We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel

We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel


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We Are Charleston not only recounts the events of that terrible day but also offers a history lesson that reveals a deeper look at the suffering, triumph, and even the ongoing rage of the people who formed Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church and the wider denominational movement.

On June 17, 2015, at 9:05 p.m., a young man with a handgun opened fire on a prayer meeting at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine members of the congregation. The captured shooter, twenty-one-year-old Dylan Roof, a white supremacist, was charged with their murders. Two days after the shooting, while Roof’s court hearing was held on video conference, some of the families of his nine victims, one by one, appeared on the screen—forgiving the killer. The “Emanuel Nine” set a profound example for their families, their city, their nation, and indeed the world.

We Are Charleston not only recounts the events of that terrible day but also offers a history lesson that reveals a deeper look at the suffering, triumph, and even the ongoing rage of the people who formed Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church and the wider denominational movement.

In many ways, this church’s story is America’s story—the oldest A.M.E. church in the Deep South fighting for freedom and civil rights but also fighting for grace and understanding. Fighting to transcend bigotry, fraud, hatred, racism, poverty, and misery. The shootings in June 2015, opened up a deep wound of racism that still permeates Southern institutions and remains part of American society.

We Are Charleston tells the story of a people, continually beaten down, who seem to continually triumph over the worst of adversity. Exploring the storied history of the A.M.E. Church may be a way of explaining the price and power of forgiveness, a way of revealing God’s mercy in the midst of tremendous pain. We Are Charleston may help us discover what can be right in a world that so often has gone wrong.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780718077310
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 06/14/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 458,960
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

We Are Charleston

Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel

By Herb Frazier, Marjory Wentworth Bernard Edwa Jr.

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2016 Herb Frazier, Dr. Bernard Edward Powers Jr., and Marjory Wentworth
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7180-7731-0



Wednesday night is church night in the South, and it is no different at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The white stucco church stands near the heart of downtown Charleston along Calhoun Street, an east-west thoroughfare that spans the city. This particular Wednesday evening fell during a series of steamy, hot summer days, when the temperature reached almost one hundred degrees, and as the sun set, about fifty dedicated members of Mother Emanuel gathered for the Quarterly Conference. Six o'clock is normally the time set aside for Bible study at the church, but this evening it was delayed for the earlier business meeting. Budget items were discussed, and plans for the long-overdue elevator, still under construction, were hashed out. Fifty-nine-year-old Myra Thompson received a license renewal, and Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, forty- nine, and Dr. Brenda Nelson received their local licenses to minister from Presiding Elder Norvel Goff. After the meeting most folks went home, but a dozen of the most devout parishioners stayed for the Bible study, which started around eight o'clock.

Polly Sheppard, a seventy-year-old retired nurse, was going to leave after the business meeting, but she ran into Thompson in the ladies' room and decided to stay since Thompson was leading the night's Bible study. Nelson, a Bible study regular, went home to check on her sputtering air conditioner, to make sure it had been repaired and was blowing cold air again.

At exactly 8:16 p.m., a skinny young white man with a classic bowl haircut, wearing a sweatshirt and a small fanny pack, entered the back door of the church and joined the small group gathered in the large central room on the lower level of the church, below the sanctuary. Surrounded by smaller meeting rooms and offices, this room is used for church dinners and similar social gatherings. Thirteen participants sat around tables covered with white cloths to study passages from the fourth chapter of Mark. In verses 13 to 20, Jesus explains to his followers the parable of the sower that he had just finished teaching to the multitude by the sea. He warned against those who only half-heartedly embrace God's teaching. Among them the word is "sown on rocky ground. ... But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away" (vv. 16–17 NRSV). This passage continues to describe the way "the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth ... choke the word, and it yields nothing" (v. 19 NRSV). Hauntingly, in verse 15, Satan is described as coming and taking away "the word that is sown in them."

