Five years ago, on June 17, 2015, the Holy City was forever changed. What started with a Bible study in the basement of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, became the scene of mass murder at the hands of a racist.
Nine members of Emanuel AME – including its pastor, S.C. Senator Clementa C. Pinckney, and parishioner Cynthia Graham Hurd, a librarian at the College of Charleston – lost their lives that night, leaving the congregation and the city stunned, appalled and heartbroken.
And yet some of the families of the victims and the members of the church, known affectionately as Mother Emanuel, responded with nothing short of amazing grace – finding a way to heal through unity, love and, remarkably, forgiveness. And with emotional demonstrations and vigils, Charleston came together to pay tribute to the dead and to refute the beliefs of a racist killer – turning one of the city’s darkest moments into a moment of hope.
It’s a powerful story that College of Charleston Professor Emeritus of history Bernard Powers understands well. Powers co-wrote the book We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel with South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth and writer Herb Frazier in an effort to shine a light on the strength of the church and its congregants, a strength born out of pain and passion for seeking something better.
Today – as the nation reels from the murder of George Floyd and so many African American people before him – we are once again challenged to turn another dark moment of history into one of hope.
“It is heartening to witness the international public outcry demanding change and social justice,” says Wentworth, who is an adjunct faculty member in the College’s English Department. “We all need to take responsibility and learn about the ways in which the history of slavery and Jim Crow shapes our current situation. Nothing short of transformational change is acceptable.”
The College Today sat down with Powers, director of the College’s Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston and interim CEO and president of Charleston’s International African American Museum, to find out how Emanuel AME has turned darkness into hope throughout history, and how we can hold onto that hope even today.
Historically, what has Emanuel AME’s role been in the fight for the end of slavery and for civil rights?
As a congregation in the AME denomination, Emanuel was born into activism because the denomination was conceived as an antiracist, antislavery church, and one that would provide for African American autonomy when it was originally founded in the late 18th century. Mother Emanuel comes out of that tradition.
Its antecedent congregation in Charleston was simply known as the African Church and was founded in 1817–18. It was established here when black Methodists seceded from the white Methodist Church in Charleston when white clergymen tried to increase their control over the black membership. The free black leader Morris Brown led over 4,000 out of the denomination, formed the African Church and affiliated with the AME Church, the aforementioned antiracist and antislavery denomination.
Imagine this – an antiracist and abolitionist church controlled by black people in Charleston! It was revolutionary; this is why the church was attacked by white officials and finally destroyed when several members were implicated in the Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy in 1822. In the 20th century, African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from its pulpit, and civil rights marches for desegregation and those associated with the hospital workers’ strike of 1969 were organized from within its walls.
How did its history shape the response of the survivors and parishioners of Mother Emanuel following the events of June 17, 2015? How do you think it will shape the future of our city?
The Rev. Clementa Pinckney often talked about the history of the leadership of the AME Church and the ministers there at Emanuel and the long struggles they engaged in to achieve a more fair and just society, struggling against the odds. These leaders sacrificed much and jeopardized their lives for their church and for their people.
I personally heard Rev. Pinckney say in a talk that leaders and people of principle sometimes had to even give up their lives for their beliefs. He cited the specific examples of Denmark Vesey and Martin Luther King Jr. Morris Brown did not lose his life, but had to flee Charleston (to preserve his life) shortly after the Vesey conspiracy was discovered. The former pastor Rev. B. J. Glover was severely beaten when he stood up for voting rights. Ironically, Rev. Pinckney’s tragic death was the fulfillment of his own words.
The congregation knew of these stories and the great sacrifices they represented and drew strength and discipline from them. But also, Rev. Pinckney was a powerful Christ-centered preacher and always reminded his flock of Christ’s great sacrifice for the redemption of the world. People drew strength from this also.
The example of the Emanuel Nine will long be remembered in Charleston, and the forgiveness that some offered to their persecutor was a powerful example that led to a number of initiatives that we still benefit from. The Charleston Forum is one example; another is the Illumination Project, which had already started but got real impetus from the Emanuel tragedy.
Charleston received a lot of attention following the shooting at Mother Emanuel for coming together as a community to mourn and heal peacefully. How significant was that, and is that a credit to the leadership of the survivors and parishioners?
The role that Mother Emanuel and the families of the nine had a tremendous impact on what happened after this vicious assault. A year earlier, Ferguson, Missouri, exploded over the white officer who killed Michael Brown, and in April 2015, Walter Scott was murdered in North Charleston by an officer, and Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore.
The tender was laid for a conflagration in Charleston, but in part the forgiveness of some of the family members was disarming and set the tone for relative calm in the city. The story of the murders in the church shocked the world and traveled the world, but so did the amazing story about the offer of forgiveness. The latter captured local, national and international attention. There were other factors that contributed to calm here (e.g., the murderer wasn’t a police officer) also, but the example some family members set was powerful.
How do you see the Emanuel AME’s role now in the fight against racism?
