By Dustin Waters. Read it here.
On a Sunday afternoon, April 19, 2015, state Sen. Rev. Clementa Pinckney stood before a small crowd in Hampton Park to deliver a brief homily. An overcast sky threatened the rains that would come later that evening as the winds picked up. It was a solemn ceremony for those gathered to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, but looking back, Pinckney would provide a message of reconciliation and perseverance in the face of an approaching storm.
As a pastor, he spoke of faith and forgiveness. As a senator, he spoke of history and change. As a man looking back on centuries of division, he spoke of hope — a hope that we may one day reach a more perfect union.
Recalling the 19th chapter of 2 Samuel, he told the story of a family at war against itself. Absalom, the son of King David, had led a failed revolt against his father’s kingdom. David’s forces were met with victory, yet he mourned the loss of his son in a battle that divided a nation. From there, the pastor imagined himself in the place of Lincoln, looking through the fog at Gettysburg, seeing not just the Union losses, but honoring all who died on that battlefield, cherishing all sacrifice, and believing and wishing that none had to die. In a sure voice, in a father’s voice, Pinckney delivered a plea that this country might reach a true place of unity, that we shed the distrust and aging prejudices that hold us back before anymore lives are lost.
“Today, like King David, I stand with mixed emotions. With joy, but also, as a man of God, with sadness knowing that so many died for the freedom of others,” he said. “And I pray that as we move forward from this place, and as we move on from one generation to the other, that we never forget those who died in the cause for our nation. And may we sing as the troops did, ‘His truth is marching on.'”
Sen. Pinckney was not supposed to be the speaker that day, he humbly admitted as he took the stage. He was filling in for a guest who could not be there. “But call me a ram in the bush,” he said, referring to the sacrifice that appeared to Abraham to be offered up in the place of his son Isaac in the Book of Genesis. He asked that those listening suffer him for just a few moments as he spoke of a war that divided houses and pit brother against brother, father against son, and generation against generation. Fifty-nine days later, he would be killed along with eight others gathered in prayer in the basement of Emanuel AME Church. Delivering the late pastor’s eulogy, President Barack Obama described Pinckney as a man who believed there were better days ahead, a man of service who believed that his efforts would deliver a better life for those who followed. Now, one year removed from the horrible act of violence that took his life, how have we carried on this message? How has Charleston, how has South Carolina, and how has this nation treated the wounds, both old and new, laid bare by the murders at Mother Emanuel? With cuts that run deep between races, genders, and classes, how does a city heal?
We all remember the feeling that filled the city as thousands gathered outside of the church in the days and weeks following the shooting. Strangers stood together as they grappled with just how to process the shock of what had happened. Sadly, we are not the only city that has felt such loss. Living in Charleston in the aftermath of the tragedy at Mother Emanuel, I was reminded of walking the streets of Boston in the days following the marathon bombing in 2013 that killed three spectators and wounded almost 300. There’s something unsettling to hear every person you pass talking about only one thing. Looking back, I wondered if there was a way to better understand what happens to a city in the aftermath of an attack. I thought, maybe there was a process to it all. How did we go from mourning to watching tourists stop and take photos of themselves outside the church? And maybe if we had an idea of this process, Charleston could have a better understanding of what we went through and where we’re headed.
In April of 2007, a gunman shot and killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus. Until the recent attack on a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. that left 50 dead and more than 50 wounded, it was the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history. Since that time, James Hawdon, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech, has continued to examine how communities respond to tragedy. What he’s found is a reoccurring pattern of unity and separation in cities throughout the world.
For the first 10 days following an incident, there is an intense state of shock that gives way to an outpouring of solidarity, mutual support, and grieving, he says. Many people are still trying to grasp what has occurred, while others are simply overcome with emotion. After two weeks, a community enters into a period of soul-searching. Why did this happen? Why did it happen here? What could have been done to prevent it? But then as weeks turn into months, the community starts to divide. One group vows to never forget and continues to push for a solution to whatever led them down this path. Others move on. Their lives return to normal, and they do their best to put it all behind them. The final group takes an almost hostile stance against those who still wish to discuss what happened, creating an enforced silence. By six months, the unity that proved so necessary has dissipated. But what decides this separation is as much a political issue as it is personal.
“In the case of Charleston, those who are passionate about addressing racial inequality in social injustices are going to disproportionately be in that group who wants to continue talking about it,” says Hawdon. “But it really is also somewhat correlated with personal ways of grieving. Some people help to process the grieving by being active and by saying never again. Whereas other people, they get over trauma and tragedy in a more passive way. ‘I’m getting back to normal and, yes, these are important issues, but they are larger than this one incident and we can talk about them.’ It’s not just Charleston. Lord knows, it’s not just Charleston.”
Following the shooting at Mother Emanuel, the schism in race relations that has existed in the American South for a century was pulled further into the light. We were forced to address long-standing complaints that still plagued the community. For many, the Confederate battle flag remained a symbol of oppression. Its removal from Statehouse grounds in Columbia was a hard-fought campaign even after the shooting, but there remain problems that stretch beyond flags and symbols that are still more difficult to discuss.
“We have been avoiding a difficult racial conversation in this country since we founded this country. After these types of intense events, we have enough solidarity where we kind of look at each other and realize we’re all in this together and this is horrible. We might disagree, but we wouldn’t wish this on anybody, and we really do need to talk,” says Hawdon. “But then things return to normal, and people start getting involved in their daily routines again. Bringing up the conversation and having the conversation is just as difficult, if not more difficult than it was a year prior.”
He adds, “So the people who end up at the meetings are the people who have been at the meetings for the last 40 years, and they’re talking to each other. Life goes back to normal. Structured relations are slow to change for a reason. People, in essence, we’re like water. We’re like electricity. We find the path of least resistance, and if we can continue doing what we’re doing, that’s what happens.”
