CHARLESTON, S.C.—As it has for the past 200 years, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Sunday rallied to recover from the racist forces that tried to destroy it.
“When this battle of life is down, may we all hear a voice say, ‘Well done,’” one of many pastors said to applause.
Public address speakers projected his voice to the thousands outside who came to pay respects (and law enforcement protecting the church).
At 9:30 a.m., heads of every color and creed bowed outside once the first hymn finished. Baptists from next door handed out water to fight the heat. Hands outside clapped to the sounds of gospel singing emanating inside. At 10 a.m. bells all over Charleston’s peninsula chimed in unison. Friends and neighbors embraced in the streets.
Two college friends, one white and the other black, woke up Sunday morning to make signs reading “Free hugs,” and walked the streets passing out desperately needed love.
Young white children snipped with scissors at Confederate flag like the one that appeared in many of the photos of the shooter that surfaced Saturday.
“That’s just a distraction,” said a retired black teacher who spent 16 years in Charleston, shaking her head at the “Stars and Bars” being cut to ribbons.
The teacher’s sentiment echoes some in the black community who see the flag debate as token; they would rather see institutional racism dismantled.
And it is everywhere.
Mother Emanuel is located on Calhoun Street, named in honor of John C. Calhoun, America’s seventh vice president and one of the leading proponents of slavery in the South.
The son of a planter, Calhoun praised the “good” that came from owing another human being and forcing them to work for their master on the Senate floor in 1837.
A towering statue of Calhoun looks down on the Marion Square park where the outside service was held. Calhoun’s statue was so defaced following the Civil War that it was lifted onto an 80-foot pedestal.
Marion Square was the original site of a fortress that was built following a supposed slave revolt led by a member of Mother Emanuel. Denmark Vesey, a freed slave, was hanged along with 34 others after torture and a secret trial. The church was burned to the ground and black churches were banned from meeting. The current church was rebuilt in 1872 and then again in 1886 following an earthquake.
Mother Emanuel has faced a slower, non-violent challenge in recent years: black flight into the suburbs that leaves historic churches without congregations.
Similarly, one of the top K-8 schools in the state is seeing blacks squeezed out catty corner from Mother Emanuel on Calhoun. Originally built as the first school for black students on the Charleston peninsula, Buist was integrated and then repurposed in the 1980s as a magnet school.
For years, Buist kept a 60/40 white-minority split in its classrooms. After the Supreme Court struck down racial quotas in education in 2003, the school became increasingly white as families began to claim their business addresses as their home addresses to give their children a better chance at getting in. Buist feeds into Academic Magnet High School, located in nearby North Charleston on the grounds of a former historically black school. Its enrollment is largely white, too.
A few blocks down Mother Emanuel, a parking lot was build atop a black cemetery.
Further down still sits the Medical University of South Carolina, where, some argue, the civil rights movement gasped its last breath.
In 1969, black workers there began an 113-day walkout. Picket lines, marches, and national coverage ensued. Coretta Scott King attended the strike not long after her husband’s assassination. (Martin Luther King, Jr. once attended Mother Emanuel before his death.) The results of the strike were negligible: hospital management agreed to a series of goals for racial equality that had no consequences if they weren’t met.
“There’s less craziness in the world today than there was before,” said a retired white builder attending the Marion Square service, “and somehow, there’s more.”