President Barack Obama sang a hymn of hope and spoke with the fervor of a preacher as he eulogized a pastor and eight parishioners gunned down at a historic black church in an apparent hate crime — and he minced no words in calling for an end to racial injustice and gun violence in the United States.
In his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Obama suddenly began singing “Amazing Grace,” quickly joined by ministers and some of the thousands who packed into the arena at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
The nation’s first black president called for gun control and efforts to eliminate poverty and job discrimination, and said the Confederate battle flag — long a symbol of Southern pride — must be removed from places of honor.
“For many — black and white — that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now,” he said.
The president came to eulogize the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, a church founded by the leader of a failed slave revolt and burned to the ground by angry whites in 1822. After the Civil War, the church led efforts to expand equal rights in the South, hosting Martin Luther King Jr. during campaigns in South Carolina.
The church will be the site of two more funerals for three other victims on Saturday.
“We do not know whether the killer of Rev. Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history,” the president said. “But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arsons 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 incrimination, violence and suspicion. An act he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin,” Obama continued, his voice rising in the cadence of the preachers who preceded him.
“Oh, but God works in mysterious ways!” Obama said, and the crowd rose to give him a standing ovation. “God has different ideas!”
Obama spoke plainly about the ugliness of America’s racial history — from slavery to the many ways minorities have been deprived of equal rights in more recent times. Taking down the Confederate flag is a righteous step, “but God doesn’t want us to stop there,” he said.
Americans should want to fight poverty with as much effort as they fight hate, and realize that hate isn’t always obvious, he said, “so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview, but not Jamal.”
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