The world’s spotlight has been on Charleston for the past few weeks in the wake of the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church. The aftermath of that horrific event has included the encouraging sight of a community, state and nation coming together to pray and offer support — both emotional and financial — for the nine families struggling to recover and for the church as well; the gracious gesture of forgiveness of the alleged murderer by the families of the slain; and the stunningly swift and long- overdue removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the Statehouse in Columbia.
Now that the news cameras have been packed away and the 24-hour news cycle has moved on to other stories, the discussion has begun of how best to remember the Emanuel Nine, with a monument being one of leading possibilities.
A monument would be a fitting remembrance, since symbols are important. The Confederate flag debate and the apoplectic, unreasonable and shrilly expressed fear by some that all monuments to Confederate history will now be obliterated are reminders of that. Any monument to the Emanuel Nine, however, should be designed and placed with the utmost care.
It should not be located in Marion Square. The optics of John C. Calhoun — a vigorous defender of slavery whose political actions laid the foundation for the Civil War — looking down at a memorial to those killed by one of his bigoted cultural heirs would be insulting and repugnant.
It should, however, reflect the loss of nine clergy and laity of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the broader context of the historically black church, for that context is one of victory rather than victimization.
It should reflect the religious tradition of Christians whose ancestors learned to forgive, not only as an often overlooked Christian imperative, but as a means of coping with a system where they were subjected to rape, maiming, brutality and the sale of their children by those they were forced to labor for and interact with as slaves until they escaped, died or were murdered.
A properly designed and located monument would be meaningful and effective, but any monument — like the recently retired Confederate flag — is still just a symbol at best. The Emanuel Nine should be remembered not only through symbolism, but also through substantive action that brings real and enduring change.
We still live in a community where the ranks of minority management-level employees in our city and county governments and in the private sector are disproportionately slim. We still live in a community where raging gentrification negatively impacts diversity, where little is done to encourage minority business development and where many young, black college graduates have no choice but to leave home to find meaningful employment.
We still live in a community where the Charleston County School Board majority makes capricious and arbitrary decisions on everything from the staffing, funding, equipping and purposing of schools to the process of “choosing” the district’s new superintendent, often making those decisions in ways beneficial to the cultural majority but detrimental to the cultural minority.
We still live in a community where African-Americans are pulled over for traffic offenses like “rolling stops” and failure to activate turn signals when changing lanes, while tourists and those in whiter neighborhoods engage in what could kindly be called “creative driving” without apprehension, a community where young black men are sometimes harassed at best and Tasered or shot at worst for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply encountering a rogue law enforcement officer.
The sincere outpouring of support and sense of unity in the wake of our recent tragedy has been marvelous to see, but it shouldn’t be a static event — like the togetherness following Hurricane Hugo. If we use our newly generated store of good will and maintain and build on our togetherness to achieve mutual respect and find common ground, we can effectively address chronic inequities that still exist in ways that negatively impact our community and that often shape public policy.
Our doing so will be a fitting, substantive, living memorial to the Emanuel Nine that betters the quality of life for all citizens and enables us to truly say that every day is “a great day in South Carolina.”
The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is presiding elder of the Beaufort District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and first vice president of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.