Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Obama Stakes Black Claim on U.S. History

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The president of the United States is a black man. That's not news. But Friday it nonetheless became new.

Barack Obama's eulogy in Charleston for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the South Carolina state senator killed by an avowed racist, put Pinckney's death in the context of Christian grace. But the speech cast everything else -- Pinckney's life, his cause, his church, his politics, his meaning -- as part of the long, brutal, sacrificial, triumphant history of black Americans.

Obama wrapped his presidential arms around the black church and black life more completely than he has ever done, pushing black history into the center of the American stage and demanding that it be recognized as a central, undeniable fact.

Obama was unusually explicit. Discrimination? Why does Johnny get a job call back and Jamal doesn't? Confederate flag? Don't wave that around here anymore.  

"For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred," Obama said at the College of Charleston. "The flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, the flag was a symbol of systemic oppression and racial subjugation."

In a week in which the Affordable Care Act was convincingly upheld by the Supreme Court, in which gay marriage became the law of the land, in which conservative lawmakers across the South and retailers across the nation called for the removal of Confederate symbols from places of honor and commerce, Obama's speech was a confirmation of, and call for, change.

He has in the past dipped into the rhythms of the black church when speaking. But the sight of Obama leading the assembled in "Amazing Grace," singing from the pulpit, awkwardly and sometimes off-key, was a milestone. The president was forcibly making elbow room for black culture -- including the real history of black oppression -- in the American mainstream.

"Their church was a sacred place," Obama said of Pinckney and the eight other victims, "not just for blacks, or Christians, but for every American who cares about the expansion of liberty."

Liberty expanded, emphatically, this week. Friday morning, gay marriage was mainstreamed by order of the high court. Hours later, in Charleston, black experience was validated by a president seemingly determined to elevate and enrich a slogan of protest: Black lives matter.

This may be the week the 21st century really began in America.   

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net