Two unfathomable things happened, more quickly than almost anyone could have imagined, one year ago this June.
First, the terror: A young man named Dylann Roof, armed with a .45-caliber handgun, sat through almost an hour of the Wednesday night Bible study at Charleston, South Carolina’s venerable “Mother Emanuel” AME Church. Then he opened fire. Within minutes, nine—Depayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson—were dead. Five survived. In an instant, wives lost husbands, fathers lost daughters, children lost parents, and a church lost its pastor.
Then, the mercy: Two days later, as the nation simmered with outrage and disbelief, the families of those murdered by Roof were allowed, in accordance with the law for bond hearings, to speak by closed-circuit television to Roof. Television networks carried the feed from both rooms: the room where Roof stood, nearly expressionless, flanked by police; and the room where his victims’ relatives were gathered. One after another, they spoke words of forgiveness even as their voices shook with grief and anger. Perhaps the baldest declaration of forgiveness came from Nadine Collier, daughter of slain member Ethel Lance:
I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again—but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. . . . You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.
Of all the evidence in recent years that white supremacy remains imprinted on American life, the shootings were the most indisputable. A white boy had come of age in the 21st century drinking from the same poisoned spring as lynch mobs across the country in the 20th. He had stepped through loopholes in gun laws broad enough to allow a 21-year-old with a criminal history to purchase a Glock, and carried it into the sanctuary of a church in hopes of avenging imagined wrongs and inciting a race war.
At the same time, in a way without any obvious parallel in recent decades, the offers of forgiveness, prayers, and mercy in the face of judgment were an extraordinary public reminder of the holy power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, its persistence even in an increasingly secular nation, and its capacity to change hearts, minds—and legislatures. Within three weeks of the shooting, the debate about the Confederate flag flying over South Carolina’s State Capitol, a debate that had been entrenched in stalemate in the South Carolina House of Representatives, was over. On July 10, 2015, the flag was removed. As South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley noted, the grace shown on June 19 helped to change the minds of wavering officials.
All this happened in a few terrible and memorable days. And it all deserves to be remembered and commemorated, lamented and honored, as CT seeks to do with the following story.
But none of it is over.
Trauma and Grace
“I have not grieved yet,” said Shirrene Goss, whose brother, Tywanza Sanders, is numbered among the Emanuel 9. “It hasn’t been life as usual. When life still has to go on—what can you do?”
One year is nothing in the face of grief. Trauma can be inflicted in an instant, but it takes a lifetime—perhaps more—to be healed. The first debt owed to the survivors of the massacre at Mother Emanuel is to recognize the grief they still carry, and will carry for years to come. More deeply, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Charleston requires seeing the ways that it simply re-inscribed the legacy of violence against Americans of African descent, a 300-year-old trauma that has not healed and oftentimes is not even acknowledged. The shootings in the basement of Mother Emanuel happened in an instant, but they recalled and perpetuated centuries of history—as, indeed, does the church itself, founded by African Americans and burned to the ground after Denmark Vesey’s slave revolt of 1822. To truly heal this most basic laceration in our body politic will likely take centuries more.