The young man asked to sit next to the church's pastor, Clementa Pinckney, and for a time the visitor remained quiet. Though a stranger to the group, he was welcomed and included as anyone would have been in this house of worship. Toward the end of the Bible study, Myra Thompson started to say the benediction. As eyes were closed and heads were bowed, the young man with the child's haircut pulled a handgun from his fanny pack and started shooting.

He shot Pinckney point-blank. Reverend Daniel L. Simmons Sr. immediately lunged at the shooter, crying out for his pastor; the young man fired at Simmons multiple times. There is some speculation that the killer may have panicked when Simmons reacted. But there is no question that the young man fired seventy-seven bullets, leaving eight people dead and one mortally wounded. Felicia Sanders had grabbed her eleven-year-old granddaughter and pushed her face against her body so the child wouldn't cry out, telling her to play dead. Her twenty-six-year-old son, Tywanza, had been shot and was beside her and his eighty-seven-year-old aunt, Susie Jackson.

Tywanza tried to convince the gunman to stop firing during one of the five times the killer reloaded. Tywanza pleaded with him not to do it, but the gunman had a racial agenda: "I have to do this. You rape our women, and you're taking over our country. And you have to go," he shouted. "It don't matter, I'm going to shoot you all." Tywanza had posted a Snapchat video of the Bible class minutes before the gunman opened fire. The gunman is seen in the video.

Tywanza and Pinckney were among those who died in the room, in addition to Tywanza's aunt, Susie Jackson, and her cousin, Ethel Lance, the church's sexton. Also among the dead were Cynthia Graham Hurd, a librarian; Myra Thompson, a minister; and Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a mother of three. Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, a mother of four, lay dead too. Vietnam veteran Daniel L. Simmons Sr. was rushed to a hospital, where he died.

The killer walked past Polly Sheppard, who was cowering under a table praying. He asked her if she had been shot, and she answered no. Some have said he spared her life. The gunman kept walking, and although he tried firing his gun, he'd run out of bullets. He then left through the door he'd entered less than one hour before, got in his car, and drove away into the night.

Jennifer Pinckney, the pastor's wife, and their youngest daughter, Malana, were in the church office. They heard everything that was going on. During the rounds of gunfire, Malana asked her mother, "Mama, is Daddy going to die?" Jennifer called 911. Sheppard could hear the sirens approaching and immediately went into nurse mode, checking on Felicia's son, Tywanza. She checked Pinckney's pulse, and she knew he was dead. Miraculously, both Felicia Sanders and her granddaughter were survivors too.

Soon Calhoun Street, ironically named for pro-slavery senator and vice president John C. Calhoun, was swarming with police cruisers and ambulances. The street was sealed at the cross streets on either end of the block. Police armed with assault weapons were on patrol as a helicopter hovered overhead. When WCSC television anchorman Raphael James arrived on the scene with another reporter and two videographers around 9:20 p.m., he didn't know many details about the shooting, but when the coroner arrived, his worst fears were confirmed. James knew Pinckney and hoped that he was still at the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign event elsewhere in the city that evening. As James and his crew were stationed at Calhoun and Meeting streets, Post and Courier reporter Andrew Knapp was arriving from the east side of the church. He had grabbed his cameras and other gear from his car and begun to walk toward the church. Before any official announcement, Knapp knew the magnitude of the tragedy. He heard on his smartphone app, which monitors emergency channels, that eight were dead inside the church.

A crowd had already gathered at the edge of the barrier west of the church, and Raphael James was at the center of it. An acquaintance approached and said his aunt, Susie Jackson, was in the church. Apart from that, there was no clear sense of who was inside Mother Emanuel, who the victims were, and whether or not there were any survivors. Church and community leaders and more journalists began to arrive. According to James, "the atmosphere was electric, and tension was in the air." For all they knew, the shooter was nearby. Those tense times were heightened when James and others heard a loud bang that sounded like a gunshot. The sound seemed to have come from a corner gas station. James saw that police had grabbed a young white man wearing dark pants and a light gray sweatshirt. The man matched the description of the gunman, but as James points out, this description would fit "85 percent of the thousands of male College of Charleston students living within a quarter-mile radius of Mother Emanuel AME Church." The man was soon released. He was a local photographer who was taking pictures of the people who had gathered nearby.

