Five years ago at 8:16 p.m. in Charleston, South Carolina, a self-proclaimed white supremacist entered Emanuel AME Church, a storied African American house of worship.
The 21-year-old came in through a side door and walked out the epitome of evil. Shouting racial epithets, he killed nine people assembled for Bible study before being apprehended by authorities the next day.
The world was shocked. But as many pause Wednesday to remember the Emanuel 9 — who ranged from 41-year-old pastor Clementa Pinckney to 87-year-old choir member Susie Jackson — Black Americans say the anniversary merely spotlights their weariness with the nation’s 401-year-old legacy of slavery that has claimed too many lives to count.
“When I speak with the members of Mother Emanuel, we call it a season of extended lament,” says the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, who since 2016 has led the city’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, an institution whose origins date to 1787.
On Wednesday evening, a video tribute to the victims from family members and survivors will appear on the church’s Facebook page and YouTube channel, followed by a march for justice on Sunday and a prayer vigil on June 24.
Manning says each June 17, his flock feels “a sense of tension” borne out of reliving that tragic day in their community. But he adds that there is a glimmer of hope resulting from the national protests kindled by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died when a white police officer in Minneapolis kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“We are all encouraged that the issue of racial injustice is on the forefront,” says Manning. “Now, now it’s a matter of not just talking about it, but taking action.”
The Confederate flag is gone. Is the statue of John C. Calhoun next to go?
Charleston indeed took swift and historic action just weeks after the shooting at Mother Emanuel, as lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse in Columbia.
Five years later, other states and businesses are making moves to remove the flag, long a symbol of a Civil War South that fought to preserve slavery.
The city is embroiled now in a new controversy over a downtown statue of John C. Calhoun, a native son and former U.S. vice president who was strident in his defense of slavery. Similar statues have been the subject of both debate and vandalism around the country in recent days, from small Southern towns to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
“I don’t believe in throwing history into the drink, so to speak, but you have to tell the whole story and sometimes with some statues there are more appropriate places for them than downtown,” says Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who is expected to make an announcement on the Calhoun statue Wednesday.
Tecklenburg, who Charleston activists often describe as an ally in their fight for social justice, says the Mother Emanuel shooting remains a traumatic event for the city if not the nation, along the same lines as Floyd’s filmed death on Memorial Day.
He says he salutes the “spiritual grace” shown by relatives of the Emanuel 9, who forgave the shooter — Dylann Roof was convicted of murder and sentenced to death — and hopes “they can inspire us not to be complacent in this important moment in history.”
‘Black fatigue’ remains in Charleston, 5 years after deadly church shooting
While that forgiveness on the part of relatives was a staggering act, it should not fall on Blacks to play that role, says Chad Starks, adjunct professor of sociology, anthropology and criminal justice at Clemson University in South Carolina.
“Black fatigue with all this is very real, because in truth that forgiveness they showed was a deep spirituality borne out of the ancestral legacy of slavery that was necessary to navigate white America,” says Starks, whose firm BCS & Associates consults with companies and law enforcement on social justice matters.
“The bottom line is, we haven’t yet changed the policies or practices or procedures for Black people to feel comfortable,” he says. “But the country is now listening, there’s a different ear to the ground.”
Aaron Comstock spent years teaching in the Philippines before taking a job in a largely African American part of North Charleston. After seeing that the living conditions of his students resembled those of developing nations, he founded Uplift Charleston, which helps support the homeless and advocates for social change.
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“My message to other white people is that this all affects you, too, if you truly care about people,” says Comstock, a music teacher and deejay who is a fixture at city protests — including regular gatherings that confront those who come to fly the Confederate flag.
“We’re seeing people of all colors and all ages now at our protests, which is great,” says Comstock, adding that he was among the mourners outside the doors of Mother Emanuel in the hours after the shooting. “In everything we do now, we honor the Emanuel 9.”
Black Charleston activists hope to shape legislation that ‘can protect us’
Like Comstock, many Charlestonians do not want either this 21st century civil rights moment or the memory of those slain in 2015 to pass unheeded.
Marcus McDonald quit his job as a commodities trader and started an independent chapter of Black Lives Matter. He is using the platform to increase awareness of the need for statewide police bias audits, which were undertaken in Charleston — findings revealed progress but also issues with racial profiling and use of force — but have been resisted in some communities around the state.
“The majority of people in this city are woke and trying to better themselves but hatred and ignorance does exist — especially in small towns,” says McDonald, whose family members attend Mother Emanuel. “But still, you’ll find a quiet racism, more the silent type that’s exclusionary by nature.”
McDonald says changing the hearts and minds of some of his fellow South Carolinians will not happen, “so the best thing we can do is fight to change legislation in order that the laws can protect us.”
Jesse Williams, a longtime activist, is running for a council seat in Charleston County in order to root out “systemic racism in schools, the police and city government systems, because with George Floyd being just five years after the Mother Emanuel shooting, these things still happen to us in this country.”
Williams began protesting in the wake of the shooting death of Walter Scott, a Black man who was stopped for a non-functioning brake light by officer Michael Slager just two months before the Mother Emanuel tragedy. Video surfaced showing Scott was shot in the back as he fled, and Slager was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
“First we had the Scott killing, and then all of a sudden, Mother Emanuel happened, and we thought certainly things will change for us but they didn’t,” says Williams. “As a friend of mine says, ‘Charleston comes across as sweet tea on the surface, but there’s that bitter aftertaste of racism.’ So, I fight to make sure things like what happened at that church and to George Floyd don’t happen any more in this country.”
South Carolina is one of only 4 states without a hate crime bill on the books
State Rep. Beth Bernstein, a Democrat and the only one of Jewish faith among her colleagues, has been pushing to get South Carolina lawmakers to pass a hate crime bill. The state is among only four — Arkansas, Georgia and Wyoming are the others — that has no such law on the books. Passage would add stiffer penalties if a crime was committed due to racial bias.
“It’s been tough to get this through, but I feel like, very recently, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are starting to see why this is necessary,” says Bernstein. “We all reeled after the shooting at Mother Emanuel, and that led to the flag getting taken down. But this time, I sense that’s an even bigger commitment to try and fight against the racism that is experienced by many of our citizens.”
Bernstein is hopeful the hate crime bill will get a more supportive reception come fall legislative sessions. But she knows a battle awaits.
“I love my state,” she says. “But we have a long way to go.”