Coverage of the memorial service held for Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston last week focused largely on the surprising moment when the leader of the free world broke into song. That song, of course, was “Amazing Grace” and the president sang it distinctly in the style of the black church.
For all the attention Obama’s unexpected performance received, though, it’s worth taking another look at the “Amazing Grace” clip, this time watching for the silence. His singing seems to be a release of the collective tension that had been building for a week after the Emanuel A.M.E. shooting. But the preceding pause seems to hold its hearers captive. Though he is frequently interrupted with cheers and amens throughout his eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, the pause he takes 35 minutes into the speech is easily the longest break from the text before him.
Between the second time he speaks the words “Amazing Grace” and the first time he sings them, 13 full seconds pass. Thirteen seconds with thousands hanging on his next words: grieving church members, a phalanx of purple-robed clergy, and a church band that had until then had been all too ready to accompany him with organ trills and guitar licks.
During those 13 seconds, Obama looks out over the crowd, then down at his notes, then he shakes his head slightly. Watch behind him; the assembled clergy seem momentarily unsure what will happen next. They sit still, watching him. The only movement comes from Bishop Julius H. McAllister, seated just to the left, who closes his eyes and sways as if he can already hear the music. Throughout the eulogy, the president’s words had been met with call-and-response encouragements, but for every one of those thirteen seconds there is only silence.