Emanuel has become a touchstone in the struggle against racism. It is an important symbol of the struggle, but it is also part of the substance of the struggle. This is why marches and demonstrations often begin there or pass by the location or culminate there. It is a touchstone of how much yet remains to be done and it is a source of energy for activists who are carrying the torch of struggle forward. The Rev. Eric Manning is frequently asked to speak about what happened there and to offer his insights into the way going forward based on the Emanuel Nine and other survivors and the congregation generally. In this way, he is a source of practical guidance in helping others to chart the way forward.
What do you think has been the most significant legacy of the Emanuel Nine – not just in Charleston, but in the United States as a whole?
The legacy is symbolic and substantive. As we try to show in our book, We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel, this is a congregation that has endured a history of severe trials – 2015 was just the most recent one. It is an example of a group of African Americans who have triumphed over a racist onslaught, and that triumph demonstrates that there are places where Dr. King’s vision of a “beloved community” still exists.
One has to have hope in order to embrace the future. They have demonstrated the motto of this state: Dum spiro spero – “While I breathe, I hope.” And while they continue to breathe and hope, the leaders there use their experiences to empower others threatened by the stultifying atmosphere of intolerance to survive and to breathe. This is why when the Pulse shootings occurred in Orlando, Rev. Deas of Emanuel went there to comfort the survivors. That is why Rev. Manning journeyed to Pittsburg to the Tree of Life Synagogue to share his experiences and comfort to leaders there who were victimized by a murderous antisemite. Members of that synagogue also returned the visit to Charleston, where they prayed with congregants within the walls of Mother Emanuel. So, in this sense, Mother Emanuel is a practical and symbolic bulwark against the forces of intolerance and brings together those intent on vanquishing it.
How has the United States changed since the massacre at Mother Emanuel?
What has changed is that the evidence of racial inequality is even more dramatically evident today. It is revealed by the racially disparate impact of the coronavirus, which demonstrates a range of inequalities based on race that influences health. Since 2015, we have had many more examples of mainly unarmed black men being mishandled and killed by police officers. These have been captured on cell phone videos. In 2015, the recording of Walter Scott’s death was unusual, but not now, and such evidence has demonstrated to so many whites that African American complaints have a real basis. This is a moment like that of the 1960s, when the civil rights movement attracted media attention in the South and the crimes against black people could no longer be denied as they were broadcast around the world via the international media.
The other thing that has changed is that the current president of the United States has often made racist and xenophobic statements and encouraged violence (including police violence) in an effort to divide the American population along the lines of race for his own personal political benefit. This has aggravated racial tensions to a level unseen in decades.
Looking at the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death, how is it that an event that happened more than 1,000 miles away reverberated so strongly in our city, but we didn’t see the same kind of emotion and outrage in the shooting in 2015?
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has had such resonance here because there have been so many examples of assaults on black people by officers between Michael Brown in Ferguson and now Mr. Floyd. Furthermore, we haven’t fully healed from Emanuel, and each subsequent assault serves to re-traumatize those who feel the oppressive weight of racism.
Beyond that, Mr. Floyd’s killing was the final one in a trio of similar events that occurred in rapid-fire order: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and then Mr. Floyd all within weeks. His murder also unfolded for all to view practically in real time by an officer who so casually, brazenly and comfortably murdered him in public view. And these events are occurring in the poisonous atmosphere created by the racist statements and policies of Mr. Trump. So, the upheavals in the streets are the product of the convergence of many different sources of dissatisfaction.
What have you seen in recent weeks – especially in Charleston and within South Carolina – that seems to differentiate that emotion from what we saw after the 2015 tragedy?
The ongoing demonstrations and marches now represent a difference. In 2015, a certain sense of malaise settled in over the city, it was a sense of collective trauma and also of disbelief that such an evil could occur in a sacred place. Today there is much more anger, which built up earlier in Brunswick, Georgia, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, because there were no immediate arrests, and that bred festering anger and uncertainty. No doubt these feelings are further aggravated by the economic uncertainties the nation faces and the financial challenges faced by individuals in this environment.
What questions should we be asking ourselves, our neighbors and our leaders right now?
We should be asking ourselves: What are each of us doing to make sure that this period of social ferment is maximized to bring about substantive and lasting change? How have I and those who I know contributed to the disaffection and alienation felt by so many African Americans and whites of conscience? How can I move beyond simple personal efforts to promote change to join with others to change institutions and the way they operate to challenge systematic racism and other forms of exclusion/oppression?
As you mentioned, one of South Carolina’s state mottoes is “While I breathe, I hope.” What has that meant to you in the past, and what does it mean to you now?
People have to have a reason to get up and go every morning to try to achieve something. But to do so, they have to have a realistic sense that they can accomplish their goals. What we have seen recently on different levels is that people’s basic humanity is not being respected or recognized. We have seen this on the southern border of our country and in the streets of our cities.
Our atmosphere must be cleared of the oppressive and stultifying forces that limit our ability “to breathe” and to hope. Among the most deadly of such forces we find racism, antisemitism, homophobia and sexism, among others. We must join our forces as people of conscience and vow to vanquish them so that we can all dream dreams and take in the clear and healthy air that will allow us to achieve them for our collective benefit. Now is the time and my hope is that this moment will not be lost.