This was supposed to be typical summer vacation marked with ocean views, fresh seafood, adult beverages with exotic names, an abundance of sun, and an even greater abundance of laughter. My close friend and I planned this getaway for more than a month—a weekend trip to charming, sun-soaked Charleston, South Carolina. Of course, the Wednesday prior to our scheduled jaunt changed everything. That Wednesday night, a demented white supremacist traveled more than 100 miles to murder, in cold blood, nine Black worshipers at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church located in the heart of Charleston. The first inclination is to pray, then cry, but never cancel the trip.
The reality was inescapable upon arrival as we were greeted by the hotel’s flags hovering at a miserable half-staff. It was a reminder that this escape would be more than simple revelry and relaxation; it would include a lesson in collective suffering and compassion like we’d never experienced in our lives. Friday evening was steamy and sticky. It was the kind of heat that could only be tolerated, much less enjoyed, on a vacation. Turning onto Calhoun Street, the mood was immediately palpable. One could almost taste the interrupted jubilation that should have been. Normally, this street would have been bustling with horse-drawn carriages loaded with tourists and sidewalks overwhelmed with curious visitors as native Charlestonians buzz about completing the remaining tasks of their day. But not this Friday. From several blocks away, in every direction, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of mourners and sympathizers descended upon Mother Emanuel. Some came in large groups, some in twos, holding hands. Fathers accompanied their young children holding bouquets larger than themselves. Some held single long-stemmed roses while others offered balloons and stuffed animals. All came with a heavy heart. The moving scene of perfect strangers weeping and consoling each other was momentous and unforgettable. Drawing closer to the sanctuary, the crowd swells; but so does the silence. If not for the surrounding news trucks, media personalities, and law enforcement officers managing the traffic, there may not have been a sound at all at the steps of the church. It seems that all were gathered at Mother Emanuel’s feet—Black and White, young and old, gay and straight, native and foreign. No race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion was absent from this outpouring of sorrow and haunting solemnity in the dusk’s unbearable heat about which not a single soul complained. This mosaic gathered on one low accord represented the millions still reeling from Wednesday night’s attack.
With all of the questions that linger, it is important that we speak the truth about this tragedy at every opportune moment. It does not suffice to say that this was an attack plotted by a disturbed man on a group of Christians. No, that will not do. We must call it what it is in order to combat the illness. This was an act of domestic terrorism executed by a racist, white supremacist upon an unsuspecting group of African-Americans. Any person, politician, or news reporter who describes this event any differently is afraid of or unwilling to admit the truth.
For many, this truth forces them to accept a dark reality: Racism is alive and well in these United States. It’s not a figment of Black citizens’ imaginations. It is a real living, breathing monster that rests in the hearts and minds of some of our neighbors. It didn’t disappear with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or President Barack Obama. It’s among us and it exists. This is a scary thought for a great deal of Americans who would otherwise just wish it away. If we understand and accept that this was an act fueled by racism (which it was), we must also understand and accept that this was an act of terrorism (which it also was). Once again, this unsettles some Americans because they have come to believe that terror has a singular face that is typically male and almost always Muslim. This group of Americans seem to have long-forgotten that the Ku Klux Klan was amongst the earliest of domestic terror groups formed in the U.S. Violence upon Black churches and Black bodies isn’t new. The history of the Deep South is replete with chronicles of lynchings, cross burnings, and murder. Had a young White man shot and killed a group of praying Black folks in 1815 or 1915, the incident would have just blended into the backdrop of southern culture.
Every time that one fails to acknowledge the truth about the Charleston attack, they do a monumental disservice to the slain, to the survivors, to the countless mourners who stand in solidarity with the Emanuel A.M.E. family, and to the very legacy of Mother Emanuel itself. Rooted in the struggle for liberation, this temple has a history of healing. She’s been targeted and burned to the ground; but she rises again and again. Even today, in the shadow of the unthinkable, she will not only survive, she will thrive.
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