Standing to his feet with hunched shoulders drawing him closer to a microphone inches from his face, a white man looked into the eyes of a black journalist on Saturday and said he had been “taught wrong” about race.
The grief that overcame him in the fallout of what has come to be known by some as the deadliest hate crime in South Carolina made that much clear, he said.
Hopefully, he and others like him will learn, through talks with others, how to move forward in the right direction, the man concluded.
The brief exchange, met with praise from a racially diverse crowd that filled the pews of Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, was filmed as part of “America After Charleston,” a PBS town hall meeting on the aftermath of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting that claimed the lives of nine black parishioners.
Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old Eastover man charged in the deaths, faces nine counts of murder as well as 33 federal charges alleging hate crimes and religious rights violations.
Where do we go from here? It’s a question not easily answered. Nor does PBS broadcaster Gwen Ifill, who moderated the discussion, claim to have the solution.
“That’s not on us as journalists,” said Ifill, a co-anchor and managing editor of PBS’s “The NewsHour,” and managing editor of “Washington Week,” during an interview.
“Our responsibility is to host the conversation,” she said.
The discussion, which will be condensed into an hourlong broadcast, touched on a wide range of issues, including racial disparities in education, health care, wealth, the judicial system and politics.
Former North Carolina state Sen. Malcolm Graham, whose sister Cynthia Hurd was killed in the shooting, rebuffed what he described as generalizations of forgiveness made about the families of the victims that suggested that forgiveness was something they had all expressed.
“The attack was an attack on a race of people. It was an attack on humanity. ... I have a forgiving spirit,” Graham said, pausing for a beat before landing his point. “I do not forgive.”
Another attendee, an 84-year-old black man, recalled childhood moments spent listening to his elders talk of the horrors of slavery. He’s troubled, he said, by the racial discord that remains apparent today.
“We’re just not where we ought to be as a country,” he said.
“Angst” and “fury” expressed by attendees fueled life into the discussion, said Ifill, the daughter of an AME minister. What’s inherently missing, though, is the opinion of those who wouldn’t readily attend such an event, she said.
A panel featured during the discussion included, among others, national NAACP president and CEO Cornell Brooks, state Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, Arielle Newton of Black Lives Matter New York City, and South Carolina Community Loan Fund Executive Director Michelle Mapp.
Other attendees included Polly Sheppard, who survived the church shooting, and Emanuel’s interim pastor Norvel Goff. Civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers, with his son, former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, by his side, said during the discussion that he couldn’t help but be reminded of the Orangeburg Massacre when he learned of the Charleston shooting.
Despite the generational gap, the father and son appeared to have many of the same shared experiences in their fights for civil rights, Bakari Sellers said. Both men, however, still believe in hope, love, truth and justice, he said.
Brooks, in an interview, said the discussion was necessary to evaluate an “atmosphere of hate” nationwide that garnered Roof’s racist ideology and hindered the country’s ability to move forward.
“We’re not all collectively guilty, but we are collectively responsible,” Brooks said.
At the event’s conclusion, Dot Scott, head of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, said she was happy that she was able to attend.
Did it solve anything?
“No,” she said, “but it still helps to have the conversation. We don’t always have to agree with everything everybody says, but it’s all in the conversation.”
“America After Charleston” was produced for PBS by WETA Washington, WGBH Boston and South Carolina ETV Network. It will air 9 p.m. Monday on PBS.
Reach Christina Elmore at (843) 937-5908.