Seven years after candidate Barack Obama delivered his most direct statements about race in a landmark speech during his 2008 campaign, President Obama came to Charleston Friday and seemed almost to pick up where candidate Obama left off long ago. Obama offered in Charleston on Friday what might have been his most overt comments about the way that race and class, poverty and opportunity, hatred and violence collide and combine in American lives to date.
Obama was, of course, in Charleston to eulogize South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Pinckney was also the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the religious community he led that entered the nation's consciousness just over a week ago after a gunman joined an evening prayer meeting at Emanuel AME, then shot and killed Pinckney along with eight others.
The president congratulated the large and growing number of public officials across the political spectrum who have abandoned previous defenses of the Confederate flag. And Obama encouraged those listening to him in Charleston to view this new resolve around the Confederate flag for precisely what it is: A potent symbol of -- but not the actual -- bigotry and indifference that alter too many American lives.
Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought -- the cause of slavery -- was wrong -- the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people -- was wrong. It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.
But Obama also came to Charleston as the president who just this week declared himself unafraid and fully aware of the work that is his in the White House. This was not the Obama who, as the BBC put it this week, spoke about events in Sanford, Fla.; in Ferguson, Mo.; in New York City; and in North Charleston, S.C., in measured and, some critics said, unreasonably equivocal terms. This was not the Obama who came to the Mall in 2013 and lectured black America on a set of its alleged failings, nor even the Obama who hailed and embraced the work of civil rights activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., this year. This was an Obama rich with talk of faith and works, a man who even took time to sing about God's grace.
[Pinckney] embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the “sweet hour of prayer” actually lasts the whole week long -- that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it's about our collective salvation, that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.
And so it was that Obama came to Charleston on Friday and made a case for an expanded notion of equality and dignity.
He outlined a broad list of what must be done to honor Emanuel AME's dead.
In his comments, Obama drew a line between the hatred expressed by the alleged shooter in his manifesto and the kind of cruel indifference that has left so many American children to learn in decaying schools or live in dilapidated neighborhoods where employment remains scarce and in the worst places, approaching rare. He connected the mass shooting at Charleston's Emanuel AME to previous mass murders by gun in a Colorado movie theater, a Connecticut elementary school and the many other individuals who die as a result of gun injuries.
He called on Americans not to turn away from the ugly reasons that trust between police and so many communities home primarily to people of color has been utterly eroded and to consider a softer yet deeper look at the conditions that push so many young men into the criminal justice system, as well as policies Obama said make it increasingly difficult for some Americans to vote.
And then Obama -- the president -- said it was time for more than talk, simple or complex, about race. But he offered the mourners in Charleston, those watching on TV and listening to him online or via radio, no specific policy prescriptions.
There were no promises even to push Congress to move forward on gun control, on police and criminal justice reforms, nor to examine school conditions, create a jobs program targeting the country’s most disadvantaged communities nor other policies that might erode the foundation of long-standing racial economic inequality.
What Obama offered in Charleston was, in every sense, a sermon.
It was a sermon that will not likely convert those who view inequality as nothing more than the net result of individual effort and consider racial bias an American artifact. And it will not, almost certainly, convince those who support the flying of the Confederate flag or the unrestrained sale of weapons that some of the changes Obama hinted at Friday must be made.
But it was a moment of stirring oratory -- one where the audience chimed in with phrases like "go ahead," and "go on." And, like every good sermon, it is one that will ultimately become subject to as many different interpretations as the sets of ears that heard it.
It was Obama on race, in a way that we haven't heard in years.