What follows is an excerpt from a recent conversation between the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, and Rock & Roll legend Bruce Springsteen - from their Podcast "Renegades: Born in the USA" - where the President explains the background that led him to his singing of "Amazing Grace" during the eulogy for Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney on June 2015.
What I really want to ask you about, of course, is Amazing Grace because that really that shook the whole country. And how on that day, did you come to decide to ah to sing that song?
That's an interesting story I ah... First of all, that day was a magical day that began in grief. Or, or we had anticipated would begin in in grief, but it turns out that's also the day in which the Supreme Court hands down the ruling saying that it is unconstitutional to not let lesbians and gays and LGBTQ.
Partners get married, so that's a joyful moment. But we are travelling down to Charleston after this young... this young white man who's been filled with hatred guns down a Bible study class that had welcomed him in.
And, I actually had met the Pastor, Reverend Pinckney, in previous visits to South Carolina. He had two little girls that were a little younger than Malia and Sasha. And, and this was coming on the heels of just, it seemed like every three months some mass shooting.
And I would go after each of these mass shootings - And sometimes Michelle would go with me - although it was at a certain point became difficult for Michelle to just do this. And I would spend a couple hours with a family who just had their child or their father or their brother, or their son gunned down senselessly for no reason. And I had...I had thought that after Newtown when 20, 6-year-olds had been gunned down in this fashion by a deranged young man - who had basically an arsenal in his house.
I thought all right, well, Congress is gonna do something about this. And the most angry I think and disappointed... the closest I ever came to just losing hope about this country was probably after efforts for modest gun safety laws were defeated - weren't even really, never even really got called up in the Senate. After 20 children had been slaughtered like that. The only time I saw a Secret Service person cry while I was speaking– was at Newtown. So, so it happens again, and I say as soon as it happens - in addition to making a statement from the White House - I say, “You know, I'll want to go to the funeral, but I don't want to speak. I don't have anything left to say. I feel like I've used up all my words.”
Nothing I've been able to say. Whether making practical, rational arguments, emotional arguments, I've shown anger in speaking about this. I’ve shown sorrow and nothing seems to have any impact. I'm out of words
And of course, they ask that I speak, and I concluded alright, it was part of the job... I don't have the luxury, but I was stuck. I had nothing to say. It just so happened at the time I was corresponding with a friend, Marilynne Robinson, who's a wonderful author, wrote Gilead and... one theme that she writes about is grace. And we have been writing about grace and just talking about the notion of...the notion of grace as a recognition that we are fundamentally flawed and weak and confused. So, we don't deserve grace, but we get it sometimes. - And just as, just as she had been writing this, or we've been writing to each other about this, the families of the slain in Charleston during the shooter’s arrange... arraignment...say we forgive you.
And it didn't click right away. I'm still thinking, “I don't know what to say.” My head speechwriter Cody Keenan. I tell him. “Dude, you know, I don't know what's going to work here.” He gives me something that is not, you know, it just doesn't meet the moment. Not because it's his fault. It's 'cause he's gone through the same thing I have. We've done this too many times. We were...we're out of... So, I'm sitting there about 10:00 o'clock at night. And I'm just stuck and there's I don't know what it is that I'm going to say tomorrow. This is going to be the next day. I think Marilynne’s letters just sort of sitting on a desk and I... I just.. I see the word grace and somehow, I start singing to myself. [sings] Amazing Grace...Right?
And I thought about the families who said, “We forgive you.” And I thought ummm... Well, maybe I can work with that. Suddenly, I write the speech in 10 minutes, maybe 20. Right? I mean the whole... I mean the eulogy. I... I just... it all just pours out of me.
It’s interesting cause it's a moment where you just say, “Will words be enough?” And it would have been, but I thought the music, the song, the leap of faith, involved... Particularly because I know that it wouldn't sound like a professional singer. It would sound like somebody– just one other guy in the choir. That in some fashion, that's the thing that would be the grace note. That that would be the thing that drew people out.
And part of the reason I think that it somehow met the moment was because not only is it a beautiful song. But it also captures this unifying element in America represented in its music. You’ve got an old world English hymn that has been used by everybody. In every church, all across this country. White churches, Black churches, the Black Gospel tradition has transformed it. And it spoke then to the fact that underneath, even a tragedy like this, there's something that is there for all of us. Something that we share.