But the speech was more than soundbites. It wasn’t readymade for a television newscast; it was a conversation that demanded the full attention of its audience. It was directed not just at the political leaders who filled the pews in Charleston, including Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker John Boehner, and Hillary Clinton, but also ordinary Americans across the country who paused to pay their respects. “They were still living by faith when they died,” Obama said of the nine Americans who were killed last week.
Dylann Roof was “blinded by hatred” when he shot Pinckney, he said:
He failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood—the power of God's grace. He's given us the chance where we've been lost to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency short-sightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same.
Earlier this week, David Blight wrote for The Atlantic about attending an event in April at which both he and Pinckney were set to deliver speeches. It was a commemoration marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War in Charleston. He wrote:
Pinckney reminded us that we were commemorating a national event of equal gravity and tragedy. Our Civil War, said the minister, had been brother against brother, “father against son, generation against generation.” Then he found a refrain: “We stand in the gate, the archway, and remember a war that divided houses.” King David had both won and lost in his divided house and he wailed of his pain. Reverend Pinckney pushed on with the image of “divided houses,” but to remind us that from such depths of agony can come a dawn of knowledge, understanding, and even-tempered healing. Pinckney was suddenly the voice of reconciliation for the vast chasms left by the Civil War, not merely the sins of Christians.
Last week, The Atlantic’s Matt Thompson explained Pinckney’s place within the worlds of both religion and politics:
Clementa Pinckney knew the history of his own city. He probably knew the name Benjamin Franklin Randolph, another black minister and state senator from Charleston to have died at the hands of angry white men, 147 years prior.
He may not have suspected that the person who had joined his small fellowship of believers at Mother Emanuel that night would sit with these few people for an hour, listen to their prayers and their blessings, then take up a gun and end their lives. But he knew that humankind had been cursed from its beginnings by hatred so potent it could be lethal—the third human mentioned in Pinckney’s Bible, after all, had killed another man out of jealousy for what he had.
Kevin Sack of The New York Times offered a fuller biography:
Clementa Carlos Pinckney, who was martyred last week in the basement of Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church, and who will be eulogized on Friday morning by the president of the United States, never lacked for either precocity or audacity.
He was ordained at 18, and assigned almost immediately to fill in for an ailing pastor in Green Pond, S.C. He presided over student government in high school and in college and, seeing politics as complementary to his ministry, earned master’s degrees in both divinity and public administration. At 23, he became the youngest elected black member of South Carolina’s legislature.
In his speech, the president added another detail: Pinckney felt called to be a pastor at the age of 13. Last week, he died at the age of 41. It is fitting that he was eulogized by a president, and it may stand to be one of the defining speeches of Obama’s time in office. But the powerful speech only served as a reminder of how much the nation has lost.