US News & World Report
By Nicole Hemmer
It's not often presidents talk about grace — rarer still that they sing about it. Yet on Friday afternoon, in his eulogy for slain preacher Clementa Pinckney, Barack Obama offered a bluesy rendition of "Amazing Grace," the coda to his sermon on grace and Charleston.
Speeches about black preachers — first Rev. Jeremiah Wright, now Rev. Pinckney — bookend Obama's time in office. While the fundamental realities of racism have changed little in the past seven years, the way Obama speaks about them has. He once spoke about the audacity of hope. Now he emphasizes the necessity of grace.
The move to a more tempered message is not difficult to understand. In "A More Perfect Union," his 2008 speech about his relationship to the controversial Rev. Wright, Obama learned he could speak openly about race without losing public support. But events quickly undermined that lesson. Six months into his first term, when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested for breaking into his own home, Obama understandably remarked that the "police acted stupidly." The comment immediately blew up, drawing criticism from the Cambridge police commissioner and costing Obama public support. Speaking frankly on race, it turned out, was a dicey proposition — particularly when police were involved.
After spending most of his first term shying away from the topic of race, Obama was drawn back in by the death of Trayvon Martin. A young teenager making his way home in the rain, armed with Skittles and fruit juice, Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch vigilante. Zimmerman's trial and acquittal led Obama to speak at length about racism in America, telling reporters, "Trayvon could have been me 35 years ago."
Obama did more than identify with Martin in a way no previous president could have. He also explained why black Americans reacted so strongly to the case, recounting his own experiences of being followed around department stores, of hearing car doors lock when he walked down the street and seeing purses clutched when he entered an elevator. He detailed the steps people both in and out of government could take to improve life for black Americans, before ending on a hopeful note: "We're becoming a more perfect union, not a perfect union, but a more perfect union."
The moment of openness did not last. During a spate of officer-involved shootings, Obama's reserve on racial issues returned. When news broke that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for Mike Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, the president's response was rote: rule of law, peaceful protests, good people on both sides. "The deft hand Obama employed in explaining to Americans why the acquittal of George Zimmerman so rankled had gone arthritic," wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates at the time. "One got the sense of a man fatigued by people demanding he say something both eminently profound and only partially true."
Charleston changed that. Culpability and motive were so clear that the political need for balance evaporated. Freed from constraints, Obama surprised: he spoke not only about race but about grace. Opening with the traditional church greeting "All glory and honor to God," Obama not only spoke about church leadership but as a church leader. The approach — more sermon than speech, delivered in a preacher's patois — was one he had used many times before when addressing African-American churches. Using it in a speech that would be seen across the nation, however, was new: He was not only discussing his connection with the black church, he was displaying it.
Yet if Obama's approach has changed, his fundamental beliefs have not. He still believes cynicism is modern politics' central sin, to be resisted at all costs. He still believes that division is a distraction, and that consensus is attainable (talk about faith in things not seen!). While he has another year and a half in his presidency, his Charleston eulogy marked the moment when he came full circle, from Jeremiah Wright to Clem Pinckney, from hope to grace.
This article was originally published in US News & World Report