By Lee A. Daniels
Rev. Clementa Pinckney and his fellow congregants of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. gathered as usual in the historic edifice June 17 for their Wednesday evening prayer service. They came, as always, to refresh their religious faith, to testify and bear witness to the importance of living a life of righteousness and to extend to all, including the stranger in their midst, their welcome and their trust.
How could they know that he represented a monstrous evil that would consume them?
So, once again, American society has been wounded by the dangerous forces of hatred and violence that have always shadowed the gleaming idealism of the American Creed.
As usual when the mask of American innocence slips, the crowd that loves to glibly boast of “American exceptionalism” ran for cover. Fox News propagandists led the way in desperately fleeing from the clear evidence of Dylann Roof’s racism. Instead, they claimed he was striking against Christianity and “religious freedom.” Revealingly, the same pose was adopted by the Internet’s overtly White-supremacist websites and the trolls of the right-wing Twitter mob.
But Dylann Roof’s own words and Facebook posts leave no doubt of his motivation—and leave no room for the cowardice of not confronting them.
President Obama gave voice to “the heartache and the sadness and the anger” the massacre provoked in decent people when he said, “we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries … with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it … the politics in [Washington] foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. At some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”
In those words the president spoke, substitute for “gun violence” the words “slavery” and/or “racism” and you have why, for many Black Americans, the terrorist attack at Emanuel AME scourged a profound historically-rooted pain.
Yet, even in this moment of grief, we ought to recognize the several truths that offer “the buoyancy of hope,” said the president, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
One truth lies in our learning something of the very people – a cross-section of the American people – who were gunned down. Their being lost to the whirlwind of evil shouldn’t be allowed to obscure their fundamental goodness and commitment to Christianity’s most cherished precepts – as shown in their families’ heart-rending declarations of forgiveness toward Roof. “We are the family that love built,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor, during the June 19 court hearing on the charges against Roof. Middleton-Brown said her family has no room for hate in their hearts, before adding that “I also thank God I won’t be around when your judgment days comes with him.”
The tragedy has also underscored the real and symbolic meaning to Black Americans of the Black Church. It was and remains our piece of the rock: A refuge against the storm of racism and malicious indifference that has swirled about us outside its walls. A vault that has held the treasures of fellowship and the space to practice communal leadership as well as religious faith. And an armory where Black Americans forged and buffed to a luminous shine both their civic faith in the American Ideal and the weapon—nonviolent protest—they would use to demand the full measure of their American citizenship.
Another insight is that Emanuel AME is “historic” not just because of its early 19th-century founding but because it met again and again the challenge of being a full-service Black communal institution. In that regard, Mother Emanuel is, thankfully, far from unique. Innumerable Black communities across the country have a “Mother Church” of this or that Protestant denomination whose roots go back to at least the late 1800s.
Another bright gleam the tragedy cannot extinguish was the immediate rush of people of all backgrounds to stand in solidarity with the congregants of Mother Emanuel. That was most dramatically illustrated by the actions of Debbie Dills and Todd Frady, two White North Carolinians whose call to a local police officer in the morning of June 18 directly led to Dylann Roof’s capture. Dills, who spotted Roof in his car while she was driving to her job at Frady’s florist shop, said, “I saw the news coverage last night. … Since it happened I was praying for them and the church. I was in the right place at the right time that the Lord puts you.”
That shining compassion, sense of kinship and determination to redeem a terrible wrong both illustrate and justify “the buoyancy of hope” that has always fueled black Americans’ faith in America and in their march toward the future.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com.