The Reverend Clementa Pinckney eulogy by the President was one of those moments that will hang around like FDR’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” FDR’s first inaugural address to a nation struggling with a collapsed economy. The speech rallied enough confidence that FDR was able to implement his aggressive recovery program.
It will hang around like John Kennedy’s inaugural “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”; and his speech in Berlin in the midst of a turbulent period of the cold war: “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was “civis Romanus sum”. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner”.
No list of timeless speeches is complete without Martin Luther King’s words, “I have a dream…” Another that has become forgotten – except that it is played once each year for West Point cadets, is General MacArthur’s speech about Duty – Honor – Country – a farewell to West Point shortly before he died. He was a magnificent public speaker and his entire speech is worth a listen. He ended:
“Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be – of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.”
I bid you farewell.
We can find many momentous speeches – speeches that are more than words, more than inspiration – they are speeches that brought to one point in time great emotion, powerful leadership, and a unique quality to create new history.
As the eulogist at Reverend Pinckney’s funeral, only Barack Obama could have delivered a speech that will have a place in the annals of US history:
He is African American – any other race could not authentically share the gravity felt by the congregation.
He is familiar with the manner and practice of African American worship services – his delivery was absorbed by the congregation as if in a spell.
He is an African American President of the United States; what he said could not be refuted by any lesser political group – and he was one of them.
He is a liberal. His political profile against segregation, guns, and political abuse rang true to the congregation.
He wrote this speech himself. It was from his heart, from his life experience as a person of color. His words were words that nuanced the long suffering history of African Americans.
And quite beyond normal expectations, he sang Amazing Grace in the gospel style of African Americans. That clinched the speech as personal, standing in the light of God’s Grace, and although the song is a tribute to God’s Grace, it is also a unifying and strengthening song that unified the congregation in common cause.
The words above constitute the mariner’s perception of the chemistry of the event – certainly potent. Intellectually, he was pleased that the President understood how God’s Grace works and how the individual should respond. Quite often, the most learned pastor will interpret Grace backwards, treating Grace as a reward after the fact. The President had it right: Grace is God’s “pass it forward,” not a self-serving gratification.