This June two things happened in our city that shocked the world. The first everyone knows, though they wish to forget — nine black men and women, peacefully attending a prayer meeting in their own church, were systematically shot down, slaughtered at the hands of a 21-year-old racist from the Midlands.
The second will likely be soon forgotten, though everyone should remember it. After the chats in every barbershop and around every water cooler; after the harangues of Twitter and Facebook; after the screeds of every special-interest group with a pre-packaged agenda and a savvy handle on the media; after the lecturing of every television newsroom and newspaper in the Western world … after that 21-year-old was sent in shackles and a bulletproof vest into a bond hearing: After all of that, the families of the victims finally had their say.
After a day-and-a-half of total media saturation, of Al Sharpton and Glenn Beck on the ground and “public intellectuals” of all stripes discussing gun control or drug abuse or the Confederate flag or mental health … after all that noise, came the voices of those with the most to say.
Calmly, they stood up in that bond hearing and said, “We have no room for hate.” They let the killer know that they were praying for him. Their daughters, their granddaughters, their representatives — even a mother of the slain — looked into the face of evil and said, “I forgive you.”
This is the legacy of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Twyanza Sanders, the Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Jr., Sharonda Singleton and Myra Thompson. They built their families on a radical vision of Christ-like love and they shared that vision with the people around them. Like something out of a Flannery O’Connor novel, they even offered it to the 21-year-old racist who sat among them with a Bible in hand and gun in his pocket.
He said it was almost, almost, enough, to affect his heart, so thoroughly calcified in wickedness and hatred. Perhaps, God willing, it still will. The love shown by the families has certainly affected the world. Immediately, social media was agape, some even aghast. The worst elements even mistook love and forgiveness for some continued legacy of racial submission.
There was no love in that 21-year-old racist. None for his victims, none for himself, none even any for some fictional version of a “white race” he was so enamored with “saving.” All that lived under that odd haircut was well-cultivated hatred and wickedness. There was evil, true evil, satanic evil — that is what must be said and what must be remembered.
Love, and love alone, can defeat such powerful wickedness. This is a strange, uncomfortable message in an age that has abandoned objective truth. But it’s still the message that the families of the Mother Emanuel Nine delivered. It’s the message from all corners of the Holy City. In a radio interview soon after the event, James Clyburn proudly recalled Charleston’s long legacy as a geographically (if not always socially) integrated community. Blacks and whites in this city have long lived happily interdependent lives. This is not a “moonlight and magnolias” remembrance of “happy slaves” but the honest truth for Charlestonians of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is little surprise that a community that can recognize their brothers and sisters would also embrace them fully.
Too much vitriol has settled around our Lowcountry; otherwise responsible citizens are unhinged and angry at their most innocent while others seek glory in the way that Rahm Emanuel once suggested: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Malik Shabazz, president of Black Lawyers for Justice, has camped out here to fan the flames of hatred. He is the radical separatist who cried “G**d***m little babies, G**d**n old ladies, blow up Zionist supermarkets” and encouraged members of the New Black Panthers to cheer for Bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11. Shabazz has tried to ensure violent hate in the Holy City knows no color barrier.
Meanwhile, the topic is all battle flag all the time; no matter that we had not buried the first victim, the reality of today’s political world set a fire among those seeking to be on the right side of history. We would agree that no historic flag is worth flying if it kills … but does it? Did we ever have an opportunity for an informed discussion or did we rush to do something to feel better? When did we have the opportunity to demonstrate the many ways citizens sat quietly for years and allowed the KKK to misappropriate a flag?
We must be on guard against all forms of hatred. Typical of the shallow and crass dialogue frequently found on the Internet — but perilously creeping into our non-digital lives — too many reactionary voices from around the nation were quick to mock and belittle the South; to call upon “another Sherman” to burn and destroy it, or simply expressed a curiously paradoxical lament that the United States includes our region, one that was, once, worth going to war to keep. The more than 115 million Americans on the lower side of the Mason-Dixon have been written off as a detestable group of rednecks — a hateful stereotyping of individuals, of a kind not unfamiliar to the killer himself.
Speaking of dialogue, the 21-year-old racist left a “manifesto” to transmit his particular flavor of evil. It’s the typical skinhead/W.A.R/Aryan Nations malarkey that is as offensive to historical fact as it is to humane truth. But one passage bears note: “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the Internet.”
We have no skinheads. We have no Klan. Isn’t that a beautiful statement? What we have in the Holy City is a populace who remembers that truth exists and that truth drives us towards love. We move towards supporting our brothers and sisters in their time of pain and grief and towards looking past the multitude of pre-manufactured agendas and narratives imposed on this event and to focus on what matters at this moment: To unite as a community, rebuke evil and share the wondrous love that, alone of all actions, can overcome the wickedness inflicted at Emanuel AME.
That is the legacy of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Twyanza Sanders, the Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Jr., Sharonda Singleton and Myra Thompson. May we all continue that legacy with the bravery and boldness it deserves.