If you didn’t know of Charleston, South Carolina, before, you undoubtedly do now. The city has dominated the headlines these past few days. It has been the subject of segments on every major media outlet and has been the top trending hashtag for days.
Because two days ago, a 21-year-old from Lexington, South Carolina, woke up, got in his car and drove the roughly 100 miles it takes to get to Charleston. At around 8 p.m., he walked into the historic Emanuel AME Church and sat for an hour with the people there in prayer before opening fire.
I will not say his name because he doesn’t deserve to share space with those names that really matter: the ones whose lives he took after they undoubtedly welcomed him in with open arms.
Reverend Clementa Pinckney, 41
Cynthia Hurd, 54
“Coach” Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45
Tywanza Sanders, 26
Myra Thompson, 59
Ethel Lee Lance, 70
Susie Jackson, 87
Daniel L. Simmons, 74
Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49
No, I will not say his name. I will call him by that which defines him — his act. And for that, I call him a terrorist.
It has been hard for me to speak about this. The house my family and I moved from in March was mere blocks from the church. My husband’s office is across from it. We saw our children grow from babies to funny, happy little beings while strolling them down Calhoun Street, making the loop from Marion Square down to the Library or Aquarium and back home.
In passing, we were often greeted with kind words and waving hands by churchgoers and parishioners. We stopped when gentle smiling faces approached to coo over our kids and remind us how blessed we are.
My heart is broken for the church and for the families of those that were taken from them. And my cheeks are wet and my spirit heavy for our beloved Holy City.
Over the last few days, I’ve read comments from people all over the world about this evil that occurred. I’ve seen celebrities express grief and outrage. I’ve heard everyone from Buzzfeed to Jon Stewart weigh in on this place that we live.
We have been accused of sweeping this horrific crime under the rug, of not responding with enough force, of being regressive, of veiling the motives of this terrorist because he is white.
But that Charleston — the one that others assume us to be — isn’t our Charleston.
In our Charleston, like any other place, I’ve seen ugliness, sure. But, unlike most places, I’ve seen enough kindness to last a lifetime. When the shooting occurred on Wednesday night, our Charleston responded swiftly.
Nearly the entire peninsula was shut down as law enforcement from all over the state came to assist in the manhunt. People of all different races and religions and credos came together to pray. I’ve watched as people from all walks of life have embraced in peace and unity. I’ve listened to them sing “This Little Light of Mine” in the streets, huddled together despite the 100 degree heat. And I’ve seen them squeeze one after the next onto crowded church pews to remember the nine incredible lives that were lost.
Our mayor called this act a hate crime before anyone in mainstream media dared to do so, and as Fox News was still fumbling to find a narrative to help explain it away.
Since its inception in 1670, Charleston has been a place for those seeking freedom from persecution. St. Mary’s, the oldest Catholic church in the South, resides here. Across the street? Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, one of the country’s oldest Jewish congregations.
Horrible things have happened in Charleston’s history, but how can the wound ever truly heal if those are the things people choose to define us by in times of crisis?
During the civil rights movement, Charleston’s leaders stood shoulder to shoulder with venerated African-American leaders like Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, Jr. Protests were not punctuated by violence but upheld with respect.
We were the first city in the state to peacefully integrate.
Today, our city is still widely regarded — as cliché as it may sound — as a melting pot and one, at that, which honors the history and culture of many different people.
In his nearly four-decade term, Mayor Joe Riley has fought against gentrification. He has appointed men and women from many races and religions to our government. Tim Scott, the only African-American United States senator, hails from here. Former police chief Reuben M. Greenberg, who was considered a pioneering presence, was African-American and Jewish.
Yes, as Jon Stewart pointed out, there are still anachronisms that need to be addressed. There are highways named for people who represent things we don’t stand for.
But we also have the Septima P. Clark Expressway, named for the woman widely considered the mother of the civil rights movement. We have The Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture. We have earmarked millions toward the creation of the International African-American Museum (opening in 2018), aimed at informing the world about how enslaved Africans and, later, freed African-Americans impacted our country’s development.
This hasn’t been an easy stretch in our history by any means. We’re still reeling from the murder of Walter Scott, another senseless act born out of ignorance and, yes, racism.
Unfortunately, racism lingers in the South like a vestigial appendage. It was once an extension of the way certain people lived their lives, a crutch for the weak-minded. Many people don’t realize or choose not to believe it still exists until it begins to fester with infection. It’s our proverbial appendix… a disgusting amalgamation of indiscriminate matter that serves no purpose.
But racism clearly does still occur and not just in the South. It is a byproduct of culturally ingrained ignorance perpetuated by an older generation of backward thinkers.
Tragically, it is taught — it is a learned behavior.
African-Americans the world over have the right to speak out about this racism. They are justified in feeling their fears of being victimized are marginalized. They have the right to be angry.
Our Charleston is angry, too. We are hurt, and we are outraged. But there is a charge in the air here, and I believe it is love.
The terrorist who walked into that church and claimed nine lives confessed to wanting to start a race war, but we will not give him that satisfaction. He won’t corrupt our spirit. He cannot take that too.
So, our Charleston is taking this seriously. We are bruised, but we are not broken. We understand that you cannot fight hatred with more hatred. Instead, we will fight it with love — love for each other and love for this beautiful place we call home.
We will rise above the din. We will strive to be an example of healing. And while we don’t want to be martyred by mainstream media, we will gladly bear that cross if it effects true change.
You may peer in at us from the outside and speak of us in stereotypes, but that’s OK. We will do what we have always done in this city and — as we sang out, swaying arm-in-arm at Morris Brown AME Church during a vigil — we shall overcome.