As I watched President Barack Obama deliver the eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, North Carolina last week, I was struck by two things: his ability to sense a pivotal moment in history and capitalise on it; and the way he was able to highlight the leadership qualities of the slain state senator and pastor, and the contribution he made to his community in a short lifetime.
The brutal massacre of nine souls in a church sanctuary had been reduced by the US media to a ‘moment of madness’ for a ‘troubled’ young man. In fact, his whiteness made him appear so nice and normal that the arresting officers couldn’t help but pick up a meal for him at Burger King on the way to jail; while the judge who set bail reminded the world that his family were victims too. It seems that he had been too preoccupied with mass murder to get lunch and his family was distraught at having given him a gun as a birthday present.
I wondered how the president would face up to this obvious bias in the media reporting and the justice system; how he would give the victims the dignity they deserved; and how he would address the questions about race that hung thick in the air, while the conservative media and right-wing attack dogs skulked in the shadows, waiting for him to make a mistake. In a speech that will go down in history as one of the greats, he ignored any possible detractors and spoke to his people – the victims’ families, the AME church, African-Americans and mourners all over America.
He created a brilliant contrast between Clementa Pinckney’s life of service and achievement, and that of the perpetrator’s narrow-minded emptiness and the media’s worn-out stereotypes of Black men. He laid bare the viciousness and hate that was met with love by the welcoming worshippers and later forgiven by the victims’ families. And, just in case you missed it, he repeated the statistics that spoke volumes about the fallen leader: “Preacher by 13. Pastor by 18. Public servant by 23. What a life Clementa Pinckney lived. What an example he set. What a model for his faith.”
This made me curious about Obama’s own timeline of success, so I looked it up: President of the Harvard Law Review at 29. Civil rights lawyer at 30. Part-time law lecturer (and later professor) at 31. State senator by 36. Bestselling author by 40. U.S. Senator by 44. Grammy award winner by 45. U.S. President by 47. It sounds simple enough but you can just imagine the ups and downs, the successes and the setbacks, in between the dots. Not to mention the early years of confusion, resulting from his mixed heritage, absent father and a growing awareness of racism around him.
What makes a confused young Barack able to overcome abandonment, prejudice and frustration, and become the leader of the free world? And how does a prodigious Clementa, surrounded by poverty and despair in the Deep South, achieve such a self-assured climb to leadership from just 13 years old? Is it something in the water, or in the genes? Was it consciously nurtured by parents and teachers? Was it by accident, fate or fortune? Or was it something else?
In analysing both stories, I found some commonalities. Barack’s mother would wake him up at 4am to study when he was falling behind in his grades – she refused to let him fail; Pinckney was from a long line of pastors, so expectation must have been equally high. Both had a strong sense of service to others: Barack was a community organiser on the tough South Side of Chicago and a defender of civil rights as a lawyer; Clementa remained a pastor, while seeking public office in a bid to serve a wider audience in his community. Obama has managed to perform well in the face of unprecedented opposition, smiling with his enemies as he finds ways around them. Rev. Pinckney smiled too, as he welcomed his killer into the midst of the small prayer group.
Graciousness, it seems, is a prerequisite for great leadership. Fearlessness is too.
I watched one last time as President Barack Obama wrapped up his speech. “Amazing grace.” He paused. “Amazing grace.” Longer pause. Then he launched into his now famous rendition of the song, stirring up emotions and galvanising the congregation with the solidarity of the moment. How many world leaders would trust their voices at such a juncture? Who would risk giving their critics such a rich vein of potential ridicule if it all went horribly wrong? But fortune favours the brave and, as a result, your grandchildren will see those moments in the years to come.
As I am writing this in Nigeria, I spared a thought for the new president, Muhammadu Buhari, who rode to victory a few weeks ago on a promise of change. Change from corruption, abject poverty of the majority and impunity by a lost generation of politicians. I wonder how he will fare over the next four years. He appears to have both grace and fearlessness in abundance but time will tell whether he can find them in measure equal to the task. For Nigeria’s sake, I hope he succeeds.
I’m fairly sure he would have watched Obama’s speech. If he did, I hope he wrote this down; he may need it in the months ahead, especially when the going gets tough:
“If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.”
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