Yesterday, Air Force One touched down in Charleston South Carolina as the President of the United States arrived for the funeral of the late State Senator, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine victims of the bloody assault at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church. He might have arrived as the President but by the time he took the podium to deliver the eulogy at the College of Charleston, Barack Obama emerged as a leader rising to the challenge of defining a moment of national reflection.
The role of ‘Mourner-in-Chief’ is one of the tasks of the presidency that no one can be fully prepared to fulfill. The emotional weight of these moments is sketched on the faces of presidents that have been unexpectedly called upon to heal the nation in a time of tragedy. We witnessed this during the Clinton presidency at the time of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing and again after the terrorists’ attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 when George W. Bush was thrust into this role. And since the Vietnam War, many a president has stood on the tarmac of Dover Air Force Base, with a pained expression as the war dead arrived home, offering comfort to the families of military members killed in the defense of this nation.
Since his election in 2008 Barack Obama has carried the additional burden of being the first African-American elected to the presidency. Making history often comes with the tremendous weight of that history, and becoming the first Black to occupy the Oval Office was a heavier cross to bear than I believe even this President realized. He has struggled when confronted with incidences where race was central to the circumstances, and has never seemed quite comfortable when his race cross-checked his constitutional responsibilities. Barack Obama has walked on thin ice over his blackness because his detractors have purposely handcuffed him; suggesting that any focus on ‘racism’ is bias and disqualifies him from ‘objective’ leadership. Nowhere has this strategy been employed more brilliantly than on conservative talk radio and on the Fox News Channel airwaves. The right effectively deracialized a President whose very identity was central to not only his election but the possibilities of his administration. At least until he touched down in Charleston.
Against the backdrop of an unspeakable tragedy; a heinous act that jarred the nation’s senses and forced us to consider that thing we habitually run from – racism, the President understood what he had to do. This was not a time for cautious speak or diplomacy. In a week when the blood of nine innocent Black people spilled in a sacred place caused the removal of a symbol of the nation’s shameful past, President Obama decided anything less than the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth would be a disservice to the memory of the Charleston Nine.
His eulogy was presidential but spiritual. It was a poignant reflection on the value of a life sacrificed for the greater good, homage to a public servant taken from us by hate and words of comfort to a family that had lost a father and husband. It was also much more. President Obama walked America down the path of our shameful past, properly recognized the powerful role of the Black church, confronted our current embrace of racism, and refused to surrender our fate to the hands of a racist madman. He offered a common sense perspective on gun control, so simple that anyone opposed is clearly making political calculations and has little interest in reducing the bloodshed we see on a daily basis. This was the speech I had been waiting to hear, though not under such tragic circumstances. It was clearly not the work of a White House speech writer but the very personal testimony of a man who has spent his entire presidency haunted by the nation’s history. I am convinced his singing of ‘Amazing Grace’ was as much for himself as it was the victims of the Charleston massacre. In the vernacular of the Black church, Barack Obama ‘caught the spirit’ as it was evident that he was moved to deliver a message many in the nation might not had expected or wanted but needed to hear.
President Obama is right. We ‘talk’ a lot about race in America. The problem is that it’s mostly talk and little action. Our national pastime is rhetoric. It is why the growing movement to take down the Confederate flags and other symbols associated with white supremacy is a significant moment. The visual representations of hate have persisted for too long in our nation, and been shamelessly defended by not only those ignorant to the truth but those who know better. There has been criticism that the focus should not be on the flag but on guns. I could not disagree more. If we do not attack the underpinnings of hate in America we will never be able to temper the violence associated with it.
Our President has spoken. Let the nation say Amen.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.
Photo: Courtesy of the White House