that to take it down would be “one step in an honest accounting of America’s history.” Then he used the call to remove the flag as a launch pad into so many other calls to action that would help move our nation along the path towards equality. After all, “one step” implies that we have many more to go.

Perhaps most poignant, Obama urged us all not to fall into a familiar trap: “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.”

Hopefully, this time, we won’t.

Drawing on his oratorical gifts and intellectual capacity, weaving together his knowledge of scripture and history, Obama tried to contextualize what happened on that fateful day at Emanuel AME. He simultaneously connected us to our past and called on what we must do to ensure a better future. In doing so, he delivered a deeply personal and deeply passionate address on the complexities of race relations in America, and showed us all a different side of himself.

As America’s first Black president, the way Obama talks about race is, and always has been, bound by his position. Obama has struggled; sometimes he seems unable to reconcile being the president and being Black. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written about this more than once, and the thoughtful analyses are worth reading. But I believe the eulogy was more than perfunctory; more than performance -- of Blackness, or otherwise. I believe Obama tried, earnestly, to stand before those gathered as both the president and a Black man. The two should identities should not be mutually exclusive, but let’s not pretend that Obama’s strict conservatism -- and for most of his presidency near silence -- on matters of race weren’t born out of being the first Black president of nation where Black people still struggle to find equal footing.

As Coates has written, “part of that conservatism [...] has been reflected in his reticence: for most of his term in office, Obama has declined to talk about the ways in which race complicates the American present and, in particular, his own presidency.” On June 26, however, Obama made a different choice. In delivering Reverend Pinckney’s eulogy, he also delivered some of himself.