President Obama delivered a passionate, at-times musical eulogy on Friday for Clementa Pinckney, the reverend and South Carolina state lawmaker who was slain along with eight others after a gunman opened fire at a church in Charleston earlier this month.
In his remarks, which were punctuated by impromptu interjections from the organist and the audience members, the president threw his support behind the recent push to remove the Confederate Flag from public spaces. He urged his audience to continue the fight for civil rights, education, and criminal justice reform. He scolded the political system for turning a blind eye "to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation."
Throughout the speech, he returned again and again to the meaning of grace, noting the unity and the forgiveness that improbably followed a tragic massacre at Emanuel AME, one of the most historic black churches in the country.
It was Pinckney who embodied that grace, the president said, recalling the first time he met the reverend.
"The first thing I noticed was his graciousness - his smile, his reassuring baritone, his deceptive sense of humor," he said. "Reverend Pinckney embodied a politics that was neither mean nor small. He conducted himself quietly and kindly and diligently."
"Preacher by 13, pastor by 18, public servant by 23," the president observed. "What a life Clementa Pinckney lived. What an example he set. What a model for his faith. And then, to lose him at 41, slain in his sanctuary with eight wonderful members of his flock, each at different stages in life but bound together by a common commitment to God."
The president recited the names of the fallen - "Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman Singleton, Myra Thompson -- Good people. Decent people. God-fearing people "
"To the families of the fallen: the nation shares in your grief," he said.
The alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, reportedly carried out the massacre in an attempt to incite racial hatred. But the president said Friday that he succeeded in doing the exact opposite.
"God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas," the president said. "Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Rev. Pinckney and that Bible study group -- the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle."
"The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court in the midst of unspeakable grief with words of forgiveness," the president said. "The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston...how the United States of America would respond, not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big hearted generosity and more importantly with a thoughtful introspection, a self-examination that we so rarely see in public life."
"As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us," the president continued. "We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor, complacency, shortsightedness and fear of each other. But we got it all the same. It is up to us now to make the most of it -- to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift."
The president commended South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who declared this week that "the time has come" for the flag on South Carolina's state capitol grounds to be retired to a museum.
"The flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride," the president said, turning aside the argument advanced by some who would like the flag to stay put. "For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression. And racial subjugation. We see that now. Removing the flag from this state's capitol would not be an act of political correctness; 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."
"By taking down that flag, we express God's grace," the president said. "But I don't think God wants us to stop there."
He urged Americans to examine "how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty" and consider "what we're doing to cause some of our children to hate." He pushed policymakers to ensure the criminal justice system isn't "infected with bias." And he stressed the need to examine the subconscious prejudice that can infect even those with good intentions, "So that we're guarding against not just racial slurs, but we're also guarding against the sudden impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview, but not Jamal."
In perhaps the most politically contentious portion of his speech, the president lamented the fact that debates on gun violence seem only to come in the wake of tragedy.
"Sporadically, our eyes are opened, when eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theatre, 26 in an elementary school," the president said. "But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day."
"The vast majority of Americans, the majority of gun owners, want to do something about this," he added. "We see that now. And I'm convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others -- even as we respect the tradition and ways of life that make up this beloved country -- by making the moral choice to change, we express God's grace."
And the president took square aim at the calls for a "conversation" about race in America that often arrive in the wake of tragedy and controversy.
"We talk a lot about race," he said. "There's no short cut. We don't need more talk."
"None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight. None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy," he said. "It will not. People of good will continue to debate the merits of various policies, as our democracy requires. But it would be a betrayal of everything Rev. Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again."
As his remarks stretched toward their conclusion, the president began singing Amazing Grace, which he described earlier as one of his favorite hymnals. After a few lines, the audience joined in.
The victims of the massacre at Mother Emanuel, Mr. Obama said, "found that grace."
"Through the example of their lives, they now pass it on to us," he said. "May we find ourselves worthy of that precious, extraordinary gift."
Much of South Carolina's political class attended the eulogy, along with congressional leaders in both parties. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner in the 2016 presidential race, was also in the audience.