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WATCH: Obama sings 'Amazing Grace' at funeral of slain pastor

Roberta Rampton

Published 26/06/2015 | 23:13

U.S. President Barack Obama leads mourners in singing the song
U.S. President Barack Obama leads mourners in singing the song "Amazing Grace" as he delivers a eulogy in honor of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney during funeral services for Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney is one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Barack Obama leads mourners in singing the song "Amazing Grace" as he delivers a eulogy in honor of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney during funeral services for Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney is one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) and U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (top L) talk with first lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama after the conclusion of funeral services for Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney was one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

An impassioned President Barack Obama led thousands of mourners in singing "Amazing Grace" on Friday at the funeral of a slain pastor in Charleston and urged Americans to eliminate symbols of oppression and racism, including the Confederate battle flag.

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In a speech likely to be considered one of the most memorable of his presidency, Obama paid an emotional tribute to the nine people shot to death at the church and pleaded for Americans to use the tragedy as a way to bridge racial divide.

The shootings last week sparked an intense dialogue over the legacy of slavery and its symbols after photos of the white man charged in the shooting surfaced showing him posing with the Confederate flag and apparently posting a racist manifesto online.

Politicians and businesses quickly scrambled to distance themselves from the Civil War-era battle flag of the Confederacy amid calls for the flag to be lowered from the grounds of South Carolina's State House.

Obama called the flag "a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation."

"For too long we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens," Obama said in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, 41, of Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church.

U.S. President Barack Obama hugs Eliana Pinckney as he visits with her mother Jennifer and sister Malana aftercompleting his eulogy for her father Rev. Clementa Pinckney during funeral services for Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney is one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Barack Obama hugs Eliana Pinckney as he visits with her mother Jennifer and sister Malana aftercompleting his eulogy for her father Rev. Clementa Pinckney during funeral services for Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney is one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks during services honoring the life of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Friday, June 26, 2015, at the College of Charleston TD Arena in Charleston, S.C.. Pinckney was one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church last week in Charleston. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Rev. Jesse Jackson (L) at the conclusion of funeral services for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney is one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. President Barack Obama leads mourners in singing the song "Amazing Grace" as he deliversa eulogy in honor of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney during funeral services for Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney is one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Barack Obama leads mourners in singing the song "Amazing Grace" as he delivers a eulogy in honor of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney during funeral services for Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney is one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
The family of Rev. Clementa Pinckney is guided at his funeral service in the TD Arena in Charleston, South Carolina, June 26, 2015. President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy for Pinckney, the pastor of the historic church where the attack took place. Pinckney was one of the nine victims of the mass shooting at the church. REUTERS/Paul Zoeller/Pool
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend the funeral service for Rev. Clementa Pinckney in the TD Arena in Charleston, South Carolina, June 26, 2015. President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy for Pinckney, the pastor of the historic church where the attack took place. Pinckney was one of the nine victims of the mass shooting at the church. REUTERS/Paul Zoeller/Pool
U.S. President Barack Obama dances to the gospel choir as he and first lady Michelle Obama take their seats before Obama delivered the eulogy honoring Clementa Pinckney, a pastor and state lawmaker killed in last week's church shooting in Charleston, during funeral services in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney was among the nine people who died when a gunman opened fire in the mass shooting during bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Obama led the crowd of around 5,500 people gathered in a college arena in singing "Amazing Grace," a hymn often associated with African-American struggles.

Obama read out the names of all the nine Charleston victims. The cadence of his speech was more like that of a sermon than an address and it was laced with religious meaning.

KILLING WAS PERSONAL

The Charleston killings touched three issues close to Obama's heart: gun control, race and a personal connection to Pinckney, a state senator who he met while campaigning for the White House in the 2008 election.

As the first black president, Obama's election raised hopes that the United States was moving beyond racism but the Charleston shooting was another reminder to him and the country that the issue is still toxic.

"Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don't realise it," Obama said on Friday.

The Department of Justice has opened a hate crime investigation into the shooting.

The Democratic president failed in 2013 in a high-profile effort to have Congress tighten gun laws after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were killed.

President Barack Obama is embraced by clergy members after delivering the eulogy at the funeral service for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Friday, June 26, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. The president delivered a passionate discourse on America's racial history Friday in his eulogy for a state senator and pastor, slain along with eight other black churchgoers in what police called a hate crime. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
President Barack Obama is embraced by clergy members after delivering the eulogy at the funeral service for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Friday, June 26, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. The president delivered a passionate discourse on America's racial history Friday in his eulogy for a state senator and pastor, slain along with eight other black churchgoers in what police called a hate crime. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
U.S. President Barack Obama hugs Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after funeral services for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney is one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) talks with first lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama after the conclusion of funeral services for Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney was one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Barack Obama sits near the family (rear) of Rev. Clementa Pinckney during funeral services for Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney is one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Barack Obama leads mourners in singing the song "Amazing Grace" as he delivers a eulogy in honor of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney during funeral services for Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Pinckney is one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

"For too long, we've been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation," he said on Friday. "The vast majority of Americans want to do something about this. . .We see that now," he said.

He made frequent reference to God's grace and the Charleston alleged killer Dylann Roof's failure to sew bitterness, as witnessed by the forgiveness shown by the victims' families.

Reuters

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