“Preacher by 13. Pastor by 18. Public servant by 23. What a life Clementa Pinckney lived. What an example he set,” Obama said. “And then to lose him at 41, slain in his sanctuary with 8 wonderful members of his flock.”
But his speech wasn’t just eulogy—it was a call to action. At times, he choked up from emotion, shouted the names of the Charleston victims, and broke into a full rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
“Every time this happens, someone says, ‘We need to have a conversation about race,’" Obama said. "We talk a lot about race. There's no shortcut, we don't need more talk.”
"It would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for…if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again," he said.
In a speech punctuated with "Amens," "ah-ahs" and "yes-sirs" from the crowd, Obama tied Pinckney's life to the national struggle for civil rights and the history of his church.
"The church is and has always been the center of African-American life, a place to call our own in an often too-hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships," Obama said. “And there's no better example of this tradition than Mother Emanuel… a phoenix rising from the ashes.”
Attendees started lining up for the funeral at Charleston's TD Arena at 3:30 a.m., the Charleston Post and Courier reported. Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and members of Martin Luther King Jr.'s family also attended the funeral. Pinckney's body was previously at the South Carolina State Capital and Mother Emanuel, his church.
In the service on Friday, friends, family, and parishioners of Pinckney remembered him as an enthusiastic pastor and a loving father.
"Don't worry about Clementa because he's in God's hands," Pinckney's cousin Ronnie Johnson said. "If we was here now, he would tell you, 'We've seen too many victims to let defeat have the last word.'"
Obama also addressed the growing controversy over the place of the Confederate flag in many southern states, calling for the flag to be removed from the South Carolina state capital grounds.
"It's true that the flag did not cause these murders," Obama said. "But for many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation."
"But I don't think God wants us to stop there,” he said. “For too long we've been blind to how past injustices shape the present. Perhaps we see that now."
It was a day of powerful emotions for the president, who just a few hours earlier had discussed the Supreme Court's decision recognizing a nationwide right to same-sex marriage in a Rose Garden press conference where he also got choked up. His eulogy in Charleston—about 500 miles south and several emotional octaves away—echoed his theme this morning that Americans are "stronger together than we could ever be alone."
Pinckney knew that "to put our faith into action isn't just about individual action, it's about collective action,” Obama said.
He remembered meeting the reverend "when we were both a little younger."
"What a good man," Obama said. "Sometimes I think that's the best thing to hope for when you're eulogized. After all the words and recitations and resumes are read—to just say somebody was a good man."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.