I’m A Son of Charleston

I was hurt, like millions around the country, by the senseless,  brutal and tragic killings this week of 9 church members attending Bible Study at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a 21 year old white male bent on creating a race war. For many it opened centuries-old racial wounds for others it poured salt in fresh wounds still simmering from many of the police brutality incidents around the country with racial undertones. 

The setting couldn’t have been more symbolic for the “original sin” of racism this country continues to grapple with. Afterall the first guns of the Civil War were fired in South Carolina at Fort Sumter. More specifically to Charleston, a city which served as one of the largest ports for the slave trade in the U.S. Also was the only major city to have a majority black population. This fact would not be lost on one Denmark Vecey, a freed slave from Haiti who launched a failed slave revolt in 1822. Before he led this revolt he was among the founders of a church in 1818 which later became Emanuel AME church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South. After the revolt the church was burned to the ground in retaliation by white supremacists. While the church was rebuilt and members continued to meet, often in secret. It wasn’t until 1865, the conclusion of the Civil War that they would meet publicly and freely at Emanuel. None of this was lost on the killer who had researched the history and chose the church precisely because of its significance.

This tragedy also couldn’t be more symbolic given the fact that South Carolina is the state in which the Confederate Flag is most prolific even currently flying at full staff on the State Capitol grounds in Columbia, SC. I witnessed it personally during a visit to the city to speak to a group of black pastors. While I knew it was there prior to my trip, having been moved from the top of the dome in a 1994 “compromise”, the instant shock and vitriol it produced in my spirit was palpable. My African American host noticing my discomfort asked me if I was alright. I simply pointed at the flag and said, “You do see that right?” To which he replied, “oh you get used to it.” That’s part of the problem as to why it’s still flying today.

I’ve never been to Charleston, but I’m a son of the city nonetheless. Charleston is to me what Jamestown, VA is to most African Americans. Ground Zero.  My original African ancestors first stepped foot in this country in Charleston, as slaves. On this Father’s Day I honor those two brothers who would survive to produce large portions of my family. I admit I passed on an opportunity to visit Charleston and Myrtle Beach with my mother years ago. It seemed a bitter place to me given that history. When I finally did visit Myrtle Beach years later and ventured into a beach shop for towels I was unpleasantly greeted with Confederate flag beach towels, bikinis, swimming trunks, mugs beer can holders etc. I promptly left the store, venturing into a few more and repeating the same outcomes. I haven’t been back since.

Charleston has changed things for me. Primarily because of the powerful and moving reactions of the victims’ families and the larger Charleston community black, white, Hispanic or otherwise.  One of the victims family members had the following to say to the killer in court:

You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her again, But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. I forgive you.” – the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance. 

People around the country have been amazed by the forgiveness factor present in the families of the victims. The killer had hoped that his actions, like those taken agaisnt the church in the past would surprise their actions and faith. He had hoped that it would spark a race war. He was wrong. What it has sparked is unity within the city and discussion around the country and the world on the ills of racism. Seven year old Charleston resident Madeleine Schimming drew the most powerful depiction of the positive outcomes from Emanuel(above) with the victims receiving their heavenly reward while the larger diverse community stands in front of the church locked in arms of love. I hope this event ushers in greater racial reconciliation, understanding and finally a removal of the confederate flag from the State Capitol grounds.

What occurred  at the first service at Emanuel AME since the shootings this morning was nothing short of miraculous. People of all races and backgrounds, although most were white stood outside at the makeshift memorial listening to the service tears in their eyes. Church bells from across “The Holy City” rang out in part solidarity, part defiance and full unity. Inside the church members shed tears to be certain. However they also cried out in praise knowing that weeping may endure for a night joy truly does come in the morning. I wish I had been there. I will be there one day soon.

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