What Obama's Eulogy Missed
In death, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney performed one final public service: Giving the nation’s first black president the opportunity to deliver the address of a lifetime on the country’s long struggle with bigotry and bias. President Barack Obama seized it, giving a beautiful and inspiring reflection on the power of grace and the promise of American equality. It is bound to be among his most remembered speeches, yet I suspect that historians will note what he didn’t mention: gay rights.
Obama delivered the eulogy only hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to marry. It is one of the most important civil-rights rulings since Brown v. Board of Education -- civil unions, separate and unequal, aren't good enough -- and it capped one of the most momentous weeks in the country’s long journey toward full acceptance of all members of the American family. Confederate flags came down, and rainbow flags went up.
It would have been easy for the president to link these two major milestones in civil rights, and there was a point toward the end of the eulogy when he seemed headed in that direction. “For too long,” Obama said, “we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present.” He then challenged the country to think anew about poverty, education, criminal justice, gun violence, voting rights and racial discrimination in employment. But not even a passing allusion to the long -- and unfinished -- struggle for gay rights.
Earlier in the day, in the Rose Garden, Obama called the Supreme Court’s decision “a victory for gay and lesbian couples who have fought so long for their basic civil rights” and “a victory for America.” In front of a friendly LGBT audience at the White House earlier in the week, the president told the crowd, “marriage equality is about our civil rights, and our firm belief that every citizen should be treated equally under the law. … This is an issue whose time has come.”
But in South Carolina, Obama blinked, as he had in Alabama earlier in the year. The day before his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the attack on civil-rights marchers in Selma, his Justice Department filed a brief formally putting the administration on record in support of a national right to same-sex marriage.
Yet in Selma as in Charleston, Obama didn't have the courage to challenge his largely black audience -- and the entire country -- to accept that gay rights are civil rights, too. Opposition to same-sex marriage is significantly higher among blacks than among whites. If Obama believes, as he said at the LGBT reception, that same-sex marriage is a civil right, he ought to be willing to say it to a black church. Instead, he challenged Americans not to “avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society,” even as he avoided one himself.
Legal changes and Supreme Court rulings that promise equality are important, but changes of heart are even more so. That leaves presidents in the position of persuader in chief, summoning our “better angels.” When John F. Kennedy gave an Oval Office address to explain his support for a civil-rights bill in June 1963, he challenged white Americans to let go of old prejudices. That took courage and cost him supporters, but it earned him a place in civil-rights history. Obama has never delivered a speech on gay equality that would stand beside Kennedy’s, or President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 voting-rights address to Congress. Although many gay-rights advocates embrace Obama as a champion, he has been cautious at every turn.
The president’s defenders may argue that the funeral service wasn't an appropriate setting to discuss same-sex marriage, because that wasn’t the issue at hand. In fact, though Pinckney voted to prohibit same-sex marriage in 2007, he had -- like the president himself -- evolved on gay rights, and the LGBT community counted him as an ally. The president could have invoked that alliance in connecting gay rights to civil rights, in a way that further celebrated Pinckney's commitment to justice and equality.
Doing that would surely have some ruffled feathers -- and that is precisely the point. Deeply held convictions should not be expressed only in front of friendly audiences. Civil rights can only be advanced by speaking uncomfortable truths to unsympathetic crowds. History looks kindly on those who take that risk. Maybe Obama will yet do so; I hope he does. But he may never have a better opportunity, or a more powerful occasion, than the one he passed up on Friday.
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