The Holy City, alit with the brightness and buzz of the bright and buzzing people who reside in it, oscillated as Friday nights downtown normally do. On the Charleston skyline, church steeples speckled the horizon, looming over all the bars, hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions. The energy, the spirit of Charleston on a summer night, the life of a city whose light comes from its people — all shot to darkness at 9 p.m. on the night of June 17, when 12 parishioners closed their eyes to end bible study with a prayer:
“The Lord watch between you and me, one from the other. Amen,” as the traditional Benediction goes.
Before they could open their eyes, a 21-year-old boy opened fire on the 12 people at the Bible study in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing nine in the most tragic hate crime in recent South Carolinian history.
The Holy City lay still.
It later came out through his hate-filled online manifesto that Dylann Roof had targeted the church because of its African American history. He wanted to ignite a race war.
While he awaits a presumed death sentence in a Charleston jail, Roof would cringe if he knew that what he ignited in the African Methodist community, in the College of Charleston community, in the city of Charleston and in the South as a whole was the exact opposite of his intention. In the words of Reverend Eugene Collins Sr., pastor at the Shiloh branch of AME Churches in Downtown Charleston, “What Dylann Roof meant for evil, God turned into good.”
But this story is no longer about Dylann Roof. This story is about people. This story is about Charleston.
And Charleston responded with love.
Now, almost exactly four months since that devastating June night, members of the Charleston community continue to bond through vigils, rallies, moments of silence, church services and forums in order to bring back the light that once illuminated the city. Light from candles continuously lit in memory of the victims. Light in the eyes of an 11-year-old survivor with hope for a brighter future. Light in the darkness of today’s twisted society, in which hate is perpetuated instead of addressed with institutional change.
The hubbub of the media died down. Charleston slipped out of the mouths of national and international newscasters as other petty stories about Donald Trump’s constant blubbering and Hillary Clinton’s email scandal began to resurface. To the world, the AME shooting was just another ephemeral catastrophe – just adding to the plethora of racially driven tension amid our society. But for Charleston, the conversation has only just begun.
There are 12 Charleston families who are still in immense pain. They lost friends; they lost relatives.
12. Not just nine.
The three survivors of the shooting often go unrecognized throughout the media coverage. The unfortunate reality is that journalists can be like sensationalizing vultures circling in on tragedy. They flock to carnage.
Hope doesn’t sell.
Muhiyyidin d’Baha, a prominent organizer of the Black Lives Matter Movement in Charleston, talked about the media’s repulsive tendency to make tragedy into something “spectacular.” “The media spotlight creates the story that everybody replicates,” d’Baha said. “And so when the media decides that they’re going to uplift black lives that are no longer existing, then black death matters and black lives don’t matter.”
It would be an injustice to pretend that this attack is an isolated incident against the African American community in South Carolina — or the South in general. There is a much larger historical context in which white supremacists have attacked African Americans and their churches and communities. And that’s not to say that the attackers only belong to extremist pre-Civil Rights Movement groups like the Klu Klux Klan. There is more to this than just marginalizing the outwardly racist factions of society; it’s more than just them. Racist terrorism is not a new concept, and the African American community in Charleston knows this all too well.
“It’s in their homes,” College of Charleston Dean of Libraries John White said. “This isn’t way back in history. This is stuff that Grandma dealt with on a daily basis. These were things where Grandpa could be fired from his job for trying to vote.”
Recently awarded with a $375,000 grant from Google, White and members of the Avery Research Center for African American History have been working to springboard community conversations and dialogue for societal change. This “Race and Social Justice Initiative” co-hosted a series of events with the survivors of the Birmingham Church Bombing in 1963 that served as a forum to discuss racism and violence. The grant will bring more events to the College of Charleston by inviting authors of pertinent activism-geared books to facilitate discussion on campus. This group of faculty is also putting together an online memorial featuring visual representations of the assemblage of flowers, posters and ribbons collected from the church as well as responses from people locally, nationally and globally. The release date has yet to be determined, as the committee wishes to be respectful of the survivors’ and families’ time to grieve.
White said that the African American community wants to see real results come out of this tragedy. “They want the legacy to be about the victims and the survivors,” he said, “not about the shooter … And the only solace I think they do get from this is that the victims did not have to die in vain, and the survivors did not have to go through the trauma they went through for no reason at all.”
Where is the justice?
Reverend Collins is still grappling with the “massacre” that Mother Emanuel — the church’s endearing nickname — faced. “I still can’t get a handle on this thing,” he said. “It’s always on my mind.” Reverend Collins and others are reaching out to the families of the victims as well as the survivors by connecting with them spiritually and “showing them love,” he said. “That’s what we do.”
The healing process is going to take time.
“These are not emotions that you can just turn on and off,” Collins said. White agreed, and like many others, emphasized the need to attack institutional racism that comes in the form of income inequality, health disparities, mass incarceration and lack of access to education. “Without addressing these issues,” he said. “You’re just spinning your wheels and not doing right by the victims and the survivors.”
