“Charleston strong” wasn’t just a phrase Sunday night.
The city has been praised for its response to a shooting that left nine dead Wednesday night in Emanuel AME Church, but a walk Sunday night across the Arthur Ravenel Bridge put residents’ solidarity into perspective.
Police estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 people gathered for the Bridge to Peace Unity Chain, an event held to promote unity and peace.
People gathered on both sides of the bridge — named after a former state lawmaker and Confederate flag supporter — and marched until they met in the middle, cheering and congratulating each other with open arms.
Khalil Santos smiled as one of his sons peered at the crowd from his shoulders.
“I want my kids to understand what this represents,” he said. “I want them to understand that hate is not the way to live. I want them to have brighter futures and I want them to see the unity, no matter race or color. We are still united.”
And what better way to do it than on Father’s Day? he added.
“I sat and looked at the crowd, from all walks of life, and I feel promise,” Santos said. “It gives me hope.”
All around him, people were smiling, laughing, hugging and greeting strangers. They carried signs of love, touting peace and telling the church of their solidarity. They stopped for impromptu prayers and sang hymns along their walk.
“I’m very emotional,” said Ashley Morris of Durham, N.C. “Just seeing all the different cultures come together for God. I’m proud, very proud.”
The message she and many others took away from the event was that love will overcome hate in Charleston.
“This was just over and beyond,” she said. “It just shows you the strength of this city, and that’s a lesson I’m going to take back to Durham.”
Angie Brose of Charleston said she thought the gathering was a great way to show America what the city is made of.
“It’s a showing of how amazing Charleston has been,” she said.
Her friend, Lauren Bush, also of Charleston, agreed and said she thought the event was an opportunity to make a statement.
“It’s going to take a lot more than just holding hands across a bridge, but to see this response, it’s a good start,” Bush said. “We will rise above the hate.”
Her hope is that the event will also restore faith in humanity. Strangers joined hands for a common cause, and hundreds from around the world declared that they were standing with Charleston as they watched the event unfold via social media.
Even comedian Stephen Colbert showed up to make the walk and show support for the city he calls home.
“I can’t even process it; I feel like I’m in a movie,” said Dorsey Fairbairn, an organizer of the walk who lives in Mount Pleasant. “The people raised in Charleston are not raised knowing hate — they’re raised in love, and that was obvious tonight. ... I hope the families feel the honor and the love from this community.”
The irony of the night, she said, was that there were so many people who turned out, she and other organizers never made it to the bridge to walk across. They instead walked around Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park “watching in awe” at the love and support.
“It’s just been amazing,” Fairbairn said.
She said her idea was born out of being a mother and having concern for similar tragedies across America.
“I just felt compelled to do something,” she said. “I just feel like this is happening too much in our country and this cannot be the norm.”
She commended other organizers and the Mount Pleasant and Charleston police departments for reacting so quickly and helping with resources for the event.
Fairbairn said she wants good to come out of the tragedy and also challenged residents to take part in a different kind of event — nine minutes of silence to reflect and think of something they can do to change other people’s lives.
Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughton