A passionate President Obama on Friday again called for gun control and condemned the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of slavery, using the memorial service for a slain Charleston, S.C., pastor to push his agenda and call for a nationwide dialogue on poverty and race relations.
Delivering the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine killed inside the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston last week, Mr. Obama praised South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol complex. He called on other states to follow suit.
The president also repeated calls for gun control, saying the memory of the late Rev. Pinckney would be dishonored if the nation allows this tragedy to pass without addressing gun violence.
“For too long we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. Sporadically, our eyes are opened, when eight of our brothers and our sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school. But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day,” Mr. Obama said. “The vast majority of Americans, the majority of gun owners, want to do something about this. We see that now … It would be a betrayal of everything Rev. Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.”
Mr. Obama, who also led the crowd in an impromptu version of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” called for improved relations between law enforcement and minority communities, equal voting rights, a concerted effort to address poverty, and touched on other issues.
Rev. Pinckney and eight others were gunned down, allegedly by Dylan Storm Roof, who purportedly penned a lengthy manifesto that included themes of white supremacy. Roof also appeared to have an affinity for the Confederate battle flag.
That flag has become a flash point of debate in recent weeks, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, announced this week it would be removed from the state capitol grounds. Other Republicans praised her decision, though some still contend the flag merely is a symbol of southern ancestry and heritage, not a reminder of slavery.
But Mr. Obama said the flag does indeed serve as a reminder of slavery, the nation’s “original sin.”
“For too long we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens. It’s true a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, acknowledge … the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride,” he said. “That flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.”
The president also called on the nation to address racism in other areas of life, including hiring practices.
“Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal,” Mr. Obama said.