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'Amazing Grace,' a song of suffering to pull us together


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One week ago today, President Obama gave the eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of nine people shot and killed at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

You may recall he closed his remarks by turning to song in a surprise rendition of the spiritual "Amazing Grace."

Special correspondent John Larson has a look at the song's unique role in history.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: That's what I felt this week, an open heart.

JOHN LARSON: Thirty-four minutes into a eulogy for one of the nine African-Americans slain in a hate crime, the first African-American president turned to what he called the nation's reservoir of goodness.

BARACK OBAMA: If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.

JOHN LARSON: And then a pause, and just two words.

BARACK OBAMA: Amazing grace.

JOHN LARSON: What came next was a long stretch of silence, before he began.

BARACK OBAMA (singing): Amazing grace.


BARACK OBAMA (singing): How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.

REV. WILLIAM H. LAMAR IV, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church: For me, I had never been as personally engaged by a political leader as I was in that moment, because it connected to me in ways that are -- are really hard to -- hard to put into words.

JOHN LARSON: The Reverend William H. Lamar IV of the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, D.C., says that's because "Amazing Grace" is thick, as he calls it, with history.

REV. WILLIAM H. LAMAR IV: When my ancestors sang that song, it was their affirmation that they wouldn't become like those who were oppressing them, and that they wouldn't even exclude God's grace from those who were excluding grace from them.

JOHN LARSON: As portrayed in a new show on Broadway, "Amazing Grace" was written by an Englishman and published in 1779. But here's the important part. The Englishman, John Newton, was white and had been a trafficker of black slaves.

SARAH KAUFMAN, The Washington Post: The song started as a sermon, by John Newton, experienced a storm at sea, vowed that, if he lived through the storm, he would dedicate his life to God. And that is indeed what he did.

JOHN LARSON: Sarah Kaufman is a Pulitzer Prize winner and dance critic for The Washington Post. She's about to release her new book, "The Art of Grace."

She says Newton had a religious conversion, became a minister and then an abolitionist.

SARAH KAUFMAN: The song is all about vulnerability. It expresses the sense that we are so wretched, we're so undeserving, and yet this love and forgiveness and grace pours out to us from a higher power.

JOHN LARSON: Whether it's the melody or the message, it taps into something shared, common, yet extraordinary.

JUDY COLLINS, Singer/Songwriter: Well, it's the song that is the most inclusive of any song I know from any place in the world. What he did was to draw us together. That's what that song does. It pulls us all together.

JOHN LARSON: Judy Collins sang it in the streets with Fannie Lou Hamer during the civil rights movement.

JUDY COLLINS: I was in Mississippi with Fannie Lou Hamer in 1964 singing "Amazing Grace," trying to get people to come out of their houses. They were terrified to go out and vote, terrified. And she'd start singing "Amazing Grace" and people would come out of their homes.

JOHN LARSON: In 1970, Collins recorded a simple version, and it became a worldwide hit. She didn't know, within a few years, the song would help save her, first from addiction and then the suicide of her only child.

JUDY COLLINS: I love, in the verse itself, "We have been there 10 thousand years, bright shining as the sun."

We have always been here. We have always been in the same dilemma.

JOHN LARSON: Say the whole verse for me. How does it go? We have...

JUDY COLLINS (singing): When we have been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun, we have no less days to sing God's praise than when we first begun.

JOHN LARSON: And so this was the song the president chose, a song conceived in suffering, which somehow has become a worldwide prayer for healing and hope.

I'm John Larson for the PBS NewsHour.

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