Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, and now, George Floyd. These are just a few of the victims of America’s 400-year legacy of racial brutality and prejudice.
Reflecting on this painful history, and my place in it, I have found myself remembering the remarkable eulogy that President Obama delivered at the funeral for the nine victims of the racist massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, almost exactly five years ago.
At that moment of horror and pain, President Obama did something transformative, electrifying, and courageous: he sang — before the world — the opening stanza of the great spiritual hymn, “Amazing Grace”:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
These lines have been present with me constantly during the last week. You don’t have be religious to grasp their meaning. They tell the story of a journey — a journey on which I believe we are launched as individuals, as institutions and, I hope, as a society.
This is a journey beyond being found — beyond belonging or vision — toward more than “I see.” We have seen the racism in America for decades and centuries. It is known. It is seen.
In today’s context, perhaps the last line should read:
Was blind, but now I feel.
The spectacle of George Floyd’s cruel murder may have finally enabled white Americans to feel the fear, the grief, the anger, and the desperation with which people of color in the U.S. live every day.
In that feeling, we hope that finally the will to act will come. If that action is strong, swift, and decisive to combat the racism in our society, we can hope for grace, an amazing grace, that is worthy of us as a people and of the values for which our country stands.
I see that grace already in the faces of the diverse Americans, young and old, Black, brown, and white, who have been demonstrating peacefully throughout this country. I see it in the sad, strong, resolute faces of the families of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd as they demand justice. I hear it in President Obama’s voice that day in Charleston, five years ago.
It is within reach. We must grasp it.