Inside Obama’s ‘Amazing Grace’ Moment
In his speech commemorating Reverend Pinckney, President Obama reminded us yet again why we elected him.
Before the first line of “Amazing Grace” had left the President’s tongue—while he was still gathering his voice, and moving into the song—in that Charleston auditorium, we were already rising to greet him.We rose because this was the man we had elected, and for times like this. Standing ten feet above the coffin of a murdered senator and preacher, two blocks from the violated church house where he was slain, surrounded by more meaning and history than even that massive building could hold—this was the only man who stood a chance of responding to the national need.We rose because he understood. He understood the pain of Jennifer, Eliana, and Malana Pinckney. Our president was clearly shaken before taking the pulpit, face drawn, eyes red, having greeted the Pinckney family privately backstage. I’m sure he was grappling with the truth of those two beautiful little girls, what it will mean for daughters to grow up without their father. He was thumbing through the funeral program booklet and surely read Jennifer’s pleading letter—“I feel robbed, cheated, and cut short...but I am thankful for one consolation, that your life was not in vain.” He was affected as we were affected; he honored that family, and understood.We rose because President Obama left all politics, and expedience, behind. Yes, we know, whenever the President talks about race, a large percentage of our country finds it “divisive.” Yes, we know there are so many streams of policy and history running concurrently this week—from gay marriage to health care to trade—that the President might have been excused for offering simple words of memoriam, and moving on.But he didn’t duck, dodge, or move on. Leaning forward in the pulpit, steadying himself on a podium draped in the bright purple colors of the A.M.E. Church, Barack Obama spoke the unvarnished truth, regardless of how it would be spun. He called on the country to ask tough questions that Rev. Pinckney’s killer had begun to reveal: why some men languish in the criminal justice system and others do not; why some children grow up learning to love, and others disposed to hate; why some schools are unequal to others; why, driven by implicit bias, some men named Jamal have more difficult times finding jobs than men name John.He said that “history can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress. It must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, how to break the cycle, a roadway toward a better world.” He knew this speech would be consumed, heard and acted upon by people across the country. So he said what needed to be said.We also rose because Obama had given the country a window into something black folks have known and felt deep down in our bones: the power of grace. He opened up the doors of our church and let folks peak inside. He showed the world that this grace—unmerited, undeserving, given freely and flowing from God—is not some passive quantity, the response of a defeated people. Rather, it is a potent, courageous, and healing response to a broken and fallen world. From slave ships to cotton fields to the Underground Railroad to the streets of Mississippi and Alabama to today—we have been specializers in active, lived, powerful grace. Amazing grace. President Obama understood that—so we rose.Finally, we rose because, in that moment, just as we needed him, he needed us. The man was clearly exhausted, seeking to buttress a family far more exhausted than even he. So before he could fall, we allowed our spirits and voices to mingle with his, and we rose, and sang “Amazing Grace.”Friday was a singular day in our history. A president who rose to the occasion. Families of the fallen, and a hurting people, who rose with him. We now pray that the country will rise to this moment as well.Preach on, Mr. President. Preach on.