Editor’s note: Four years ago today, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire during a Wednesday evening gathering at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically black congregation in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine members of the church, including its senior pastor, were killed. Charleston-based journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes writes about the slaughter and its aftermath in Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness. The following is an adapted excerpt from her book.
To mark the first anniversary of the attack on Emanuel, hundreds of people gathered in Charleston’s Marion Square, from which they’d march toward the church and, beyond it, to a circle of trees planted at the Gaillard Center in memory of those who died. There, they gathered beneath a white tent to hear from Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. The year after a white racist shot and killed her father, her mother led 1,500 protestors to Emanuel in support of the city’s striking hospital workers in 1969.
She recalled how her father used to say that people feared each other because they didn’t really know each other. Even now, during this march, people had gathered to show unity in this public space, for public consumption. But what about when they went home? When they decided who to invite over for dinner or a beer?
“You have to find ways to come together in private spaces,” King urged.
She paused, letting the message sink in.
“That’s your assignment.”
Indeed, just a few days earlier, a new poll of South Carolinians had revealed that black and white residents held starkly different views about how the massacre had affected race relations. In the view of most white residents, those tensions had eased a great deal since the shooting—in fact, they were more than twice as likely as black residents to perceive race relations as improved as a result. Some spoke with pride about the shows of unity afterward.
More than one-third of black residents, though, held the opposite view. They saw white people willing to offer a hug or turn out for a unity march yet remain unwilling to address the huge disparities that persisted across the state, from education to income to treatment by the criminal justice system.
White people saw their gestures of unity as gracious and sincere, which they were. But black people saw them as more akin to someone who writes a thank-you note after dinner when they really should have offered to pay.
The findings came from an institute at the University of South Carolina that had polled 800 adults to gauge race relations after the mass murder at Emanuel and the shooting of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, by a white police officer. The percent of black respondents who deemed race relations as “poor,” nearly 32 percent, was the highest since the institute had first asked the question almost three decades earlier.
It came down to how much each group saw racism as an ongoing problem. Far more whites perceived racial equality than did African Americans: 80 percent to 45 percent. The two groups even blamed different causes for racial tensions. Black residents often blamed the divisive presidential race and the Confederate flag’s long tenure at the South Carolina statehouse. Whites mostly blamed the media for focusing on the issue.
The USC survey results didn’t surprise black Charlestonians like the Reverend Joseph Darby, an AME presiding elder and local NAACP leader who had no qualms deriding the “Charleston Strong” moniker people emblazoned on T-shirts and banners after the massacre.
“More like: Charleston Business as Usual,” he said. “It’s a niceness that comes with a caste system, and you’re not supposed to buck the caste system.”
He did, however, see subtle shifts. He had recently stopped at Emanuel’s Bible study with a pastor friend. When it ended, a group of older white ladies was cleaning the kitchen as people left. To Darby, it was a small step in the right direction. Indeed, people of different races were making more intimate forays into the segregated silos of Charleston.
The largest and most organized of those efforts was the Illumination Project, the brainchild of then Charleston police chief Greg Mullen, who had worried even before the church massacre that the rising tide of anger over police shootings sweeping the nation would arrive at his door. While the fatal shooting of Walter Scott had occurred outside of his jurisdiction, in North Charleston, he’d known that tensions could flare in his city as well. Even before Scott’s death, Mullen had been working to shift the force’s thinking from a “warrior” mindset to a “guardian” mindset, an approach of protection, not dominion.
Shortly after the Emanuel shooting, Mullen had woken up in the middle of the night with a new idea for bringing police and residents together. A steering committee, a diverse lot of people, had started meeting that winter with very different perspectives about the relationships they were tasked with exploring.
Early on, a white cop had gotten up to introduce himself. “If I was to tell people about me I would say, ‘I’m from Ohio. I have a wife and a daughter. I like to run,’” he said. “I’m a friendly guy.” He emphasized that he wanted to be seen as more than a uniform and a badge.
But a black woman, a nurse administrator, had spoken next. She saw him as precisely that—a uniform and a badge with the ability to kill. She had grown up watching her younger brothers get harassed by the police for the mere crime of being young black men. “I’m sorry,” she told him,” but I don’t know you. I just see a man with a gun. And being a man with a gun, you can make a decision to shoot me.”
The officer was stunned but tried to remain open to her perspective. He’d been a cop for more than a decade. He had a clean record and a reputation for helping others, so what could he and his fellow officers do to help change those perceptions? Over the coming months, he and the woman became friends, a small step in a larger effort, not unlike what was happening at Charleston’s Second Presbyterian Church when the first anniversary of the shooting finally arrived.
The Same Red Blood
On the evening of June 17, at about the time the fateful Bible study had begun that night a year ago, Felicia Sanders—one of three survivors of the Emmanuel slaughter—walked toward the education building next to Second Presbyterian’s sanctuary. She had found spiritual nourishment in this church, filled with white Charlestonians, although she hadn’t intended to make a racial statement by coming here. God had led her to this place where she had realized with a new fervor that the same red blood that flowed from Jesus on the cross and her loved ones at Bible study flowed from all of the faithful, no matter their skin color.
