WASHINGTON — It hasn’t been a full year since the shooting at Emanuel AME Church, but nearly three dozen members of the U.S. House and Senate will soon fill the pews at a Sunday morning service to reflect on the legacy of the tragedy.
Their visit in mid-March will close out a three-day tour around South Carolina, designed to teach participating lawmakers some deeper lessons about race relations and racial healing in the Palmetto State and, more broadly, in America.
“Part of it is about exploring the history of the state,” said Joan Mooney, president of the Washington-based Faith and Politics Institute, which is sponsoring the event. “But the spirit also led us here through the 2015 murder of nine people of faith at Mother Emanuel. The faith and courage of members of the victims’ family and members of the church community ... a whole nation witnessed love and forgiveness, which opens the door to increased understanding.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat and influential black leader in South Carolina, said he hoped lawmakers would return to Washington with a more complete understanding of the events that transpired.
“When I hear people say they can’t understand how the Emanuel Nine, those families, reacted the way they did — well, I can,” Clyburn said. “I can understand it. I lived in Charleston. I taught school in Charleston. I know Charlestonians, and none of that surprised me at all. ... People say they don’t understand it. I would like them to get a better feel for who these people are. That’s what this is all about.”
U.S. Republican Sen. Tim Scott, the only other black member of the S.C. congressional delegation, said the timing of the visit could be helpful in reaching that understanding.
“When the wounds are still fresh, perhaps it can bring people together,” Scott said, “and give us all, hopefully, a positive and constructive opportunity to process the lessons that we should all take away from the tragedy ... that in spite of our difficulties and our challenges, if we remain a family — the Charleston family, the South Carolina family, the American family — good will eventually come out of our challenging times.”
The Faith and Politics Institute has been around since 1991. It uses a variety of programming to engage members of Congress and their staffs across party, religion and race, but it’s best known for facilitating bipartisan “pilgrimages” to significant sites in American history.
The most popular pilgrimages have been those led by civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who several times since 1998 has taken lawmakers back to Selma, Ala., and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where in 1965 he was nearly beaten to death.
Lewis will play an integral role on the South Carolina pilgrimage, with Clyburn, Scott and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., serving as the official co-hosts.
According to a tentative schedule provided to The Post and Courier, the program will run from March 18 to 20. The group will arrive in Columbia that Friday and visit the Zion Baptist Church, a prominent site in civil rights history. From there the group will travel to the S.C. State University campus in Orangeburg, where in 1968 three young black men were killed for trying to integrate a bowling alley.
Saturday and Sunday will be spent in Charleston, where lawmakers will learn about the city’s role in African-American history, including the slave trade and Gullah-Geechee culture.
The shooting at Emanuel AME Church will be the major focus, with organizers hopeful survivors and victims’ families might want to participate.
At least a handful of them say they’re committed. Melvin Graham Jr., whose sister Cynthia Graham Hurd was one of the nine gunned down on June 17, applauded the delegation’s visit. Their brother Malcolm Graham, a former North Carolina state senator, will be on a panel at Clyburn’s request, and several family members will attend.
“History shows racism comes to the black community over and over again,” said Melvin Graham Jr., who lives in Goose Creek.
“We have to band together to stop it, or we may one day find it outside and in places other the black community. The people of Charleston showed that they are willing to take on this fight not just in words but action.”
The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother, Ethel Lance, was killed in the shooting, said she would attend the March events.
“Emanuel is going to be that place where everybody who comes to Charleston wants to go to that church, to see where it happened,” said the Dallas trauma chaplain.
“It puts the church in a historic light after a very poignant event that people ought to never forget.”
Kevin Singleton, whose mother, Myra Thompson, was killed in the Emanuel AME shooting, called the congressional delegation’s visit “a beautiful thing.”
“All the great leaders of South Carolina have shown a passion to forgive, and that’s exactly what’s needed for healing,” said Singleton, who lives in Charlotte.
And the Rev. Anthony Thompson, Myra’s husband, also applauded the visit.
He noted that Emanuel AME will take its place on the nation’s tour of historic civil rights stops, and the victims, including his wife, will take their place in history.
“We took a more quiet, peaceful stance and tried to come up with solutions,” said the Charleston pastor. “It’s changing some things.