President Obama challenged the nation Friday to face up to its legacy of racial discrimination, insisting that it would betray the memory of the victims of the black church massacre here to “allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence once again.”
In a moving address in which he frequently slipped into the cadences of a pastor and even led the predominantly black audience in a rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Obama returned repeatedly to the themes of race and religion. He praised the grace shown by the victims’ families and hailed South Carolina’s quick action to remove the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol grounds in response to the racially motivated killings, but said, “I don’t think God wants us to stop there.”
Obama said the shocking nature of the killing of nine worshipers, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emanuel AME church and a state senator who was an early supporter of Obama’s 2008 presidential bid, required that Americans not “settle for symbolic gestures” and follow up “with the hard work of more lasting change.”
“For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present,” he said. “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.”
At times in his more than six years in office, Obama has seemed to struggle with the expectations that came with being the nation’s first black president, particularly in speaking about race. References to his faith have also been sparing, a consequence in part of the political challenge that his affiliation with a combative black pastor posed during his first presidential campaign.
He embraced both on Friday. A draft of his remarks prepared for the president's review Thursday night was returned to aides the next morning with significant revisions and additions, made by the president on a yellow legal pad to incorporate his own reflections.
He called for reforms to the criminal justice system and policing tactics as well as an examination of how bias “can infect us even when we don't realize it,” from the overt use of racial slurs to “the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.”
The grace shown by the families of the nine victims toward the suspect in the massacre, Dylann Roof, was an example for others to emulate, Obama said. Grace is not earned but given to us by God, he said, citing Scripture. “It is up to us now to make the most of it,” he said.
“None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight,” he said. “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. We don't need more talk.”
Thousands lined the sweltering streets of historic downtown Charleston hoping to claim a seat for Obama’s eulogy during Pinckney’s funeral at the TD Arena, just blocks from the Emanuel church. “This is the true meaning of integration,” said Lee Kaplan, 70, a retired white psychoanalyst, as she stood with her husband looking at the crowd that stretched more than six city blocks.
As the ceremony began, two 20-somethings – a white woman and a black man – huddled together near a monument to secessionist John C. Calhoun in Marion Square, listening to speeches from the arena on an iPhone.
The audience inside included Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and about 40 members of Congress, including House Speaker John A. Boehner, who for the first time joined Obama on Air Force One to travel here. Many in their Sunday dress, they joined in what was for much of the day a celebratory atmosphere, full of joyful hymns and solemn prayers, during the “home-going celebration” for Pinckney that preceded Obama’s arrival.
To cries of “Amen,” the Rev. John Richard Bryant, the senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, said that many wondered why “they have not viewed more anger and bitterness and hatred as a result of the blow we’ve taken.”
“Our secret is in our Lord,” he said. “Someone should have told the young man: He wanted to start a race war. But he came to the wrong place.”
Obama likewise praised how the community responded to a killer hoping to create “divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.”
“Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” he said.
Obama praised Republican Gov. Nikki Haley for her leadership in calling for the permanent removal of the Confederate flag, which was quickly joined by a host of other prominent Republicans. That flag, Obama said, “has always represented more than just ancestral pride,” and to many was a reminder of systemic oppression. Its removal did not dishonor Confederate soldiers, he said, but “the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.”
The idea of change, even if in small increments over time, has been a focus of Obama's in recent weeks. Commenting on the shooting in a recent interview, the president said discrimination is “still part of our DNA that’s passed on,” and that while race relations have improved “significantly,” there are still concrete steps to be taken to continue that progress.
Obama spoke in Charleston hours after marking at the White House the Supreme Court’s decision lifting another discriminatory barrier, laws that continued to bar same-sex marriages in dozens of states.
Here, he also renewed his call for strengthening gun laws, saying that for every attention-grabbing mass shooting like in Charleston or the one that killed schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., there are hundreds killed each day by firearms.
But even as the audience hung on his words, the emotion in the arena was palpable when Obama returned to his speech’s theme of grace by singing that most familiar church hymn. One pastor later thanked the “Reverend President.”
After singing, Obama listed the nine victims by name, followed by a full-throated pronouncement that each had “found that grace.”
“Through the example of their lives, they’ve now passed it on to us,” he said, then offered a brief prayer: “May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift.”
Special correspondent Jenny Jarvie contributed to this report. For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli