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Mother Emanuel AME Anniversary Feature: CHARLESTON MAGAZINE

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Written by Stephanie Hunt

June 17, 2015: a date that needs no explanation, at least in the Lowcountry—a time stamp that has changed our world, marking a pivot point between then and now. Last June 17 was an otherwise unremarkable humid Wednesday, until it wasn’t. Now it is forever etched in the hearts and minds of Charlestonians and those who love the city, those who shared in our pain after the horrific murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church. As the first anniversary of that dreadful day approaches, it confronts us, as anniversaries do, with the challenge of looking back. Of asking ourselves: how exactly do we assess the impact and healing post-Emanuel? How do we measure the passing of 24 hours 365 times over, after a day that stopped us in our tracks?

Perhaps it’s a year measured in 90 seconds and 77 bullets and nine lives lost—Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Myra Thompson. In countless tears, in astonishing and humbling expressions of forgiveness. In disbelief and outrage, in tumbling grief. It’s a year marked in prayers and hymns, in the lighting of candles, the tolling of bells, the releasing of doves. In vigils and rallies, in concerts and poetry readings. In millions of dollars donated; in thousands of people joining to hold hands across the Cooper River bridge; in innumerable “#charlestonstrong” postings and banners, murals, and memorials.

In the wake of the shootings, Charleston garnered national praise—and even a 2016 Nobel Peace Prize nomination for Emanuel AME Church—as black and white, believers and nonbelievers, came together and poured our collective sorrow into expressions of love, acts of beauty, and efforts toward healing and reconciliation. While other American cities shaken by racially toned atrocities erupted in violence, Charleston remained as gracious and well-mannered as ever. As condolences and donations came in from across the globe, our then-Mayor Joe Riley personally wrote some 4,600 thank-you notes.

In the weeks and months that followed, people offered their time and talents in whatever way possible to help ease the pain. Ninety “Artists for Emanuel” presented “Straight from the Heart” at the Cigar Factory, raising more than $57,000 for Coastal Community Foundation’s Lowcountry Unity Fund (see sidebar). Hospitality guru Mickey Bakst rallied the city’s food and beverage cohorts to host “A Community United” fundraising dinner at Charleston Place, raising nearly $600,000 for the city’s Hope Fund less than a month after the shootings. Graphic artist Gil Shuler distilled the overwhelming sense of both heartbreak and unity into “We Shall Overcome,” an indigo-steeped image of nine white doves taking flight from a palmetto that many people then adopted as their Facebook profile in a show of digital solidarity.amy_lukeimg_2926_0

The SC Legislature came together, and the Confederate Flag that flew outside the Statehouse where their slain colleague, the Honorable Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, served in the Senate, was lowered for good. “Clementa and I marched to Columbia in the 1990s to protest the flag; he adamantly spoke out against it, but he would never have chosen to give his life for it to come down,” says his close friend, the Reverend Dr. Kylon Middleton, pastor of Mother Emanuel’s daughter church, Mount Zion AME. “It’s a slap in the face that it took the death of these nine to be the conduit for others to do the right thing,” he adds.

Yet, as time crept on, the flag story faded to the background. The waves of memorial services ended, the satellite trucks and reporters eventually left Calhoun Street to chase the next big story. Bouquets and posters and stuffed animals deposited in front of the church began to dwindle. Kids went back to school; mayoral candidates went back to campaigning. By Christmas, most people had changed their Facebook profiles back to their usual mugs. At Easter, Rev. Pinckney’s two young daughters, Malana—one of five survivors of the massacre—and Eliana, presented a praise dance as part of Mount Zion AME’s Easter Homecoming Sunday worship service, where his widow, Jennifer, gave the sermon. “I have learned that love conquers all,” she preached. “When hatred rears its ugly head, love will lift and unite and mobilize people of goodwill, all God’s children, to rise up and raise a standard that is rooted in humanity, dignity, and goodness.”

And now, coming up on day 365, life for most of us has normalized, at least to a new normal. But what in Charleston has changed? “Joining hands on a bridge is not change—it’s a demonstration. People were moved to do something quickly,” says Middleton, who’s the cofounder and chair of The Honorable Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney Foundation that supports initiatives to further social justice causes important to the late state senator. “To affect real change, we have to go back to systemic problems that are deeply embedded. We have to deal with issues that have been masked for so long and have led to inequities that enable the kind of extremist attitudes that the flag was a vestige of, that allow people to be cloaked in hatred.”

So the question is: are we?

A Changed Conversation
The 22-year-old avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof, who still awaits trial (now postponed until January 2017), opened fire in the middle of a Bible study, in the middle of the week, in the middle of hot summer, and also in the middle of a heated mayoral campaign. According to then-candidate, now-Mayor John Tecklenburg, the bloodshed changed the tone for the rest of the campaign. Up until that Wednesday night, “the mayoral race had been couched in terms of what comes after Joe Riley and who could fill those big shoes,” Tecklenburg recalls. “But I sensed in our community and in my own heart that there was a paradigm shift in the basic question of the campaign. The question was no longer ‘What happens after Joe Riley?’ but ‘What happens after Mother Emanuel?’”

Across the community and indeed the nation, the forgiveness expressed by Ethel Lance’s daughter, Myra Thompson’s husband, Tywanza Sanders’s mother, Daniel Simmons Sr.’s granddaughter, and DePayne Middleton-Doctor’s sister was accompanied by hard questions: How could this have happened? How can someone so young be so racist and hateful? How can we keep it from happening again?

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As singularly horrific as they were, the Emanuel shootings were not isolated, but rather were and are one tragic episode in a season of racial unrest, a season that included Walter Scott’s killing in North Charleston just two months earlier and more broadly marked by violent protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. “This tragedy highlighted issues that are, and have been, long-standing in our community and in our world—issues of race, equity, and social justice—the things Rev. Pinckney was passionate about,” says Tecklenburg. “These concerns and issues are helping to guide me as I look at policies and actions of our city government regarding how we treat our neighbors and brothers and sisters in need.” Pointing to one example, the new mayor focused on finding housing for the homeless residents of downtown’s tent city as an early initiative after being sworn in.

Beyond City Hall, these questions of “how” and “why” have been asked time and again around private dinner tables, in classrooms, in churches, and in public forums. Since June 17, 2015, there has been much “dialogue,” including the televised PBS Newshour on “America After Charleston” hosted by Gwen Ifill, which featured local and national panelists reflecting on systemic racism, white privilege, and the Black Lives Matter movement, among other issues. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have made trips to town. The Conference of National Black Churches held their annual convention here in December, featuring a fiery keynote by African-American scholar and cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson. Also in December, the Gaillard Center hosted filmmakers Ken Burns and Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a sold-out conversation, “American Fault Line: Race and the American Ideal,” that helped raise funds and awareness for the proposed International African American Museum. In March, Ashley Hall School hosted the National Book Award-winning, outspoken African-American poet Nikky Finney.

A Springboard & Road Map
As it has for the last 150 years, the Avery Institute, now known as the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston, works to further scholarship and understanding about African-American history and culture. So when Google, which has a data center in Berkeley County, considered making a contribution in the wake of the tragedy to help cultivate discussions around racism and inequality, they selected Avery to take the lead and be the steward of a $125,000 grant. Google’s intention was that these resources, in conjunction with additional money given to the Coastal Community Foundation’s Lowcountry Unity Fund and the International African American Museum, would “serve as a springboard for community conversations and stimulate dialogue that would lead to change.” The result has been the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), a collaboration among numerous CofC entities and supported by community partners.

The RSJI’s marquee program is a three-part lecture series featuring nationally renowned thought-leaders; it began with Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman in March; continued with Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who heads the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption; and ends in October 2016 with Ta-Nehisi Coates, a MacArthur Fellow and winner of a 2015 National Book Award for Between the World and Me. More than 700 people attended each of the first two sessions, which Google live-streamed to an even broader audience. Starbucks underwrote free distribution of Stevenson’s book to the community prior to his talk.

“We’d been doing this sort of programming all along, but on a smaller scale,” says Avery Research Center executive director Patricia Williams Lessane, Ph.D. “With Google’s generous support, we were able to come up with our dream wish-list of speakers. But the talks are just a starting point,” she explains. The RSJI is also using the grant to commission a disparity report that will provide data on housing, education, employment, and incarceration numbers. “This, I think, is the most important piece of this series. We want to believe every citizen has a seat at the table, but this is not the reality in Charleston today,” Lessane says. “This study will give concrete evidence behind what now is just an abstract sense of inequity. It will be a road map for everyone to work from, so we can work cohesively as a community and ensure our work is deep and impactful.”

Getting Proximate
“We cannot make good decisions from a distance. If you are not proximate, you cannot change the world,” writes RSJI presenter Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy. His four tenets for racial healing and change hit home for Cathryn Zommer, executive director of Enough Pie, a nonprofit that promotes community engagement, artistic collaboration, and creative placemaking. “He talked about the necessity of engaging in real, face-to-face interactions with those who are different from you—that you’ve got to be willing to be uncomfortable. Change is uncomfortable, and it is critical,” Zommer says. The Emanuel tragedy was a “wake-up call, and it certainly shifted our sense of our role and our programs.” Zommer points to the Mayoral Forum on Race Equity that Enough Pie sponsored before the election, as well as the painting of a tribute mural on the John L. Dart Library honoring librarian and victim Cynthia Graham Hurd, as programs added after the Emanuel AME murders.

“What we’ve seen is that people are seeking ways to participate in new communities and conversations. We are proactively putting ourselves into circles we weren’t present in before—that’s true for me personally and those I work with,” says Zommer, who spends Monday evenings in a knitting circle with ladies from the East Side. It was they who created exuberant yarn “Love Bombs” that adorn the brick smokestacks looming north of the Cigar Factory at the St. Julian Devine Community Center. The knitting, while fun and creative, isn’t the only point, notes Zommer. Like other Enough Pie collaborative creative endeavors, it’s simply a joyful way to get “proximate” and build relationships.

Not far from the love-bombed smokestacks, Samantha Sammis, a recent College of Charleston graduate, has been getting “proximate” with her East Side neighbors since 2011, when she launched Loving America Street, an asset-based and faith-based nonprofit. On the Thursday after the massacre, the group did what it had done every Thursday night before—opened the door to anyone interested in a meal and Bible study. “Not even 24 hours after the Emanuel Nine were killed during Bible study, people just flooded in—we cried, we prayed, we sang. It was a multiracial, culturally and ethnically diverse group—really, really beautiful,” Sammis says.

And in the post-June 17 Charleston, she’s finding that racial differences can come out in the wash—literally. In May 2015, Sammis signed a lease to reopen the only laundromat in a neighborhood where many residents don’t have washers and dryers or cars. After the June tragedy, Sammis partnered with Women in Tech to apply for a mini-grant from the Coastal Community Foundation’s Lowcountry Unity Fund to offer a computer coding outreach program at Laundry Matters. Neighborhood kids aged seven to 17 come to the laundry on Wednesday evenings to learn how to write computer code.

Today Laundry Matters is a vibrant community hub, “a safe place where parents know their kids can come, where adults hang out,” and where, on Wednesday evenings during coding class, it’s just “crazy busy,” says Sammis. In addition to new washing machines and the coding class, there’s free coffee and books and other reading material. “We’re just a small, all-volunteer organization, and this grant enables us to have an impact and give kids a foot in the door they wouldn’t otherwise have,” says Sammis. “Small steps are okay. The city won’t change until individuals take small steps that build relationships.”

Lens & Mirror
These small steps, however, need the girding of a larger framework if they are to lead to the systemic change that Rev. Dr. Middleton, Dr. Lessane, and so many others suggest is necessary to truly move the needle on Charleston’s deeply embedded racial and equity issues.

James Island native Darrin Goss Sr. understands this. The then-president of Baton Rouge’s Capital Area United Way was preparing for a conference when his mother called late on June 17 to relay the horrible news. And as he watched his hometown respond to the tragedy in the days that followed, Goss had a fleeting thought: “If I ever have the opportunity to come back to my hometown, I’d love to be a part of rebuilding and helping our city create real change.” He had no idea that the Coastal Community Foundation (CCF) would soon be searching for a new CEO. But now, a few months after assuming that post, Goss feels honored to be a part of an organization that is working to address racism and inequality in the Lowcountry, in part through the foundation’s endowed Lowcountry Unity Fund and by taking a hard look at equity in its own operations.

“We’ve not only sharpened the lens through which we try to address systemic issues in the community, but we’ve looked in the mirror at ourselves. To be effective, we must lead by example,” says Goss. CCF is the first and only local organization, and one of only a few community foundations that he knows of, that has adopted (prior to Goss’s arrival) an official “Equity and Inclusion” policy governing how the foundation hires staff and vendors and creates an inclusive and welcoming environment for volunteers, board members, donors, nonprofit partners, and grantees. “It is our intention to promote a fully equitable philanthropic sector that justly represents and serves all our constituencies,” the policy states.

Through CCF’s Lowcountry Unity Fund (LUF) and its support of grassroots initiatives like Loving America Street, Goss and his team are hoping to spur new community conversations in an intentional way. LUF’s initial mini-grants were directed toward collaborative programs, “because we recognize that no single entity can address the root causes of racism and inequality,” says CCF program officer Ali Titus.

“My hope for Charleston is that we never forget the grace and forgiveness that the people of Mother Emanuel Church taught us, and that we lament people like Dylann Roof, realizing that he’s a victim, too,” says Goss. “Here’s a young man who was victimized by a form of mental and emotional abuse that enabled him to grow up and have that mind-set. If the Lowcountry Unity Fund and the work we produce can help create a situation where that never happens again, that would be fantastic.”

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Policing Input
When she woke on that Thursday morning in June to the news, Margaret Seidler had one thought: “I haven’t done enough.” The Charleston native has always been active in her neighborhood associations and in other community organizations, but the Mother Emanuel tragedy shook her into further action. An organization development consultant and master trainer, Seidler had worked with the Charleston Police Department for six years. She called Chief Greg Mullen and asked, “How can I help?” Soon, the Charleston Illumination Project was born.

The yearlong initiative, funded by private and public contributions to the nonprofit Charleston Police Fund, seeks to strengthen the relationship between citizens and law enforcement, so that interactions are grounded in trust and legitimacy. The hope is to help improve community race relations and tensions in part by reducing the likelihood of adversarial police encounters, especially ones with racial implications that could escalate and turn tragic, as in the case of Walter Scott.

“We want to ensure that our police officers are fair and just in their interactions with citizens,” said Seidler during one of multiple Illumination Project “Listening Sessions” held in various locations around town this spring (including one at Emanuel AME Church on June 1). During the sessions, the public is invited to share ideas and insight on ways to proactively improve police/citizen dynamics. By facilitating discussions between attendees and law enforcement, Seidler hopes to highlight areas of common ground and gather suggestions for concrete action that may lead to enhanced trust and understanding. The project’s Citizen Steering Group recommendations will be delivered in a formal report to Mayor Tecklenburg and City Council in September. Five suggestions—including posting department policies and procedures as well as stats on police/citizen contacts online and training officers in communication and people skills—have already been implemented by Chief Mullen.

“I think it’s a good starting point,” says Dot Scott, president of the Charleston Branch NAACP, which hosted one of the listening sessions at the International Longshoreman Association on Morrison Drive, not far from Bridgeview Village Apartments, where 19-year-old Denzel Curnell died from a gunshot wound during a police encounter in 2014. Scott hoped the proximity would draw Bridgeview residents to participate; it did not. “While I’ve always found Chief Mullen to be open to hearing our concerns, it’s one thing to be heard; it’s another to be really listened to,” she adds.

Just the Facts
“This rips all of our hearts out,” FBI director James Comey said during a July 2015 press conference in which he admitted that Dylann Roof should not have been cleared to purchase the gun he then used to murder nine churchgoers. A paperwork error in Roof’s background check delayed the check’s completion beyond the three-day window allowed by current law, and thus Roof was sold a gun due to what is now known as the “Charleston loophole.”

Even before the FBI’s confession, however, one group of Charlestonians had sprung into action. They knew on June 17, that loophole or not, nine murders by a 21-year-old armed with a gun and hate was nine too many. As were the 709 other gun-related deaths in Charleston from 2001 to 2014 (averaging about one every seven days). Galvanized by the Emanuel tragedy, this small group, led by Dr. Richard Hagerty with Margaret Kelly, Gary Smith, Meghan Trezies, and others, formed Gun Sense SC. The organization has quickly gained traction as an independent, nonpartisan grassroots education and advocacy nonprofit aimed at one clear target: decreasing gun violence among South Carolinians.

“It’s an epidemic, and it feeds on itself,” says Hagerty, referring to the argument by some gun advocates that more firearm ownership leads to increased safety and protection. “Gun Sense SC is addressing gun violence as a public health crisis. We see our role as educating the public and our legislators with the public health facts and costs associated with gun violence,” Hagerty explains. “This is not about Second Amendment rights; we are simply educating people with unbiased data. In fact, I am a gun owner, and I am also passionate about this issue.”

In late January, Gun Sense SC sponsored Stand-Up Sunday/Sabbath across the state, with some 1,300 congregations participating. During the service, nine members of each house of worship were asked to “stand for the Nine”—the nine killed at Emanuel, the nine people across the state killed every five days by gun violence, and the nine out of 10 South Carolinians who support tighter background-check laws. Church members also wrote letters to their legislators voicing support for closing loopholes for background checks and guns sold at gun shows and online.

Despite Gun Sense SC’s lobbying efforts, no traction has been made, as of press time, on any of the 28 firearm-related bills proposed during the 2015-16 legislative session to increase public safety. And that includes a bill introduced by Senator Gerald Malloy, a close friend and colleague of Clementa Pinckney, that would extend the background-check window from three to 28 days. “They told us flat-out that nothing would be done because it’s an election year, even in the wake of Emanuel,” says Margaret Kelly, Gun Sense SC board member and legislative coordinator.

One action the SC House did take in March, however, was to pass a bill that would nullify any new federal gun regulations that limit access to firearms and ammunition. If the bill passes the State Senate, this would mean that should the Federal government enact tighter background-check laws (as President Obama proposed in January 2016 with Jennifer Pinckney at his side), South Carolina would not abide by them.

Rather than getting mired by the frustrating, messy politics behind gun laws, Gun Sense SC has turned its focus toward grassroots education of citizens, elected representatives, health care professionals, and the faith community across the state. Gun Sense SC chapters have been established in Greenville, Columbia, and Myrtle Beach, where similar education and letter-writing campaigns are underway. “We see our role as a clearinghouse for reliable, unbiased data on the real costs of gun violence,” says Hagerty. “We’re providing a voice for the silent, and we’re going to stand up.”

Mother Emanuel Way
Through the work of the RSJI, Gun Sense SC, the Illumination Project, Enough Pie, Loving America Street, and other efforts too numerous to mention (including much good work by various groups addressing issues of equity in public education), there are signs of progress toward healing and reconciliation in Charleston. And there’s another sign, too: a new green sign hanging over Calhoun Street in front of the historic white stucco façade of the now iconic sanctuary, a sign designating the Mother Emanuel Way Memorial District between Concord and Meeting streets.

Throughout this past year, the historic church has remained open and welcoming to all worshippers and visitors coming to pay their respects. But it’s been a challenging time and difficult transition for the grieving congregation. No longer a crime scene or a CNN backdrop, Mother Emanuel AME Church is back to doing what it has done for the last 230 years: singing hymns and spirituals on Sunday mornings, holding Bible study on Wednesday evenings, and caring for and healing its congregation and the broader city. On January 24, the congregation took a significant step forward when the Bishop appointed the Reverend Dr. Betty Deas Clark as the historic church’s first female senior minister, a new and loving “mother” for Mother Emanuel, if you will.

Clark exudes a sturdy gentleness; she speaks with a soothing, deep voice of authority and shares a message of hope and new life in sermons and conversation. She laughs. And cries. And as she and the church prepare for the anniversary of that seminal day last June, she reflects on what healing might mean for her congregation. “Healing would mean reaching a point where those who left the church after the tragedy would find the courage and strength to return,” she says. And it would also mean that finally, “when we think of June 17th, while we won’t be absent of the reality, we will be able to say ‘June 17th’ without having to clear our throats or swallow real fast.

“I would like to see what the other side of June 17th looks like,” Clark continues. “I don’t ever want us to forget it, because we can’t, but I also don’t want us to be consumed by the tragedy. Yes, it is important, but it is not our total representation. At our worship service on June 17th, we will commemorate those who died, we will celebrate those who survived, and we will lay the course for a brighter tomorrow. That brighter tomorrow begins in the heart of each individual making one with the other—and knowing we are bigger than the tragedy,” she says. “I hope we turn a corner, and that it’s a good corner.”