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Obama praises grasp of grace by S.C. pastor

Church leader was dedicated to racial justice

 US President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy for South Carolina state senator and Rev. Clementa Pinckney Friday.
US President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy for South Carolina state senator and Rev. Clementa Pinckney Friday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

President Obama delivered the eulogy for state Senator Clementa Pinckney.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — In one of his most impassioned reflections on race, President Obama eulogized the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney on Friday by calling on the nation to emulate the grace that he showed in his work and that the people of South Carolina displayed after nine worshipers were massacred at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Before nearly 6,000 mourners and a worldwide television audience, Obama, who met Pinckney during his first presidential campaign, placed the shootings in the context of America’s long history of violence on African-Americans.

He also reiterated his plea to restrict the availability of firearms and called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the State House in Columbia.

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Obama thrilled the mostly African-American audience by preaching with revivalist cadences, and by closing his 40-minute address by singing, solo, the opening refrain of “Amazing Grace.” The crowd came to its feet and joined in, leading the Rev. Norvel Goff, a presiding elder in the AME church, to later “thank the Reverend President.”

“Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it,’’ Obama said as Pinckney’s coffin, draped in red roses, was before him.

“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,’’ he said. “So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote.’’

By treating every child as important regardless of skin color and by opening up opportunities for all Americans, Obama said, “We express God’s grace.’‘

As the nation’s first African-American president, Obama has often struggled to find the proper balance of timing, words and place to speak about America’s racial divisions. Intent on being seen as a president for all and confronted with what he saw as the more urgent economic crisis, he approached racially charged disputes cautiously in his first term.

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But politically unfettered after his reelection, and angered by the racially motivated killings in Charleston and the deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers, the president dispensed with his usual reticence, rediscovered the soaring rhetoric that inspired his supporters in 2008, and spoke with unusual and occasionally acerbic directness.

“For too long,” Obama said, “we’ve been blind to the 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.”

As he spoke, Obama was backed by African Methodist Episcopal preachers, in purple vestments, and a gospel choir.

Obama joined with others in emphasizing that the 21-year-old white man charged with the killings had failed to achieve his stated goal of inciting racial conflagration. Rather, he said, the killings had the opposite effect, generating an unprecedented show of racial unity and inspiring a nationwide revolt against Confederate symbols.

“It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches,” he said, “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.”

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He paused for effect. “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” Obama said. “God has different ideas. He didn’t know he was being used by God.” The crowd erupted in applause .

Obama commended South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki R. Haley, for her call this week to bring down the Confederate flag in Columbia, saying it would be “a meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”

“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness,” Obama said. “It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.”

The service lasted more than four hours as speaker after speaker, first legislators, then church leaders, then cousins and friends, and finally the president, paid homage to Pinckney, who was both a respected state senator and a pastor in the most prestigious AME pulpit in South Carolina.

TD Arena, just steps from the historic whitewashed church where the killings took place June 17, was packed.

An estimated 5,000 people were turned away. Members of Emanuel, where Pinckney was pastor for five years, were given prime seating on the floor.

Some speakers addressed the nature of his death and its remarkable political aftermath.

“Someone should have told the young man,” said the Right Rev. John Richard Bryant, referring to the accused killer, Dylann Roof. “He wanted to start a race war but he came to the wrong place.”

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The audience rose in a thunderous ovation, punctuated by an organist’s exclamations. A sign near the stage declared: “Wrong church! Wrong people! Wrong day!”


President Barack Obama sang the first words of ‘‘Amazing Grace’’ at the funeral.


Associated Press Writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report. Collins contributed from Columbia, S.C.