College of Charleston student activists fight racism in wake of Emanuel shooting

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Charleston Community members prepare to walk across the Ravenel Bridge for the Unity Chain on June 21. The Unity Chain is one of many ways that  Charlestonians, including CofC students, are showing their support following the Emanuel shooting. (Photo courtesy of Mike Ledford via flickr creative commons)

Destiny Dahl knew the melody by heart. Like most of us, she had heard the song hundreds of times. But this time was different. Standing on the Ravenel Bridge hand-in-hand with thousands of strangers who represented the trust, understanding and support of a community in healing, a lone voice singing “This Little Light of Mine” nearly brought Dahl to tears.

The Unity Chain on Sunday evening was one of a handful of events in Charleston protesting the racism and injustice that fueled the tragic shooting of 9 community members at the Emanuel AME Church on June 17. The event’s concept was simple: thousands of Charlestonians walking hand-in-hand from one side of the bridge to the other. However, this simple idea amounted to more than the sum of its parts.

“Being surrounded by that many people and knowing that we were united in our goals was just amazing,” Dahl, a rising senior at the College, said. “I felt like I was supposed to be there, sharing the moment with Charleston.”

According to the event’s Facebook page, 9,600 people attended in memory of those who lost their lives to Dylann Roof, although no numbers have been verified.

Jordan Kelley, last year’s President of the Black Student Union at College of Charleston, did not have to attend the Unity Chain to sense the strength of the Charleston community in the face of tragedy. “I see this shooting unifying the Charleston community more than ever before,” he said. However, he also sees how much work is still needed to create a more peaceful society.

“People would like to think that we live in a post racial society but the reality is that there are still white supremacists out there who think that ‘White is right’ and there is no other way,” Kelley said. “There is something or someone that Dylann had access to that taught him racist ideologies and he internalized them and used them as motivation for this massacre.”

Kelley and other members of the Black Student Union are showing their support for societal change by participating in the memorial services and marches honoring the 9 victims. He hopes that through continued activism, the Charleston community will combat racism even after the media moves on.

Even outside of Charleston, College of Charleston students are actively protesting racism and honoring those who lost their lives. Alex Porter, a senior German major working in downtown Columbia this summer, was bothered every time he drove past the State House and saw the Confederate flag flying at full mast.

“I see groups of young black students on their third grade field trip to the State House, and I wonder how they’ll feel growing up in a state that fights harder to keep that flag flying than it does to send them to college,” he said. “The shooting at Mother Emanuel was just my last straw.”

Living away from Charleston for the summer, Porter is forgoing grand rallies and marches and instead “getting political” by writing letters to his representatives and coming out publicly in his support for removing the Confederate flag from the State House. He is speaking to family, friends and coworkers to purposefully spark discussion in hopes of creating change.

“I understand that for many people, it represents their heritage and can be seen as a symbol of their Southern Pride,” he said. “Even if I were of the same opinion, what right would I have to impose my heritage on the rest of South Carolina by flying that symbol above the State House grounds?”

Although choosing different means of protest, Porter, Dahl and Kelley share a common goal: to eliminate racism from Charleston, from South Carolina, and from the United States. Citing communal responsibility, Porter recalled the common proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.”

“And our village raised a domestic terrorist. He wasn’t a fluke of nature, and he wasn’t a mentally ill kid who just snapped one day. He was a racist, and he grew up in a community of people who enabled that. If we don’t do something about it, more will follow.”

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