CHARLESTON, S.C. — President Barack Obama, invoking scripture and song, stood Friday before those grieving the deaths of nine black people slain in church and called on Americans to confront the “uncomfortable truths” of the racial prejudices that still infect American society.
Eulogizing the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Obama said it would be a betrayal of everything the pastor stood for “if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on.”
He pleaded with Americans not “to go back to business as usual.”
Obama, in his 40-minute address, spoke of all that Pinckney had done in his life, then confronted the hard questions raised by his death and the deaths of eight others slain by a white man.
He said it was time to remove the Confederate flag from American flagpoles, saying that action would “not be an insult to the valour of Confederate soldiers” who fought for the rebel South in the Civil War, but an acknowledgement that “the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong,” as were the imposition of discriminatory laws and further resistance to civil rights efforts.
Removing the flag, he said, “would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”
Obama also urged Americans to acknowledge the more subtle ways that racism pervades society, expressing hope that the tragedy might prompt to people to think about “how 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 guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal,” he said.
The president called, too, for an American reckoning with the nation’s history of gun violence, saying “for too long we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflects upon this nation.”
Obama closed his rousing address by singing the words to the hymn “Amazing Grace,” and calling on Americans not to “lose our way again” by failing to reckon with the questions stirred in the past week.
The deaths of Pinckney and eight others sparked spirited debate in Southern states over the Confederate battle flag, which for years has flown at a monument on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. But the slayings have also exposed the scant appetite in Washington for restarting discussions on gun control legislation, which have made no progress during Obama’s presidency.
The sombre setting in Charleston was a marked contrast to the jubilant mood at the White House this week, where Obama and his advisers have relished back-to-back victories on trade and health care.
First lady Michelle Obama, along with Vice-President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, joined the president for the funeral at the College of Charleston. Among the members of Congress who accompanied Obama to Charleston was House Speaker John Boehner, making his first trip aboard Air Force One of the Obama presidency. Also in attendance was Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
Following the service, Obama met privately with families of the victims. The president got to know Pinckney during the 2008 presidential campaign, when he was an early supporter of Obama.