The national news of this past week, and all the political fallout and rhetoric, have left me astonished and amazed, thinking “I cannot believe we are here.” In this state of bewilderment and amazement, I have drawn a very important conclusion. I’ve concluded that “Charleston Strong” is not just a slogan. These words represent a promise made and commitments met after the tragedy at Mother Emmanuel Church.
Charlottesville demonstrates to us that we have an incredible amount of work to do in our country. The muted response by many leaders and the attempt to normalize the rhetoric, hatred, and intentions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis proves a fundamental lack of knowledge. It illustrates a rejection of the true history of the Civil War and why it was fought. In reality we should not be surprised that these groups still exist. They have never left us. We should, however, be concerned about leaders who can’t find the resolve or moral fortitude to condemn them.
I believe we are Charleston Strong because of the leadership demonstrated in the immediate aftermath of the murders. More than two years of work has been accomplished since then. I am in no way suggesting that we are free from the type of racial, cultural, and political strife that Charlottesville and other American communities experience. But I assert and maintain with confidence that Charleston is making tremendous progress toward dealing with its complex and difficult racial history. Charleston Strong is real and is as undeniable and unique as many other pieces of our Holy City.
We are more than diverse “optics” and kumbaya moments. The work since the tragedy has proven that whites and blacks, Jews and Hispanics, natives and immigrants, don’t just operate within their social silos but are engaging with each other in meaningful and important ways.
My assertion of Charleston Strong is based on what has grown out of those first weeks after the tragedy. It disoriented us and finally helped us find the resolve to confront our own history. Since my arrival back home, I have seen and felt real momentum for change. We didn’t just come together, but have persisted in peaceful and civil discourse toward a more just, equal, and equitable community.
We have done this through the trials of Michael Slager and Dylann Roof. Either verdict could have resulted in civil unrest, but instead concluded with a resolve to allow the legal process to take its course.
We are strong.
The Charleston Forum on Race and the Avery Institute’s Racial Justice Initiative have advanced difficult and complex conversations on racial equity and social justice. Community members of all backgrounds are committing themselves to meaningful dialogue followed by strategic action.
We are strong.
The YWCA has trained nearly 100 (and counting) community leaders across sectors using the Racial Equity Institute model. This critical mass of leaders now shares a common understanding and language of how to talk about race, racism, and slavery; its lingering effects on our community; and the policies, practices, and long held traditions that consistently create opportunity gaps for people of color.
We are strong.
The Social Justice and Racial Equity Collaborative is tackling the same issues through a process of truth, healing, and transformation. They engage local leaders and provide them a platform to “Live Their Truth” in full view of a public audience. These dialogues will challenge our community to appreciate the unique perspectives of those who have been marginalized by and benefited from the lingering effects of slavery.
We are strong.
Former Mayor Joseph P. Riley and Michael Moore are close to breaking ground on the International African American Museum. The museum will correct romanticized versions of history found down our cobblestone streets and narrow lanes. It will be a place to get the rest of the American story – the dark side of our economic and cultural heritage. The side that we don’t talk about and that allows a narrative of white supremacy to continue as a recruiting tool for the next domestic terrorist.
My hope is that we, when confronted with the whole truth, regardless of our race will accept it, understand its effect on all of our lives, and gain a shared sense of appreciation for the lives of those who helped build our country, from the ground up and in chains. I hope this truth will create in us an intolerance for the hateful language of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny; not just silent resolve, but active resistance to this most stubborn infection in our American body.
Even if we don’t admit it, Charlestonians have a sense of this “hidden” history. We have a compass within us that knows the history books often get it wrong. We have a familiar feeling that the lingering effects and damages of slavery, Jim Crow and white supremacy are real, and that we must in no way go backward in our pursuit for that more perfect union.
We are strong.
This is what I believe compels us to move forward with the hard conversations. It is what drives us to make hard decisions. It is what makes us bristle at the images coming out of Charlottesville. It is what makes us unsettled by the words of our president. Charleston has first-hand knowledge of the destructive force of a self-avowed white supremacist. We have wept, held hands, argued, and yet we still come together.
We are strong.
We are strong because when that terror happened in our city, we spoke out — loud and bold — against not only the perpetrator but the systems and symbols that perpetuate the ideology of hate and separation. I am writing this op-ed today to remind us of who we are, to reaffirm our actions, and to encourage our hearts.
I am writing to remind us that we have difficult days ahead. They will be filled with difficult conversations about what to do with symbols that tell half of our story. We will argue over traditions that alienate many in our community. I know we can make decisions that represent the values of the collective community. It will be hard but we will come through it because we are strong.
Our Lowcountry Unity Fund, born from the Mother Emanuel tragedy, is designed to help us do this work. It was created to provide more than money. It provides the platform to unlock the social moral, intellectual, and reputational capital of those in our community who can show us a better path forward, together. The foundation is involved in many of the initiatives I’ve mentioned and we welcome you to join is in creating substantive change.
I am where I want to be: here in Charleston, the place of my birth, as the CEO of a major philanthropic organization, as a black man, having earned this position because of the content of my character and not the color of my skin.
I feel a sense of pride in our community not because we are perfect, but because we are not. We are a community grappling with our complex history while boldly moving forward in powerfully important ways. These are the reasons we are strong.
Darrin Goss is president and CEO of Coastal Community Foundation of S.C.