It hadn't taken long for authorities to see a clear image of the killer from church security cameras, and that image was circulated among police nationwide. Fear was palpable; could there be more shootings? "In that moment, we could believe anything," James later said. News crews were moved another block west of the church. Soon there were bomb threats at nearby hotels. Although no one was evacuated, traffic was diverted. Additional vehicles from the coroner's office pulled up to the church. Was at least one of the bomb scares a ruse to clear journalists and others away from the scene when the bodies were being removed? Hundreds had gathered in Marion Square, a large open space west of the church. While clergy tried to calm people, activists and others were seething with rage and threatening, "We're going to get this guy." Peace prevailed, however, and around 11:30 p.m. at a press conference, Charleston mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. was adamant about referring to the shootings as a hate crime. Charleston police chief Greg Mullen confirmed the worst: eight people were found dead in the church. (Authorities would later confirm Simmons had died at the Medical University Hospital.) At that time no names were released, but word circulated that Pinckney had left the Clinton event for the Bible study.

Meanwhile, the families were notified, and they gathered at two nearby hotels. Church elders and pastors, ten chaplains, and a number of community leaders were there to comfort them. People initially gathered in the Courtyard Marriott, which is located almost across the street from the church, but it was decided the hotel was too close to the crime scene, so everyone was moved farther away, to the Embassy Suites hotel on Meeting Street. According to the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy's senior chaplain on the scene, Rob Dewey Sr., within an hour of the shooting, approximately three hundred relatives, friends, and members of the church were gathered in the ballroom of the Embassy Suites. They ranged in age from toddlers to the elderly. Once the facts emerged, the coroner's office met with family members of the nine who were killed in two of the smaller side rooms. Once Presiding Elder Norvel Goff and other AME pastors arrived, they prayed together, and Goff led the group in the old hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." According to Black Lives Matter activist Muhiyidin d'Baha — who was one of the people who wanted to shut down the city in hopes of finding the killer — elder James Johnson of the National Action Network told him to let the police do their job and go comfort the grieving relatives. When d'Baha met with family members, grief and fear, not anger, were palpable. People stayed at the hotel until 4:30 a.m. The city was on high alert, and few slept that long, hot night in June.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation joined the investigation almost immediately, releasing a photograph of a black 2000 Hyundai sedan. By Thursday morning, Dylann Roof, a twenty-one-year-old from Eastover, South Carolina, was identified as the suspect. Authorities discovered that his ATM card was used in Charlotte, North Carolina, a little before six o'clock that morning. Around the same time, Roof's father phoned the authorities and identified him from the security footage, according to a court affidavit from Charleston police. Later that morning Deborah Dills, who worked at a florist shop in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, was on her way to work when she recognized Roof's Hyundai and his distinct haircut from newspaper photos. She called her boss, who notified local police. A minister of music at her own church, Dills was devastated by the news of the church shooting and told the Post and Courier that she had been at her own church Wednesday night and felt that it could easily have been her that was murdered. At 10:40 a.m. on June 18, police pulled Roof's car over onto a dirt driveway along US Highway 74 in Shelby, North Carolina. Officers slowly approached the vehicle, and Roof was cooperative. He was searched for weapons, handcuffed, and arrested in a surprisingly calm manner.

Back in Charleston, leaders, community activists, clergy, and caring citizens were called together for a prayer vigil at Morris Brown, another historic AME church, by Presiding Elder Joseph Darby. Hundreds filled the pews, including Mayor Riley, South Carolina governor Nikki R. Haley, US representative James Clyburn, South Carolina senator Tim Scott, and dozens of other officials. Hundreds more gathered outside to sing hymns and pray, to hold one another up in the midday sun. Police handed out bottles of water, and nearby, a furniture store opened its air-conditioned showrooms. The crowd was both black and white, and no one seemed to notice or care.

