President Obama on Friday delivered an impassioned call for America to confront gun violence and racism during his eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine victims of a massacre at an African-American church.
In a personal address that touched on a number of social policies, Obama concluded with the cadence of a preacher — and surprised the 5,500 mourners at TD Arena in Charleston, S.C., by breaking into song, leading the congregation in a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
After Obama finished, clergymen in the arena called him “Reverend Obama.”
The president memorialized each of the nine victims of the shooting but also called the incident a wake-up call for the nation to address not only gun violence, but racial inequality and a broken criminal justice system.
He called Pinckney, a personal friend and supporter of Obama’s, a “good man” who “lived by faith” and believed that actions, and not just words, were needed to better his community.
“It would be a betrayal to everything Rev. Pinckney stood for if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again,” Obama told the crowd of mourners.
“To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change, that’s how we lose our way again,” he added.
The president also waded into the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag, calling it a symbol of “systemic oppression and racial subjugation.”
“For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens,” Obama said. “By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.”
Obama praised South Carolina’s Republican leaders for seeking to remove the flag from state grounds, but said there was much more that needs to be done to heal the nation’s racial wounds.
He called on Americans to recognize racial prejudices in their everyday lives, not just overt expressions of racial hatred.
“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,” Obama said.
With nearly 50 members of Congress, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), looking on, Obama reiterated his call for stricter gun laws, saying the nation has “been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation.”
“Sporadically, our eyes are open,” during mass killings, Obama said, listing mass shootings in Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; and Charleston. “But I hope we also see that 30 precious lives are cut short by gun violence every single day.”
Friday’s funeral service marked the seventh time in his presidency Obama has traveled to a community shaken by gun violence.
People stood for hours in long lines to get into the arena. Obama, who traveled to Charleston along with first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden, and Dr. Jill Biden, was scheduled to meet with the families of victims and survivors of the shooting.
Obama said Charleston had risen above the motives of the accused shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year old white man who allegedly told police he intended to start a race war.
“It was 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,” Obama said.
“Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” he added. “God has different ideas. He didn’t know he was being used by God.”
The speech capped a pivotal week for Obama’s presidency. The White House was triumphant in celebrating a major victory in Congress on trade and two Supreme Court decisions that upheld the president’s healthcare law and legalized same-sex marriage across the country.
The mood was different earlier on Friday, when Obama stood in the Rose Garden and declared that justice had arrived “like a thunderbolt” for same-sex couples.
“Today, we can say in no uncertain terms that we have made our union a little more perfect,” Obama said.
“It’s been a significant morning, it’s been a significant couple of days, and it’s certainly been a significant month for not only the president and the administration, but for the country,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters aboard Air Force One.
But the elation was tempered by the tragedy in South Carolina. Obama acknowledged the slow progress when it comes to guns and race, but called the tragedy in Charleston an opportunity to push for broader change.
“We don’t earn grace. We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it,” the president said. “But God gives it to us anyway. And we choose how to receive it. It’s our decision how to honor it.”