CHARLESTON: An impassioned President Barack Obama led thousands of mourners in singing “Amazing Grace” on Friday at the funeral of a slain pastor in Charleston and urged Americans to eliminate symbols of oppression and racism, including the Confederate battle flag.
In a speech likely to be considered one of the most memorable of his presidency, Obama paid an emotional tribute to the nine people shot to death at the church and pleaded for Americans to use the tragedy as a way to bridge racial divide.
The shootings last week sparked an intense dialogue over the legacy of slavery and its symbols after photos of the white man charged in the shooting surfaced showing him posing with the Confederate flag on a website that also displayed a racist manifesto.
Politicians and businesses quickly scrambled to distance themselves from the Civil War-era battle flag of the Confederacy amid calls for the flag to be lowered from the grounds of South Carolina’s State House.
Obama called the flag “a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.”
“For too long we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens,” Obama said in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, 41, of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church.
At the end of his speech, Obama launched into a rendition of the 18th century hymn, written by a former slave trader after his conversion to Christianity and often associated with African-American struggles. It was a poignant scene for America’s first black president who has often been reluctant to play up his racial heritage.
For a moment, he was alone on stage intoning the hymn before purple-clad ministers beside him smiled, stood up and joined him. Then a church organ kicked in and the mostly African-American crowd of about 5,500 people added their voices.
After the hymn, Obama called out the names of the Charleston shooting victims into the microphone. The crowd responded “Yes,” to every name. The cadence of his speech was more like that of a sermon than an address.
Obama made frequent reference to God’s grace and the failure of the Charleston alleged killer Dylann Roof, 21, to sow bitterness, as witnessed by the forgiveness shown by the victims’ families.
“It was a powerful, powerful speech,” said David Rivers, 68, a health professor who was in the crowd. “He had a little reverend in him too. Sounded like Reverend Obama,” he added.