When Barack Obama began his first term as the 44th president of the United States, he delivered a stirring inaugural address that called on this nation to join with him in addressing the problems facing the nation.
It was an address of realism and challenges, as he noted:
Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily nor in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.
Racism was one of the major challenges our first African-American president had in mind.
Racism, in all its violent hatred, exploded in Charleston, South Carolina during a Wednesday night Bible Study in the basement of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, June 17.
The picture above shows a gathering of men outside the church, shortly after the killings, praying together in their shock and grief.
David Zirin describes the church which experienced that massacre and which evokes prayer as a response:
The more you read about Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, otherwise known as “Mother Emanuel,” the more awe you feel for its historic resilience amidst white-supremacist terror.
This church is now known as the scene of a massacre, which is being investigated as a “hate crime.” Nine are dead, but this institution will not fall. We know this because it has stood tall amidst the specter of racist violence for 200 years.
What happened in Charleston after the killing of eight parishioners and the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a miracle of grace. There was no rioting in the streets, no cries for revenge.
What happened in the aftermath of a senseless slaughter, was that “Mother Emanuel” church once again stood tall and looked upward with forgiveness out of the depths of a dark and tragic event.
The church congregation, the bereaved families of the church’s pastor and Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, all, as though in unison, set an example of how challenges are met.
They must be met through grace, as President Barack Obama so eloquently put it in the moving eulogy he delivered at the funeral for Pastor Clementa Pinckney at an overflowing auditorium of the College of Charleston’s campus on Friday afternoon, June 26. The full text of his eulogy is here.
As he stressed the significance of grace as the means by which the believer is called to address such dark events, the President paused for a few seconds and then began singing Amazing Grace, words written by John Newton, a clergyman who had once been captain of a slave ship.
The President was joined by the congregation as he sang:
The “historic resilience amidst white-supremacist terror” that David Zirin examines in his Nation report, is an indication of how “Mother Emanuel” has confronted the evil of slavery and racism. Zirin writes:
It was 1816 when the Rev. Morris Brown formed “Mother Emanuel” under the umbrella of the Free African Society of the AME Church. They were one of three area churches known as the Bethel Circuit. This means that a free church in the heart of the confederacy was formed and thrived 50 years before the start of the Civil War.
It had a congregation of almost 2,000, roughly 15 percent of black people in what was, including the enslaved, the majority-black city of Charleston. Because the church opened its doors to the enslaved and free alike, services were often raided by police and private militias for violating laws about the hours when slaves could be out among “the public.” They were also raided for breaking laws that prohibited teaching slaves to read at Bible study sessions.
In his Nation article, Zirin reminds his readers that “it was at one of these Bible study sessions that the shooter opened fire Wednesday night, after sitting among the people for over an hour.”
The response of what President Obama correctly calls “the miracle of grace”, is in the tradition of Mother Emanuel AME Church.
The church and its members did not lash out in fury against racist hatred, which led to the deaths of nine African Americans sitting quietly in a Bible study group. It did what had been its style for the 200 years of its existence.
It came together in prayer and a resolve to go forward, surrounded by, and filled with, the miracle of grace. There is a power in that grace, an unexplained mystery.
When words feel inadequate, there is always the poetry of music, as President Obama demonstrated in leading his Charleston congregation with Amazing Grace.
Music has been with President Obama since he took office.
Following President Obama’s first inaugural address in 2009, Dr. Joseph Lowery, delivered the benediction. Dr. Lowery, a civil rights leader with Martin Luther King, Jr., began his prayer with words from another notable African American song.
Lowery’s prayer began with the third verse of James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, which, since its composition in 1920, has become known as the “national anthem” of the African American community.
An Emory University event honoring Alice Walker, another icon in the African American struggle against racism, ended with the singing of Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing. Leading the singing is Emory graduate Garrett M. Turner.
In the days following the Mother Emanuel massacre, two hymns seem appropriate for religious or secular groups wishing to honor the memory of the nine who died in that historic church. A good opening hymn would be Lift Every Voice and Sing.
A concluding hymn? Try all the verses of Amazing Grace.
The picture at top was taken outside the Emanuel African American Methodist Church in Charleston, SC. It is a Reuters photo by Randall Hill, from The Nation website.