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Two years after the Emanuel AME Church shooting, fear of white supremacists spreads again

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Just two years have passed.

In June 2015, a self-avowed white supremacist gunned down nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church, launching massive displays of unity in Charleston that inspired the nation and renewed resolve to confront racism in positive ways.

Fast forward to the present. Racial divides feel more polarized, the potential for violence more palpable after white supremacists marched with swastikas and Confederate flags in Charlottesville, Va. The Washington Post reported that one hollered, “Dylann Roof was a hero!” Another ran over a young woman, killing her. 

Roof's racist violence opened windows into shadowy online sites for white supremacists who, like him, lurked behind user names. His was Lil Aryan. But the marchers in Charlottesville hoisted torches and Nazi salutes out in the open.

As Melvin Graham watched the news, he feared a white man who approached his family at church. He’d already lost his sister in the church shooting.

The Rev. Joseph Darby, an AME Church presiding elder, urged his parishioners to be vigilant and considered getting a concealed weapons permit himself. Until then, he'd simply turned death threats over to police.

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Democrat whose district includes Emanuel, asked the U.S. Attorney's Office in Columbia to investigate hate groups in South Carolina before they cause more violence.

And the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, pastor of Emanuel, eyed white visitors with renewed caution. Gone, he feared, were the days when racists hid behind sheets and masks.

“I’m gravely concerned,” he said.

Unity lost

After the Charlottesville violence, national news cameras filmed outside Emanuel last week. But on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, regular workday traffic barreled by the space where 15,000 people joined hands days after the 2015 massacre in a show of unity that itself made news around the world. 

Dorsey Fairbairn of Mount Pleasant helped organize the Bridge to Peace Unity Chain over Facebook after seeing images of Roof and hearing his white supremacist views. She joined black and white people who hugged and cried together and felt hope that what Roof’s racism sowed, their love could overcome.

Then she watched neo-Nazis and Klansmen march in Virginia last weekend, spewing the same racist ideology.

“Two years ago, I was naive,” she said.

She has since heard that James Alex Fields, charged with killing the woman in Charlottesville, might hold similar views. So do countless others, she realized.

“There are many more Dylann Roofs and James Alex Fields in the crowd. We need to start paying attention,” she said. “Unfortunately — and I can't believe I am saying this now — but I believe what happened in Charleston was bound to happen somewhere. It's been there all along.”

But where does it end? She sees a changed country where whispers of racism have become public spats and led to violence.

“Until the political rhetoric of our country stands behind all people of color, religious background, gender, etc., torches will still be lit," Fairbairn said. "Killings will still happen.” 

Darcy Creaturo, another of the march’s organizers, remains proud of Charleston's diverse display of love that day on the bridge. 

“Unfortunately, this situation was fueled by hate, and there will always be people with hate,” she said.

Now she worries media coverage of white supremacists will fuel more.

Creaturo isn’t inclined to try and repeat the unity march, however. It was too organic, though its message lives on.

“We don't let hate win,” she added.

'Here we go again'

Melvin Graham lost his sister Cynthia in the mass shooting at Emanuel. When he watched news out of Charlottesville, physical pain pierced his chest, he said.

“Here we go again,” he recalled thinking. 

Two years ago, the country’s first black president came to Charleston and put his arms around Graham and his family to comfort them. Last week, when he heard President Donald Trump’s comments after the Charlottesville violence blaming "many sides" for what happened, he yelled at the TV.

“He’s courting these people," Graham said. "They’re emboldened. They’re encouraged. How am I supposed to feel safe? How are my children supposed to feel safe? I honestly feel that we're on our own."

On Tuesday, Graham went with his family to their small church near Moncks Corner. While they sat outside, a white man about the same age and build as Roof pulled in and jumped out of his car. Graham stood, alert.

“I need help!” the man said.

Graham smelled alcohol. Despite his fear, he offered God's love.

“Let’s go into the church and pray,” Graham said.

When they finished, the man went to his car to get something. He rummaged around. Graham tried anew not to panic. Was it a gun? A knife? The man pulled out a jug of liquor and handed it over. He said he was going home to try and repair damage he’d done to his family. Then he left.

Graham hated fearing the man. But what if his intentions had been different?

Healing wounds

Darby, also a longtime local NAACP leader, recalled the months after Hurricane Hugo when people rallied to help one another across every line. Or those after Sept. 11, 2001. Or after the Emanuel shooting.

The unity was sincere. But it didn’t last.

A year after the Emanuel shooting, the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research polled 800 adults to gauge race relations after the massacre and the death of Walter Scott, a black man killed by a white police officer during a confrontation that followed a traffic stop. They found deep divides.

Whites were twice as likely as black residents — 49 percent compared with 24 percent — to rate race relations as good. And almost 32 percent of black respondents deemed race relations poor, more than any year since the USC institute first asked the question in 1989.

Only 4 percent of South Carolinians rated those relations as excellent.

"Decent people tend to recoil at events like these," Darby said of the church shooting and the Charlottesville violence. "That's sincere. But the devil is in the details. What happens when the march is over?" 

Along with entrenched racial views, people remain divided on issues that affect racial divisions and disparities: gun control, school choice, Medicaid funding, voter registration. 

Hamilton Grant's grandparents were involved in the lawsuit that ultimately desegregated public education. He heard their stories. He also attended a KKK rally in Columbia just weeks after the Emanuel shooting and felt the pent-up rage that remained in 2015. He feels it again now, in 2017.

“It’s the same thing my grandparents dealt with,” Grant said.

Grant, a Columbia resident, is vice president of the Hate Won’t Win Movement, a nonprofit created by the family of the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., who died in the Emanuel shooting. At 28, Grant thinks the nation is “looking at the second coming of the Civil Rights Movement.”

As debates over Confederate monuments and racial history indicate, this movement will force people to confront the nation's founding on slavery and racial oppression. The Emanuel shooting, he said, will play a big role. Charleston remained peaceful after the shooting partly because Police Chief Greg Mullen quickly deemed it a hate crime.

“In order to address something honestly, we have to call it what it is,” Grant said.

If not, he feared, the same divisions will persist in another two years.

Contact Jennifer Hawes at (843) 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

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