Seeing eye to eye on reality of race relations

S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard (from left), then-Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, then-Gov Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott attend a prayer vigil at Morris Brown AME Church day after the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in 2015. File/Staff

The shooting last week at Emanuel AME Church has uncovered a chasm of disagreement and misunderstanding about whether blacks and whites really see eye to eye on matters of race.

Some insist the attack at the historic black church that left nine dead was an isolated incident by an evil individual and cite the ways in which the community comes together in times of distress as evidence of good race relations. Others say the shooting was only the latest (particularly horrific) act of violence against blacks, and they are calling for a public discussion, a reckoning that might lead to reconciliation.

“What happened in that church is not the people of South Carolina,” Gov. Nikki Haley said at a prayer vigil last week. “We are a state of faith, we are a state of prayer, we are a state of love.”

But prayer alone is not enough, many blacks say.

“South Carolina has a rich and tortured past,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. “We’re doing so many things right, but getting to the heart and soul and core of the system (of racism), that takes a lot of work. It’s not easy work, and it’s a very difficult conversation, and it takes people willing to leave their comfort zones.”

In the first days after nine church members were gunned down during a Bible study session, blacks in Charleston repeatedly called for unity in fighting racism and forgiveness for those who stray from the path of love.

The Rev. Isaac Holt called on more than 400 worshippers at Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston on Thursday night to pray for the suspect, Dylann Roof of Columbia.

Invited by Judge James Gosnell to make statements at Roof’s bond hearing on Friday, family members of the victims issued pleas for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Anthony Thompson, grandson of victim Myra Thompson, told the judge: “I would just like him to know that ... I forgive you, my family forgives you.”

The daughter of Ethel Lance, grief-stricken, said: “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. ... You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you, and I forgive you.”

While the term “evil” often has been employed, it always seems to refer to the murderous deed, not the individual. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., told those attending the Thursday prayer vigil that the suspect must have learned how to hate so fiercely.

“I’m convinced that this young man allowed himself to be caught up in something anti-social,” Clyburn said, refusing to characterize the suspect as anything but a troubled human being.

Two politicians quickly called for his execution.

“We will absolutely want him to have the death penalty,” Haley said Friday on NBC News’ “Today” show. She added that the suspect alone, “a person filled with hate,” was responsible for the killings.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, also said he hoped for the death penalty.

“This event was all about evil,” Limehouse said. “This was a very deranged, very demented, very confused and completely evil young man who will pay for what he has done. He tried to tear up the fabric of our community.”

Limehouse remembered his colleague in the Senate, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was among the nine killed at Emanuel AME Church, as a “very gentle man, soft spoken, eloquent man” who was always ready with a smile and friendly exchange. “He was a consummate people person,” but also driven and devoted to the church, Limehouse said.

The mass shooting was a “one-off isolated event,” and it prompted an outpouring of grief and fellowship from blacks and whites throughout the community, many of whom attended Thursday’s vigil service at Morris Brown AME Church, he said.

“The vigil was amazing. There was such a spirit of cooperation and brotherly love that prevailed in the church,” Limehouse said. “To my mind that was our first step toward healing. ... I’m so proud of the way Charleston responds to these tragedies. There’s not an inkling of racial tension that you see in other cities.”

But for many blacks, racial tension is a constant in their lives.

“This was not an unimaginable act committed by a lone mentally ill man,” said Consuela Francis, director of the African-American studies program at the College of Charleston. “This was the predictable result of long-standing systemic racism that paints black people as usurping, free-loading, violent thugs.”

And that attitude is based on an assumption that America belongs to white people and everyone else is trespassing, Francis said.

“White people may be able to sustain the fiction that these are isolated incidents. But black people cannot. Our lives depend on recognizing the truth.”

In public comments on Thursday, President Barack Obama also contextualized the shooting.

“The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history,” he said. “This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked. And we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.”

And Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said the shooting is clear evidence that racial harmony is far from a reality.

“This attack against black people in an institution that has such historical and cultural importance detracts from years of healing undertaken by our communities,” she said.

The black congregation at Emanuel AME once served thousands of downtown parishioners but today is located in a predominantly white part of downtown.

Millicent Brown, professor emeritus of history at Claflin University and a Charleston native who was among the first few to integrate the public schools, said the shooting should trigger a formal truth and reconciliation effort similar to the one the city of Greensboro, N.C., pursued. The legal outcomes of a 1979 “Death to the Klan” rally that resulted in violent attacks and several deaths left the community dissatisfied. An independent commission was empaneled in 2004 and spent two years investigating the event, publishing its findings in May 2006 and enabling the city’s citizens to put the rally behind them.

For Brown and others, the shooting only widens a wound that has been festering for centuries because of the effects of development and gentrification on black communities, long-standing school inequities and disillusioned, marginalized young blacks who resort to crime.

“The disrespect and disregard being shown (toward blacks) manifests itself even in violence,” Brown said. “If we refuse to deal with our sordid past, these horrific events (can’t be stopped).”

Bill Stanfield, president of the nonprofit Metanoia and resident of the predominantly black and poor Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood, said the isolationist mindset of the alleged perpetrator surely is part of the problem.

“It seems clear that the individual who did this wanted race relations to be splintered and fractured and broken,” Stanfield said. “We all have a responsibility — I think, particularly white folks — to build bridges right now.”

The Rev. Isaac Holt, of Royal Missionary Baptist Church, said he was trying to reconcile the recent bloodshed with his faith.

“I must look at everything through the window of faith, which is the word of God, and my faith tells me that God for some reason allowed this,” Holt said. “It’s painful, but it’s something I have to wrap my faith around. Whatever He allows has to produce something better than before the event. And I believe, for this community, even in this tragedy, for those of us who are still here, there’s an opportunity to be better by it.”

He said that all of society is culpable, that political and economic divisions in South Carolina, which echo national divisions, have fueled extremism.

“Some vulnerable mind is listening,” Holt said. “But if we show our children the right way, there might be a chance to bring this area truly together, for more than a week or two.”

And so he will keep trying.

“I have to channel my hurt into help,” he said.

Robert Behre contributed to this report. Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.