It hadn’t always been easy. When she walked into Second Presbyterian, people still sometimes asked, “Are you visiting?” And when she had volunteered recently at one of its big outreaches to low-income students, someone tried to usher her into the line of people receiving goods—not toward the volunteers. Sanders had just kept walking to her destination.
On the other hand, now that she and some of her sisters attended the church’s Bible study, it had about 25 regulars, roughly half of them black and half white. After the weekly sessions ended every Wednesday, they lingered talking. Most of them wouldn’t have known the personal details of each other’s lives if not for those hours in this place.
Pastor Cress Darwin greeted her with a warm hug. They meandered together into a quiet chapel inside the building where fellow survivor Polly Sheppard and other victims’ loved ones gathered away from the masses arriving for the church’s big anniversary service. Sanders hugged Sheppard, who also no longer attended Emanuel regularly. Sheppard had switched to Mount Zion AME, the nearby daughter church of Emanuel, where she found her spiritual needs better met by Reverend Kylon Middleton.
Middleton had known Sheppard from working with Emanuel over the years with his close friend, Clementa. After the tragedy, they’d grown closer as Emanuel leaders provided Sheppard little by way of personal ministry, sending her looking for a new church home. When the bishop moved Middleton to Mount Zion from a church out in the country, Sheppard figured she’d found the church home she’d been looking for.
Middleton also arrived now as they gathered for the service. Darwin and Middleton had gotten to know each other since the shooting as well because both had joined citywide efforts to build ecumenical bridges across racial and denominational lines. Darwin had invited Middleton to preach tonight in his Presbyterian church, where worship seldom involved acts more energetic than standing to sing. Tall and charismatic, Middleton preached in the AME tradition of call and response that required him to carry a handkerchief into the pulpit.
Andy and Cheryl Savage soon arrived as well, followed by Nadine Collier, who had uttered the first words of forgiveness, which now defined the tragedy. Although she hadn’t wanted to attend any anniversary events given the tremendous grief she carried, she had come at Andy’s request and to support Felicia and Tyrone Sanders, her cousins. They all joined the small group in the chapel.
As the service time approached, Darwin ushered the larger crowd from the education building toward the sanctuary to find seats before the service began. The survivors and victims’ relatives stayed back until Darwin summoned the small group to join him in the lobby. They formed a circle and held hands, black and white ones, the diverse lot that he’d imagined for a decade. He prayed that God would be with them and with all of those gathered.
“Here we go! Here we go!” he called.
Darwin led the service until it was time for Middleton to preach. Middleton had grown up in this city, a divided one, and knew well the significance of a black pastor in a white pulpit. He approached with a ready step. When he got there, he beamed. “I never imagined in a million years coming to Second Presbyterian Church!” Sunday, he noted, remained the most segregated day of the week.
But why? They all served the same Christian God, the same one who’d brought them all together here tonight.
“Faith becomes the equalizer!”
In many ways, this was the most important change in race relations to come from the shooting. Friendships and familiarity had been born, especially within the Holy City’s largely segregated churches.
“No one imagined our community would rally together based on our similarities,” Middleton added more somberly. “This has become a beautiful opportunity for all God’s children.”
An Embrace of Forgiveness
The audience, a mix of black and white worshipers, stood to cheer as he stepped down toward them. As the people recited The Lord’s Prayer, Middleton didn’t return to his pew. Instead, he roamed out into the audience, heading straight toward a white man with a long brown beard sitting toward the back. The man stood to hug him. Few of those gathered knew who he was.
Forgive us our trespasses.
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
The man Middleton embraced was Paul Roof, the killer’s uncle.
Middleton had invited Paul and his wife, and he wanted them to feel welcome. Paul was a professor at the College of Charleston, where he taught sociology and had written his dissertation on the impact of race and social structure on women who received welfare. Most locals knew Paul for getting fired from a local Christian college after his face was printed on a beer can, giving him the moniker The Beer Can Professor. That had sent him forth to the College of Charleston, where Middleton had met him.
After they met, Paul had arrived at Middleton’s office one day to apologize on behalf of his family for the grieving minister’s loss, a gesture Middleton deeply appreciated. Middleton accepted the apology and then asked Paul how he was doing, how his family was doing—even how his brother was doing. Middleton did so in the Christian spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation that he held so dear. He also wouldn’t judge the family by the acts of one man. The two had since become friends. As far as Middleton knew, this was the first time Paul had attended an event with the victims’ families.
As they now hugged, the choir kicked in. Sanders and Sheppard smiled. For an entire year now, Dylann Roof never sought the forgiveness they had given him. But Paul Roof had come here tonight, and Middleton thanked him with this very public gesture.
From Grace Will Lead Us Home by Jennifer Berry Hawes. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Publishing Group.