Earlier this month, America’s heart broke wide open when we learned that nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina were slaughtered during Wednesday night Bible study.
The outpouring of love and support for Mother Emanuel, and subsequent outrage over the racist symbols of the bad old South that led Dylann Roof to target the faithful of the city’s most historic Black church, was immediate. #TakeDownTheFlag became the rallying cry and governors in Alabama, Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, and finally South Carolina agreed with those calling for the Confederate battle flag to be removed.
Against this backdrop, and a yearlong declaration that Black lives matter, and the burning of several Black churches since the Charleston massacre, President Obama stepped into the College of Charleston auditorium to eulogize South Carolina state Senator Clementa Pinckney and offer comfort to a country that is still reeling from the attack on one of America’s sacred spaces.
President Obama’s remarks began like so many others. As the “consoler-in-chief” he’s been called on several times to make sense of a senseless tragedy. This time, he spoke of Senator Pinckney’s life, achievements, and commitment to public service.
“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,” President Obama said.
He went on to talk about Sen. Pinckney’s graciousness, smile, and “deceptive sense of humor” before offering comfort to Sen. Pinckney’s widow, Jennifer, and his young daughters Eliana and Malana.
Then, President Obama made a turn. Instead of talking about generic political issues or prompting Black folks to forgive those who have once again done us harm, the president launched into a speech that was so Black, bold, and beautiful, that it made us all take notice.
In his eulogy for Sen. Pickney, the president talked about the insidiousness of systematic racism, the negative meaning of the Confederate flag, and the role of Black churches have played in affirming Black lives.
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 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 harms way and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter.
To date, President Obama has yet to say, “Black lives matter,” but Friday he came close, situating himself in the deep tradition of the Black church, which for hundreds of years was both our planning ground for revolution and safe harbor for encouragement.
With his speech, understanding of history, and eventually his song, President Obama let America know he was indeed a Black man who knows his country is far from perfect, and far from equal for those who look like him.
In the past, the president has relied on respectability politics and Booker T. Washington’s bootstrap philosophy to goad Black folks to into rising above the immense systematic challenges we face. Thankfully, this time he decided to make it plain, and say what we wanted and needed to hear: the playing field in America is still not equal.
“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,” he said, talking about the stain of slavery.
“Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” the president continued, and instead of merely talking about the Charleston victims being “in a better place,” President Obama argued ending racism, injustice, and inequality was not only right, but also godly.
God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind,” he said. “For too long, we’ve been blind to be 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. 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 lead us to make sure that that system’s 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 a 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.
By equating the fight for equality for Black folks with the will of God, the president echoed the words of a long list of Black preachers and civil rights leaders from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Emanuel AME founder, Denmark Vesey, to Fannie Lou Hamer. He also signaled to the outside world that the fight for justice isn’t just for Black folks to take on, but for everyone, everywhere.
Since taking office, President Obama’s relationship to Black America has been fraught with contradictions. Though he is the first Black man to be president of the United States, his upbringing and silence on issues relating to Black folk have caused many to question his blackness. Whether intentional or not, President Obama’s eulogy for Sen. Pinckney was an overture to Black Americans that he not only hears us and understands, but he’s also with us in this fight.