CHARLESTON, S.C. — Invoking scripture and song, President Barack Obama 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 movingly 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 valor of Confederate soldiers” but an acknowledgement that “the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong,” as were the imposition of Jim Crow laws after the Civil War 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.”
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 mayhem that gun violence inflects upon this nation.”
He 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.
PBS spoke with Pinckney for the 2012 documentary, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.”
The somber 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 for Pinckney, the president was expected to meet privately with the families of other victims. The president got to know Pinckney during the 2008 presidential campaign, when he was an early supporter of Obama.