Many try to turn grief over church attack into dialogue and action

Thousands gathered on the Cooper River Bridge during a unity march June 21. The march on the Ravenel Bridge drew thousands of residents from around the Lowcountry to show unity against racial hatred and violence.

The mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church has illuminated long-standing racial differences and wounds, shining a light on obstacles that continue to divide South Carolina.

Many blacks and whites cite the attack as more evidence of the injuries inflicted by slavery and its aftermath. They call for an end to indifference, pushing for public dialogue and racial reconciliation.

Some people strongly advocate for honoring Southern heritage, which can include some of its more divisive symbols.

And on the extreme edge, members of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina plan to rally at the Statehouse in defense of the Confederate flag on Statehouse grounds.

The gap remains large. The war has not ended.

Yet a consensus seems to have emerged among many residents. The shooting gives people of good faith reason to come together, work through their differences and try to close that gap.

In Charleston, many people are organizing public discussions, mounting special exhibitions and developing new curricula. They also are among thousands donating money to special funds set up in the aftermath of the attack to help Mother Emanuel and the families of victims and to support community initiatives meant to advance the cause of reconciliation.

Google announced last week that it was awarding $175,000 to the International African American Museum, $75,000 to the Coastal Community Foundation’s Lowcountry Unity Fund and $125,000 to the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center, which will be used to “establish an education initiative on race and social justice in response to the recent events in Charleston.”

“The team at Google really wanted to do something to help,” said John White, the college’s dean of libraries and one of the grant writers. “They were looking for community partners to do something, not just in the short term but to look at long-term issues.”

The Avery will develop campus and community outreach initiatives, as well as physical and virtual exhibitions and publications, in collaboration with several partners, White said.

“We want to take the energy of the campus and face it outward,” he said, “to take some of the resources of the college, and channel that energy into community outreach and discussion.”

The African-American Studies Program at the College of Charleston is well positioned to contribute to the effort, Program Director Conseula Francis said.

“So much of African-American history and culture has roots here, and those roots reach out across the country and around the globe,” Francis said. “Talking seriously and openly about race and ‘justice here in Charleston can go a long way in facilitating these conversations elsewhere.”

And, on Thursday, Mayor Joe Riley and the Rev. Norvel Goff announced that an anonymous group of people from out-of-state donated $3 million for education scholarships in the name of the church’s fallen pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

In his eulogy for Pinckney delivered at TD Arena, President Barack Obama said talk is fine but action must follow.

“Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race,” Obama said. “We talk a lot about race. There’s no shortcut. And we don’t need more talk. ... People of goodwill will continue to debate the merits of various policies, as our democracy requires. ... Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete. But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.”

The church shooting has prompted introspection among a variety of people, including two Presbyterian ministers who were outside of Mother Emanuel on the day of Pinckney’s funeral. Pinckney, pastor of Mother Emanuel and a state senator, was one of nine killed in the attack June 17.

“We’re soaking it in just like everyone else,” the Rev. Cress Darwin of Second Presbyterian Church said.

The Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery oversees about 50 churches, some of them mostly white congregations and some mostly black, said the Rev. Deane Kemper, the Presbytery’s stated clerk. The shooting “has facilitated a lot of conversation back and forth” about how these congregations might come together, he said.

Sometimes introspection and dialogue lead naturally to action.

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said he bonded with his colleague Pinckney while they served together in the Legislature and most recently discussed the need to expand health care coverage in the state.

“After we discuss symbols (like the Confederate flag) that are polarizing and monuments that are polarizing, it is incumbent upon us to move to substance, policies and practices that divide our community,” Kimpson said. “That includes an economic agenda for people who have historically been left out, and health care for all. ... We’re not there. We don’t have anything to sing hallelujah about yet.”

The effort to remove the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds is being countered by a minority of state lawmakers, led by Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg.

Bright, who has started a petition to keep the flag in place, said in a statement that the banner symbolizes “resistance against a federal, centralized power that far overreached its constitutional limits” as well as “states’ rights and constitutional liberties, which many have fought and died for.”

“By focusing our outrage and attention on a simple flag, we’re missing out on the true lessons to be gleaned from this tragic event,” Bright said, referring to the shooter as a troubled individual. “That is a shame, and in no way does this honor the memories of those who were murdered. I urge every South Carolina citizen to take actions that can produce actual results, rather than allow our emotions to run away from us and fixate on scrubbing historical symbols that memorialize states’ rights.”

Marcus Cox, a history professor at The Citadel, said blacks and whites are still too far apart on many critical issues. Lynchings and miscarriages of justice are generally relegated to the past, but police brutality, mass incarceration and poverty continue to threaten blacks disproportionately.

“In order for us to have an ‘honest dialogue,’ Cox said, “those are the issues we have to get past.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said blacks’ limited access to capital is the biggest civil rights issue that must be confronted.

“We’re now paying the price of urban negligence,” he said. “Do we pay for S.C. State (University) or prisons?”

He called for the elimination of corporate tax loopholes and overseas tax havens as a way to fund a jobs program that could put a dent in the high unemployment numbers seen in minority communities and perhaps begin to rehabilitate rundown neighborhoods.

“If you invest in infrastructure and skills training,” he said, “it’s going to help everybody.”

Riley said the dialogue about race has been going on for a while, and many public policies — some old, some new — are designed to address grievances about discrimination and social inequity.

He said the days ahead will require hard work to translate sentiments exhibited in recent days into political and social action, into more support for the Cradle to Career program, the Charleston Promise Neighborhood and the African-American museum.

The violence gives the community an opportunity to study its history more closely and to focus on education, Riley said.

“All of the work that we’ve been doing in terms of economic and social programs, this has accentuated the need to stay committed and do more,” he said.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said he was hopeful that the killing of nine churchgoers at Bible study would be a catalyst for substantive change.

“All of us know that in this business there’s a lot of form, and every now and then there is some substance,” he said. The Confederate flag debate is, he said, “a lot of form.” But it does nothing to address wealth disparities, unemployment and health care inequities that disproportionately affect blacks and other minorities, he said. “It takes substance to drive those things out of our society.”

Clyburn said he hopes South Carolina will adopt a health care law named for Pinckney that will expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. High health care costs help perpetuate poverty, he said.

He also wants to see more infrastructure investment in rural communities, citing the “10-20-30” proposal he wants implemented as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The provision would ensure that 10 percent of financial distributions under the act go to 474 U.S. counties where 20 percent or more of the population has been living below the poverty line for the past 30 years.

Action like this is needed now, he said. “I love spirituals, I hum them all day long, but that’s not going to feed anybody.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at