A crime that was intended to sow racial hatred has had the opposite effect.
Church members and South Carolinians answered with forgiveness when a young white man entered a Charleston church on June 17, 2015, joined a Bible study and then shot nine African-American church members in an apparent hate crime.
Thousands of mourners, both black and white, stood vigil outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — not just after that shooting, but also a year later when the city held 12 days of events called “Victory in the Valley.”
Charleston residents of different religions and races hugged neighbors, honored those who were lost, and prayed. And together, in a city that once was the center of America’s slave trade, they are determined to move forward.
Most importantly, the city addressed honestly the racial motivation for the killings, said Joseph P. Riley, Charleston’s mayor at the time of the shooting and for 40 years before. “No sweeping anything under the rug. It was a crime of the most awful racial bigotry,” Riley said.
Answering hate with forgiveness
The decision by members of the church, also known as “Mother Emanuel,” to forgive the accused killer just days after the attack prompted a group of politicians from Illinois to nominate the church for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“The entire community of Charleston — church, ordinary citizens, political leaders, business leaders and law enforcement, came together to support those families who lost loved ones. They came together in a spirit of forgiveness, love and peace — not anger or hatred,” the group said.
Inspired by the grace and forgiveness expressed by parishioners of Mother Emanuel, South Carolina’s governor in 2015 ended a decadeslong controversy by ordering the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina State House.
The alleged shooter, who said he hoped his actions would start a race war, had photos of himself with the Confederate flag, considered by many a racist symbol of the Civil War era. The perpetrator awaits trial on nine counts of murder and 33 federal charges, including 24 violations of hate-crime statutes.
After a dark year, ‘this is morning’
At the time of the shooting, the city had secured commitments of $75 million for the International African American Museum, to be built on the former site of Gadsden’s Wharf, the entry point for 100,000 slaves.
The shooting has only intensified the city’s commitment to the project.
In the months since, Charleston and Mother Emanuel also have partnered with the Medical University of South Carolina to start a “resiliency project” in one of the church’s buildings, funded in part by the federal government, that will provide services to victims not only of this tragedy, but also of other incidents of violent crime.
“I think that we are no longer in the valley of the shadow of death,” said William Dudley Gregorie, who was at Mother Emanuel that evening, leaving only minutes before the assailant arrived. “This is morning, and we’re finally seeing light,” said Gregorie, who is a trustee of the church and also a member of the Charleston City Council.
Beyond the church and city, President Obama sees a nation joined together in this tragedy, as he expressed during the eulogy for the Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, Mother Emanuel’s pastor and one of the victims of the shooting.
“The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston … how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life,” Obama said.
The speech is considered one of the president’s best. In it, he famously led the congregation in a rendition of the hymn “Amazing Grace.”