CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) – President Barack Obama delivered an emotional and often rousing eulogy to to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the eight other victims of the church shooting that shocked this normally genteel community to its core.
Thousands of mourners packed the TD Arena for hours in the city’s historic downtown Friday to pay tribute to the fallen.
Hundreds more who couldn’t get inside either stood outside for hours in the hot sun, or made their way to one of several alternative viewing sites in the area to watch the service.
President Barack Obama was accompanied to the funeral by First Lady Michele Obama. Vice President Joe Biden, his wife Dr. Jill Biden, former Secretary of State and current Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, were among the dignitaries in attendance.
The president spoke of Pinckney as both a pastor and a statesman, and said his friend, “embodied a politics that was neither mean nor small … and conducted himself quietly and kindly and diligently.”
“He encouraged progress not by pushing his ideas alone, but by seeking out the ideas of others and partnering to make things happen,” Obama continued.
“What a good man,” the president said a little later. With that he paused.
“Sometimes, I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you are eulogized,” he continued. “After all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to say that somebody was a good man.”
“Preacher at 13, pastor at 18, public servant by 23 … what a life Clementa Pinckney lived … and then to lose him at 41, slain in his sanctuary with eight wonderful members of his flock, each bound together by a common commitment to God,” Obama said.
The president then turned his thoughts to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church itself, a church he recalled as being “built by slaves seeking liberty, and then burned to the ground only to rise up again from the ashes.”
He then traced its history through the years of the civil rights movement right up through the night of the murders.
“Mother Emanuel Church is a foundation stone of liberty and justice for all,” he said.
The president continued: “We don’t know that the alleged killer knew that history, but he knew the meaning of his violent act … and the history of violent acts used as a way to terrorize and oppress.”
“He assumed the violence of his act would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin … oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas. He didn’t know he was being used by God. … Blinded by hatred, the killer could not see the grace that surrounded Rev. Pinckney and the members of the Bible study group.
“The alleged killer couldn’t have imagined how the families of the slain, given the opportunity to confront him in the midst of their unspeakable grief, would forgive him,” the president said.
“He could not have imagined how the City of Charleston, the state of South Carolina and the United States would respond … that they would do so not only with revulsion at his deeds, but with thoughtful introspection. Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Rev. Pinckney so well understood, the power of God’s grace,” Obama said.
The president also commented on about the recent moves in South Carolina and elsewhere in the South to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds.
“The Confederate flag did not cause these murders,” he said. “But the flag has always represented more than ancestral pride … for many, black and white, the flag is a reminder of oppression and racial subjugation.
“Removing the flag would not be an act of political correctness, or an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers, but an acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong … that the imposition of Jim Crow laws and the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong. … Taking down that flag is an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country,” the president said.
“By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace. But I don’t think God wants us to stop there,” he added. “For too long, we’ve been blind to how past injustices shape the present. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask tough questions about how we allow so many of our children to languish in poverty or to try to learn in dilapidated schools … perhaps it inspires us to ask what we are doing that causes some of children to hate … and perhaps it softens hearts … so that we put an end to the injustice of calling Johnny back for a job interview, but not Jamal … or of passing laws that make it harder for some of our citizens to vote.”
The president briefly touched on guns and gun control, but only in vague terms and in a stream of thought that included mention of making the criminal justice system fairer and a call for better training and equipment for police “So the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the community will [grow] and make our communities a safer and more secure place for good people, decent people … God-fearing people.”
The president closed his remarks with a mediation on the meaning of grace, then paused, and with a sly smile began singing “Amazing Grace.” As he continued, first the choir and then the entire populous of the crowded auditorium — some 5,000 people — joined him. With that, he began shaking hands and made his exit.
Much of the program that preceded the president’s remarks had a celebratory tone, as speaker after speaker paid homage to Pinckney, both as an important local religious leader and as a state senator.
But there was an undercurrent of tension, both before and after the service. For much of the day, the entire downtown of Charleston was a security zone, as was the route between the city and Charleston International Airport, where Air Force One landed.
Prior to the funeral service, the Charleston Police Department said it had investigated threats against the families of the murder victims and had been unable to “confirm or validate” them.
The murder of Pinckney and eight members of historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has touched off a debate in South Carolina and several states across the South regarding the appropriateness of displaying the Confederate flag.
On Wednesday, after several retailers announced they would no longer sell items bearing the controversial symbol of the Confederacy, the City of North Charleston fired a police officer who posted a picture of himself wearing only Confederate flag boxer shorts on his Facebook page.
Shannon Dildine, a sergeant who had been with the force since 1996, was notified of his termination in writing.
In it, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers said the city learned of the Facebook posting on Tuesday.
“Your posting in this manner led to you being publicly identified as a North Charleston Police officer and associated both you and the Department with an image that symbolizes hate and oppression to a significant portion of the citizens we are sworn to serve.”
Dildine has 10 days to appeal the firing.
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