A year later, former Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. looks back on the events at Mother Emanuel as the most tragic in the city’s history and the heaviest burden that he carries from his 40 years of leading the city.
“The fact that this young man would drive 120 miles premeditatedly to go into a house of God and kill people studying the Bible because he hated them because of the color of their skin was the most unspeakable of acts. It broke my heart, as it did everyone in this community, certainly the dear family members,” he recalls. “Meeting with the families at about 11:15 that night to break the news to them of what happened, all they knew was somebody had been shooting in Mother Emanuel, and they knew they had a loved one who had been there. Being with them when they realized that their husband, wife, sister, brother, friend, grandparent, parent, loved one had been killed, that was one of the saddest moments in my life, maybe the saddest.”
But then, Riley says, the city’s worst atrocity produced one of the finest moments for the country and world. Responding with generosity and consoling, he saw only forgiveness in the community in the face of violence. But now, we must discover new ways to learn from what happened and see beyond our own experiences.
“Bigotry easily festers when it is in a pool of ignorance,” says Riley, who now dedicates his time to the realization of the International African-American Museum. There, Riley hopes to present the breadth of culture and history of those brought to this city in chains and the long, slow struggle for civil rights. Without question, he says, the events at Mother Emanuel led to something better for Charleston. In his eyes, the tragedy changed the arc of not only the community, but the country.
Serving as a permanent reminder of the community’s response immediately following the shooting, the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative has created an online tribute funded in part by the College of Charleston’s Race and Social Justice Initiative launched with support from Google. Produced in partnership with the church, the online collection has been co-curated by the LDHI, Lowcountry Africana, and the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American-American History and Culture. Mary Battle, public historian at Avery and co-director of the LDHI, says a major goal of the project is to represent Mother Emanuel as a space of life and growth and not just a place of tragedy. It’s a story that will grow and change over time, but one that will follow the city’s course beyond the shooting. Knowing that more will be needed than just discourse and dialogue, the Race and Social Justice Initiative has commissioned a study to create Charleston’s first racial disparities report. According to Battle, this will provide concrete information for political leaders and activists to truly understand what changes are needed.
“One of the things that was very clear immediately from the shooting is that history played a role. And whatever forces motivated this shooter, he was using language and pulling from ideas of white supremacy that continue to be a problem in this country today,” says Battle. “So I think that’s part of why it became such this powerful moment in the area’s history. I hope it becomes a catalyst for seeking efforts to be more inclusive in the way that Charleston can tell that story and to be honest and to confront the history of slavery and what that means for race and social justice today. This could be really a turning point.”
The tragedy at Mother Emanuel is a part of the past, but at the same time it remains very much before us. We are still searching for a way to turn that outpouring of support into something tangible, something concrete, and never let it fade. But to do that, Charleston must address the problems that allowed the shooting to happen.
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, calls the removal of the Confederate battle flag a monumental event for South Carolina, but she believes that there is still a dangerous mindset that is allowed to proliferate throughout South Carolina.
“We need the hearts and minds to change, so that we have more people that don’t think like Dylann Roof than the ones that do. I’m at the point where I believe that he is the exception to the rule for that extreme. Everybody is not that extreme, but we have enough who are in power that still advocate for that belief that the superior race is the white race and the African-Americans, we’re not enough,” she says.
Scott and the NAACP have been working with the Charleston Police Department’s Illumination Project to foster a greater trust between members of the community and those sworn to protect it. But she says that for many people there remains a matter of separation in understanding of what it means to be a person of color. And this lack of real connection with the experiences of others has lasting effects that stretch across generations and reaches into our schools, our businesses, and our political system.
“You can empathize, and you can sympathize, but can you really feel what it’s like for me to look at my black children and my grandchildren and think that just merely because the color of their skin, it doesn’t matter what kind of mother I have been, they will be treated differently for that reason and that reason alone,” she says.
As the poet laureate of South Carolina, Marjory Wentworth is tasked with putting into words all that the state has been through. With their book We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel, Wentworth and co-authors Herb Frazier and Bernard Edward Powers Jr. examine the history of the church and address the grace and struggles of its members beyond just the shooting. For Wentworth, Mother Emanuel is a scene of rebirth. Over and over again, this is the story of a church and a people beaten down and rising again.
“I think it’s really a teaching moment. I think the best way to honor the fallen and pay tribute to what happened is to continue the work of Sen. Pinckney, who worked so hard for the people in his district. Being a senator was just a natural part of being a minister for him,” says Wentworth.
One year after the deaths of those inside Mother Emanuel, there now comes a greater responsibility — to act differently, to heal, to reconcile. Charleston’s problems are not behind us. In recent weeks, we’ve seen our black school board members march out of meetings in protest of the closing of Lincoln Middle-High School and what they believe to be the systemic segregation and mistreatment of black students in Charleston County. A lack of affordable housing is dramatically shifting the make-up of the peninsula as families who have lived here for more than a century are priced out of their neighborhoods. Over the past 40 years, the portion of the African-American population on the peninsula has shrunk by approximately 30 percent as the cost of housing rises. When Wentworth and her co-authors say that “We are Charleston,” it’s not meant as a simple slogan to slap on a cover. It’s a reminder that this city is what we make it. Falling on all our shoulders following the tragedy at Mother Emanuel is the duty to strive for something better by not ignoring us at our worst. The grieving is still going on, and for some people it will never stop. There are parts of us lost that can never be made whole again. But there is a path ahead to something better. As we live this city’s history every day, we write the story of Charleston. Let it not be a tale of civil war. Let it be a resurrection story.