Amazing Grace!

Barack at Mother Emanuel II
President Obama Eulogizes Pastor Pinkney
 How Sweet the Sound….that could move a Wretch Like Me

There has never been a moment like this in the history of the American presidency, and we shall certainly never see one again.   The first Afro-American President of the USA eulogizing a great Afro-American preacher/ politician who was slain along with eight parishioners by an evil, hate crazed white terrorist whom they had welcomed into their prayer meeting.  The president’s eulogy captured the spirit of the occasion with a moving eloquence and exuded a spiritual gravitas that marks this as a unique event in the history of this racially troubled nation.  Due to the size of the crowd, the funeral was held an auditorium on the campus of Charleston College.  Ideally, the last rites should have been held in the sanctuary of Mother Emmanuel, a great place to make history; for Mother Emanuel African Methodist Church is a citadel of black history.

This venerable church, where the Reverend Pinkney served as pastor, was born during 1816, in the cauldron of African slavery in the American south, where European settlers who had swiftly committed genocide against the Native Americans and stolen their lands on a grand scale, then instituted a system of African slave labor to supplement the white indentured class. It was in this church that the most complex plans for a large scale slave revolt were hatched….but was foiled by a snitching Sambo who warned the white folks and the plotters were arrested and hanged in 1822.  Among them was a founder of the church: Denmark Vesey.  There was no contradiction in the mind of Vesey – a truly remarkable man – between serving God and smiting your enemy.  For one thing, the biblical texts by which they lived was the Old Testament…an eye for an eye; leading Pharaoh’s armies to their destruction in the Red Sea!

President Obama was aware of all this history; he is a thoughtful intellectual and has obviously spent many years studying Afro-American history and cultural traditions.  In fact he is much more knowledgeable about it than coal black Afro-Americans like Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas and Dr. Allen Keyes; I’d take Barack’s version of Black over all of these obsequious tar babies any day in the week and twice on Sunday!  Which is why I have been unsparing in contemptuously flagellating those blacker than thou buffoons who make in issue of his bi-racial birth and upbringing by his white grandparents. ( see: An Open Letter to Dr. Matthew Johnson) What the example of Barack Obama shows is that Afro-American identity is a sociological not a biological phenomenon; it is a product of “life behind the veil,” as Dr. DuBois put it in his immortal text The Souls of Black Folks.

Since Barack Obama chose to embrace an Afro-American identity rather than some ambiguous “Mulatto” identity – which is not clearly defined in this country the way in it is in Latin America, and all over the Caribbean –he choose the best of what we are and have been to embrace.  This training ground was his 20 year membership in a church pastored y the brilliant and committed Reverend Doctor Jeremiah Wright, a highly educated cleric who holds Masters and PhD degrees and is famous for his Afrocentric services.  Alas, although the mass media pundits forced Barack to deny him in order to become President –a casualty of politics alas – the good reverend has left his mark on Barack.

It is the results of that 20 year apprenticeship that we witnessed when Barack delivered his eulogy to Pastor Clementa Pinkney before a diverse crowd of mourners in a packed college auditorim that had been transformed into hallowed ground by these sacred rites.  It was an affair that put the grandeur of the Afro-American high church on display for all the world to see… it dazzled and inspired millions who witnessed it.  First we watched the Princes of the church, elegantly costumed in their rich black, purple and gold clerical robes, stride into the auditorium as the celestial voices of a choir sang all the stanzas of the transcendental hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was popularly known as “The Negro National Anthem” when I was growing up in Florida.

Written by the gifted brothers James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson, who hailed from Jacksonville, just 38 miles away, we sang this spiritually uplifting anthem at every public occasion in St. Augustine. As the eloquent ministers of the church stepped to the pulpit and read inspiring passages of bible texts; the scriptures from which their flock finds its compass through the harrowing vicissitudes of this earthly life, and provides the vision of a better life, an eternal life in some better place, when we will be done with the troubles of this world.

All eyes were fixed upon the podium when the Presiding Bishop of the Carolina region was introduced, a powerful local voice in the great national church that was founded only five years later than the US Constitution, with the establishment of Mother Bethel, and only a few blocks away in the city of Philadelphia.  He, like all assembled in that place spiritual refuge, had come to honor the slain Reverend Pinkney. A stalwart of the church and a remarkable man, Pastor Pinkney became a minister of the church as a teenager, and won a seat in the South Carolina ligislature at 23.

Pastor Clementa Pinkney
Reverend Pinckney in Pulpit of Mother Emanuel
He fell with his flock from a terrorists bullets

As I watched this regal figure standing in the Pulpit, invested with the authority of an international church that is as old as the US, and like the US Constitution represents an American innovation;  I was reminded of former President Jimmy Carter, who says that one of the reasons that he never bought the white racist arguments about Afro-American inferiority was because he had a Bishop of the AME Church as a neighbor in Plains Georgia, and he was so impressive to his child’s eyes he thought the bishop looked like a African king!  The Bishops on this occasion seemed no less impressive, but they hurried from the stage, as the presiding Bishop truncated his remarks and reminded the audience that even he, beloved figure that he is,  even he could not keep the President of the United States  waiting.


