“This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals — the one we all know: ‘Amazing grace/how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me/I once was lost, but now I’m found/ was blind but now I see.’” – President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama was born for the pulpit.
The president wasn’t trained as an ordained minister, he didn’t attend a theological seminary, but he’s searched his soul over the past seven years in the White House and he’s found, I believe, a spiritual calling to speak out about race with passion and purpose at a time when America still struggles with racism, a deep cultural divide, and the fresh pain from an assassin’s racial rampage.
In Charleston, South Carolina, last week, while delivering a powerful eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered inside his church by white supremacist Dylann Roof, Obama delivered a commanding, unapologetic sermon as the nation’s first African-American president where he became part civil rights activist, part spiritual leader, and part racial healer.
Perhaps in his seven-year evolution as Commander-in-Chief, Obama views his presidency as a God-driven ministerial calling to encourage Americans to confront longstanding racial inequities and injustices in our society.
I’ve listened to pundits who claim the president is now unencumbered to discuss race and how he has been miraculously transformed. That, in part, is true but the reality is this: Obama is a Black man who knows racism first-hand. He has lived it, experienced it, and he’s felt the sting of discrimination.
The president no longer talks about race from a detached, intellectual viewpoint, he reflects on racial injustice by tapping into a deep well of emotion and from the perspective of a Black man who has risen to President of the United States despite the racism that still permeates the corridors of power in this country.
Perhaps the president is now more comfortable speaking freely about race since he’ll be leaving office next year, but,at every opportunity he’s rallying the nation around the prickly subject of race and it’s now become an important part of his legacy.
Last week in Charleston, Obama preached about racism and religion in an extraordinary way that America has not seen from him before or from any American president. In fact, one senior pastor from Emanuel AME Church affectionately referred to Obama as “Rev. President.” Obama didn’t offer a lecture – he delivered a moving sermon with the fire-and-brimstone cadence of a Black ordained minister.
“For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens,” Obama told about 6,000 people who packed into TD Arena at the College Of Charleston for the service.
“It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders,” the president added. “But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge — including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise — we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, Black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.”
America is at a racial crossroads and Obama has decided, correctly, to speak his truth with conviction.
“Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, 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 to thunderous applause.
But Obama pushed the envelope further. No president in recent memory has tackled publicly the thorny subject of removing the Confederate flag from state capitols across the country, but Obama faced the flag issue head-on and talked about its racist symbolism. Roof was driving a car with a symbol of the Confederate flag on the license plate before he murdered nine black parishioners during a prayer service inside the church.
“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,” Obama said. “It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.”
The president clearly has a God-given purpose. He even felt compelled to break into an acapella rendition of “Amazing Grace” that brought everyone to their feet.
“None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight,” Obama said. “Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race. There’s no shortcut. And we don’t need more talk.”
A day before his eulogy, Obama returned a draft of his remarks to White House aides with many revisions and reflections which he scribbled on a yellow legal pad to include his own thoughts and views about race and religion.
It was a profound, soul-stirring message I suspect was as much for America as it was for the president himself.