It became immediately clear that the community was joined together in grief and support, but the day after the prayer vigil, numerous bomb threats were reported in and around Charleston, and at least three buildings were evacuated, including a church. Still, the community continued to come together across racial lines, and a Friday night prayer vigil was planned at the College of Charleston basketball arena. Thousands attended, and the stage was filled with clergy, local and state officials, and police. This came to the attention of Reverend Nelson Rivers III, who also noticed US Republican senators Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham and Republican congressman Mark Sanford in the audience. It was an opportunity for him to call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse. He knew "they need[ed] to hear this now," and when he spoke, the mostly white crowd jumped to its feet in thunderous applause. He was astounded.

Mayor Riley, an active supporter of taking down the flag, spoke about dedicating the planned International African American Museum to the victims and in addressing the community's collective grief, stated, "In our broken hearts, we realize we love each other more." Local leaders called for unity and peace. There were prayers and hymns, and everyone was handed a rose when they walked through the doors. Most of the attendees carried their roses to Calhoun Street, past Anderson Cooper and other recognizable media personalities reporting from platforms assembled on the sidewalks, to join the throng of people paying respects in front of Mother Emanuel. One block east of the church, a wreath hung on the door of Charleston County Public Library in honor of long-serving librarian Cynthia Graham Hurd.

The day after the shooting, President Obama spoke about his confidence in "the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston ... from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship." The president's grim face showed his sadness over yet another episode of gun violence. He and Vice President Joe Biden had met Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state senator. The president came to Charleston within days to eulogize Pinckney. The city of Charleston quickly established the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund to help families of the victims; and the aircraft maker Boeing, which has a plant in North Charleston, immediately donated $100,000. Similar donations would soon follow from other companies with South Carolina ties, including Volvo Cars of North America, Benefitfocus, Google, and Starbucks. The Carolina Panthers football team offered to pay for all of the funerals. Benefit concerts were planned, and more than fifty restaurants joined forces for a fund-raising event called "A Community United." People gathered to form a giant heart in Marion Square; numerous church prayer vigils were held. So many community events were happening that the Post and Courier featured a daily listing. Everyone wanted to do something to help in whatever capacity they could. And every day thousands of people filed past Mother Emanuel to lay flowers and cards, to light candles, to openly weep and pray.

On Sunday morning Mother Emanuel opened its doors, and people passed by the white media tents to attend church. Every church in Charleston rang bells at 10:00 a.m. in a show of solidarity. Churches all across the country did the same. The Bridge to Peace unity chain, a march across the two-mile Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, was planned on Facebook for that evening. (Ironically, the bridge is named for former federal and state legislator Arthur Ravenel, a segregationist who once called the NAACP the "National Association for the Advancement of Retarded People" — just another contradiction in Charleston's conflicted history of race relations.) The march was led by relatives of those who were slain. A few thousand people were expected, but more than twenty-five thousand joined in. As people reached the bridge, they held hands and continued marching. Charleston-area resident and comedian Stephen Colbert and his family participated. Line after line of families with children waved American flags and carried homemade signs of support and gratitude for local leaders. The Red Cross and local police handed out thousands of bottles of water. There were nine minutes of silence, spontaneous singing, and prayers — always prayers.


Excerpted from We Are Charleston by Herb Frazier, Marjory Wentworth Bernard Edwa Jr.. Copyright © 2016 Herb Frazier, Dr. Bernard Edward Powers Jr., and Marjory Wentworth. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction xiii

1 Wrong Church, Wrong People, Wrong Day 1

2 Forgiveness 11

3 The Flag Comes Down 27

4 The Sin of Slavery 35

5 Revolutionary Ideas and the Rise of African Methodism 49

6 The Slave Conspiracy 63

7 Resurrection 79

8 Jim Crow 95

9 Life in the Borough 109

10 Civil Rights 123

11 People in Service to the Church 141

12 What Is Forgiveness? 163

13 The Unfinished Story 179

Epilogue 197

Acknowledgments 201

Notes 203

About the Authors 233

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