Hundreds turn out for Days of Grace

Participants march Saturday morning near Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston during a Charleston's Days of Grace event. (ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF)

A call for action resonated Saturday among hundreds who stood united in their resolve to carry on a fight for causes once championed by fallen Sen. Clementa Pinckney.

The display of unity, titled Charleston’s Days of Grace, involved a march through the streets of downtown Charleston, a rally on Marion Square and a strategy conference at the local International Longshoremen Association’s Hall to discuss at length key issues that affect the state.

Topics at the forefront of the discussion included discriminatory policing, voting rights, collective bargaining rights, Medicaid expansion, education gun violence and racism.

Born in the wake of recent shootings that resulted in the deaths of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as well as Walter Scott, the event drew attendees who were both black and white, local and from afar.

They shared a common desire to effect change through action and galvanized with hopes of building relationships that would enable them to do so.

Relatives of the Emanuel victims and the parents of Walter Scott, who was fatally shot by a North Charleston police officer, helped lead the participants from Wragg Square to Marion Square during the morning’s march.

Supporters of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders joined with Black Lives Matter activists and others as they marched past the church on Calhoun Street. There, they paused as the congregation’s interim pastor, the Rev. Norvel Goff, prayed and offered words of inspiration.

“Everybody has a seat at the table. Everybody should sit down and listen to one another,” Goff said as his voice began to crescendo. “Male and female, young and old has a seat at the table for change.”

Karen Oliver hoisted a sign decrying police shootings and what she called an injustice done to her son, a teenage high school student in North Charleston. Oliver said she tried getting help from officials as gang members sought to recruit her son. But she didn’t get that help, and the teen wound up in jail on assault charges.

“I am here for all the children,” she said, “so that doesn’t take place again.”

William Hamilton, 55, of Mount Pleasant said the group and the mercy its members have displayed after recent tragedies in the Charleston area “is the reason why our city is not in ashes now.” He held a sign lamenting gun violence.

“It’s the so-called troublemakers,” he said, “that have kept Charleston in peace.”

Sophie Rynas, 23, made the trip from Greensboro, N.C., to participate. She came especially to speak out about the need for an increase in the minimum wage. But she said she would leave with something more.

“I’ve really enjoyed the community I feel here and having a chance to talk to people,” she said. “It’s great to be involved in something like this.”

The participants sang, “We shall overcome,” as they passed the church. Tourists outside nearby hotels paused to watch and snap photographs with their cellphones.

The group made its way over a few city blocks to Marion Square, where several family members of the nine slain June 17 at Emanuel AME Church stood on a stage and spoke. One of them was Tyrone Sanders, whose son, Tywanza, died in the shooting. His wife, Felicia Sanders, survived.

Using accounts from survivors, Tyrone Sanders recalled what his son said to the accused gunman, Dylann Roof, who had joined a Bible study with the victims that night.

“My son’s last words were, ‘We mean you no harm,’” he said, concluding his remarks as his voice trailed off. “I’m at a loss for words.”

Calls for action continued into the evening at the ILA Hall.

“We’re in the embryonic stages of the third reconstruction,” the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina branch of the NAACP, told attendees, likening the effort to the days that followed slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.

“We’ve got to move forward together and not one step back,” he said, his words drawing cheers from the crowd.

Sizeable change, Barber said, starts at the local level. He called on attendees to take up their concerns with elected officials and shout from the steps of the state Capitol until their voices are heard.

“They will not vote in the dark,” Barber said. “The first consciousness we have to change is the consciousness of the people.”

Also in attendance was DeRay Mckesson, who helped organize protests in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown.

“I think Charleston has an opportunity to build new coalitions and bring people together to engage in the work,” Mckesson said. “The reality is that relationships are essential to organizing.”

Muhiyidin d’Baha, who helped organize the event, said the event helped identify solutions to the community’s problems. The discussion was strengthened, he said, by the display of both local and outside points of view.

“This is very different. A lot of the locals don’t always get the chance to hear that outside perspective,” he said.

The two-day conference will continue at 10 a.m. Sunday at the ILA Hall, 1142 Morrison Drive.

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.