By the time President Obama stepped to the pulpit to deliver his eulogy, many thousands of elegantly crafted words, steeped in the poetry of biblical texts and divine allusion, delivered with moving eloquence by “God’s Trombones,” had already preceded him  and filled the audience with joy, pathos and hope.  It was in ways a strange ritual, at times it seemed like a political rally with introductions of various stars in Carolina and national politics to applause and organ riffs; a celebration rather than the funeral of a pious preacher and devoted public servant that had been slain by a racist cracker madman.  There had been music and song.  But at the end of this lively round of introductions the Master of Ceremonies smartly turned to the grieving widow and said “The world has come to your door.”

Following the introductions of notables, some admires of Pastor Pinkney was invited to speak, and it sometimes seemed that there was no end to eloquence as impassioned panegyrics filled the air. The statement that received the loudest and longest standing Ovation came when one of the eulogizers, Afro-American State Senator Gerald Malloy, declared: “the confederate Flag will come down!”…and credited Representative Pinckney for its removal.  Then Senator Malloy enumerated the many fights waged by Pastor Pinkney; noted his victories, and vowed to continue the fight for those things Pinkney fought for but had not yet won. He wound up with a dazzling bit of poetic oratory that painted a portrait of the ideal community they hoped to build.  Indeed, there seemed no end to eloquence on this day.

It was a hard act to follow…as any political orator who has been placed in the unfortunate position of following a great Afro-American preacher on the podium well knows.  However if President Obama was at all intimidated by his predicament he never showed it.  From the moving embraces showered upon him as the princes of the church lined up to greet their president, whom they had helped to elect, to his introductory remarks,  the President seemed completely at home, as calm as a summer Sunday morning and solid as a rock.

The Bishops greet Barack
Barack Meets the Bishops at Rev. Pinkney's Funeral
Welcoming a Brother back home

From the opening statement Barack’s physical demeanor and sense of timing revealed a deep knowledge of the Afro-American sermonic style.  And the cadences of his speech made it seem like he could easily enter the pulpit upon the completion of his second term as president.  Viewed from what South Carolina was when I was a boy, it is impossible to describe to younger black folks just how far we, as a people, have come in this racist nation…battling every step.

It is fair, I think; to not only describe Barack’s speech as a sermon…but a pretty good one. His major theme was the power of faith and the nature of God’s grace, and his delivery was characterized by the rhythmic cadences that distinguish Afro-American preaching. Effective preaching requires an understanding of the potency of pregnant pauses…the uses of silence to better emphasize a point.  Great Jazz soloist understand this too.  Just listen to Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk.  He spoke to a theme much as preachers will preach to a text, extrapolating valuable life lessons from the metaphors, similes, allegories and timeless truths it provides.

As his speech built up momentum, he caused the audience to rise to its feet with applause of affirmation.  His remarks were informed by sociology, politics, economics and the law, presented with the passion of an evangelical preacher and the cold logic of a learned lawyer.  He was part Thurgood Marshall and part Martin Luther King, and the burden of the presidency revealed itself in the emotional fatigue mirrored in his eyes and the dramatic greying of his hair.  As the old Afro-American spiritual says:Nobody knows the troubles he’s seen.

After declaring the importance of faith the President painted a poignant portrait of the Reverend Clementa Pinkney, and pointed out that those who ask how could Pastor Pinkney could serve God and politics didn’t know much about the history and mission of the AME Church; their clergy saw no distinction in doing good works as a public servant and yet remain a faithful a servant of God.  He told them that Pinkney understood that occasional charity was not enough to create a just society…it must also be a matter of social policy.  There were many moving moments during the president’s speech; calling out the names of the slain church members was one of them; reviewing the role of the black church and its role in our liberation struggle was another.

By this point in President Obama’s eulogy the audience was in perfect sync with the rhythm and emphasis of his speech, and began to respond on cue in the wonderful call and response that black congregations engage in when the preacher is touching their souls and they are moved by the “spirit” of the word.  And when he spoke frankly about the history and current manifestations of white racism and class privilege, the audience responded with repeated and enthusiastic applause as he ticked of a laundry list of abuses.

President Obama’s marriage of God’s Grace to our good works was a brilliant blending of sacred and secular objectives that is reminiscent of Dr. King on a good day. When he spontaneously broke into a rendition of the moving hymn “Amazing Grace” President Obama transported the audience to higher ground – body, soul and spirit.  It was, by  my reckoning, an amazing grace; I believe we shall never see its like again.

(Double Click to see President Obama’s Eulogy)


Playthell G, Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 30, 21o5

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