In terms of doing right by the victims, the College of Charleston has renamed one of its most prestigious Colonial scholarships in memorial of Cynthia Graham Hurd. Hurd was a College of Charleston librarian as well as a librarian at other Charleston libraries. “Cynthia believed very strongly in the power of education and literacy,” White said. “She embodied what it means to be a librarian. This is what she stood for.” The College will also plant a marker in the Serenity Library in Rivers Green in her honor.
College of Charleston’s own student organizations are stimulating conversation through forums and vigils, as well. Students such as Kalene Parker, President of the Black Student Union at the College, believe that Charleston has responded better than to be expected of a victim of such a hateful crime. “Charleston has handled this better than I would have thought,” Parker said. “I expected riots, but it has overall been very peaceful and very remorseful. Forgiveness is the key because if they [the families] were to hold that enemy bitter they wouldn’t be able to stand up and tell other people to respond in a peaceful manner.”
At the student forum hosted by the BSU called “Say Their Names,” members of the BSU filed into the room followed by College of Charleston athletes, Muhiyyidin d’Baha and Head Basketball Coach Earl Grant.
Students responded to questions regarding attendance at protests, forgiveness and the Confederate flag — all in an attempt to answer the question of why such a drastic event had to happen in order to rally people together for change.
“I was at home when I heard the news,” Earl Grant said. “I had the parents of kids calling and asking, ‘Is my baby safe?’”
“People could hide behind non-confrontational dialogue until these events,” BSU Faculty Advisor Marla Robertson said. “Now, we can uncover and pull back the layers for long term solidarity and change in our institutions.”
“With the Walter Scott case, we were upset, but not mad enough,” one student said. “It took 9 people — a bloodbath — for us to get mad enough.”
“In South Carolina, riots didn’t happen,” claimed another student. “If anywhere, this is where it should have happened. There is forgiveness, but at the same time … “
“Where is justice?” someone filled in.
Charleston’s forbearance from taking action, from acting rash, has been coined by Governor Nikki Haley as a lesson from the “New South.” According to an article in The Washington Post, Haley affirmed that Charleston’s reaction to the shooting has not been violent, by saying, “We didn’t have riots, we had vigils. We didn’t have violence, we had hugs.” Haley claimed that this is representative of a new South, a South in which sympathy and peace is the response to racism instead of violence and revenge.
However, debate is milling around the College of Charleston campus about whether this is the right response. And rightfully so. Associate Professor of Educational History and Faculty Contact for the Race and Social Justice Initiative Jon Hale addressed Haley’s comments with a more critical perspective. Hale claimed that what happened in Baltimore and other cities that have faced recent racially-driven tragedies is a sign of political dissent and protest. “And to say that it’s just mindless is missing the point: that the South, as well as the North and West and Midwest, are upset with this issue,” Hale said. “We are not going to solve this issue through hugs and unity, we are going to solve this issue through deep discussion — that will be painful at times — and substantive reform.”
Substantive reform that, in the words of CofC’s President of the National Pan-Hellenic Council Odies Turner, cannot simply come from taking the Confederate Flag down from the state’s capitol or naming a scholarship after a victim. Turner argued that while it was a good thing to take down the flag, it’s just not enough. “The whole thing overshadowed the big picture of what needs to be going on and how we need to progress as a community and how black lives need to be looked at,” Turner said. “It was like giving a baby a pacifier; you just shut them up for a moment.”
White agreed. “It was 50 years too late,” he said.
On Tuesday, Sept. 29, roughly 175 people entered the Wells Fargo Auditorium, candles in hand. This schoolwide vigil, called No Violence — No Victims, was held to commemorate the victims and the survivors of the shooting and all those who have been affected by this senseless crime.
Students and faculty filed in. Fraternity boys asked where they could sign in to get credit from their organization that clearly forced them to go. One of the College’s a cappella groups sang an arguably tasteless selection of “Somebody That I Used to Know.” And President McConnell sounded more like he was advertising for the College than sympathizing with its community.
Is this enough? Are we doing enough?
Tragedy strikes and we hurt. We say we are “Charleston Strong” and we hold hands on a bridge and sing at vigils. We seek the death penalty because clearly the shooter was a “crazy person,” and his death will bring us the retribution that we feel we deserve. Clearly his ideas are so distant from ours that we cannot possibly take responsibility for enabling them. We say we are empathetic when we really just don’t understand.
But there was a gospel choir at the vigil that sang of strength. There was a student who spoke of “Knowing your role, Doing your job.” A pastor who spoke of solidarity and positivity. We can change the course of our future. There is hope.
During a moment of silence, candles in each hand made the room glow, playing a sorrowful denouement on the events that occurred this summer, but bringing incipient hope that brightness will begin to challenge the shadow that has been cast upon the South for far too long.
Now is the time.
*This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Yard