This is why right temporarily
defeated is stronger than evil
triumphant. I believe that even
amid today’s mortar bursts and
whining bullets, there is still hope
for a brighter tomorrow.
 – Dr. Martin Luther King

Published in Issue #5 | Summer 2016

By Wm. M. Gruenloh

It’s been nearly a year since the horrific shootings at Emanuel and Charleston has become an example of how a community should come together when confronted with an evil act. Many other cities have not fared so well. The pictures that came out of St. Louis, Chicago, Baltimore and too many other cities in the last few years appear to have set back the civil rights struggle considerably. While others around us have fallen prey and given themselves over to the false promises of revenge and the temporary salve of violence, how has Charleston managed to come together? I was out of town when I heard the horrible news last June.

Nine worshipers at Emanuel AME, including Senator Clementa Pinckney, had been massacred while at bible study. It got worse. The six women and three men known as the ‘Emanuel 9’ were executed by a 21-year old white man who they had invited to worship with them. The young man wanted to start a race war. ‘Young man’ is how the leadership of the AME has referred to the person that killed their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters and so I will do my best to follow their example. 

Of all places, I was in St. Louis when I heard the news. I grew up in the segregated suburbs of St. Louis amongst endless fields of white, vinyl houses. When news of the Mother Emanuel shooting broke, St. Louis was in the midst of its own struggles with racial violence. You may recall that a year before the Emanuel shootings, Michael Brown, an unarmed, eighteen year-old, African American Ferguson was shot to death by Police Officer Darren Wilson. Protests, violence and rioting gripped St. Louis and the community was deeply divided along racial lines. The words ‘us’ and ‘them’ were openly used to describe people’s skin color. Businesses were looted and burned, dozens were injured, scores were arrested and the National Guard was called in to police the city. This scene was repeated over and over between 2014 and 2015 and the pictures that were broadcast of St. Louis, Chicago, Baltimore and too many other American looked like Birmingham in 1963. The whole world took notice. Iran’s Grand Ayatollah tweeted about the “brutal treatment” of African Americans in the United States and the Egyptian government called for “restraint and respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion.” It was like Hitler had just told us that our fly was down – and it was.

So the police officers in those cities are all monsters, right? I have two brothers who are police officers in the St. Louis area. They are good family men. Neither is a member or sympathizer of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the overtly racist organization that influenced and incited the young man and which is still peddling hate on the internet today. Also, I’m pretty sure that neither of them ever thought that they would be tagged by the Ayatollah as bad people. My educated guess is that the police officers all around the country are the same – mostly good men mixed in with a few (too many) bad apples. Shortly after we heard about the Emanuel shootings, one of my brothers said to me, “Oh just you wait. All hell is going to break loose now.”

There was a certain anticipation in his eyes when he said it. I did not take it as racism or hatred but instead the look that men of action get when they sense that action is imminent. St. Louis was, after all, on virtual lockdown at the time.

“No,” I replied. “You’re wrong. Charleston is different.” And as I said it, I hoped that I was right. To my great relief, the sights out of Charleston on June 18, 2015 and in the following days were not of protests and police dressed in riot gear but of people of all colors grieving together, in unity as a single community. The sounds were not of helicopters and sirens but of prayer and song. 

Well sure, you might say. But St. Louis, Chicago and Baltimore were different because they involved white cops killing black people. And then I might remind you of Walter Scott who was shot in the back by a white police office just seventy-four days before that young man was invited into Emanuel to pray on June 17th. It’s not the degree or specifics of the evil that caused Charleston to come together while others were ripped apart. To say that Charleston has not had as many challenges, as much evil visited upon its streets as any other city in this nation, is to ignore its notorious history. Yet, despite predictions to the contrary, all hell did not break loose in Charleston on June 18th. Why? How? Are Charlestonians just better than everyone else? Sorry Colonel – that’s not the answer either.

I had the great honor to sit down with the former interim Pastor of Mother Emanuel, Dr. Norvel Goff and discuss this very subject. Dr. Goff’s leadership and words in the days after June 17th and, in particular, at the funeral of Senator Pickney deeply touched me. I am not a member of his congregation nor do ordinarily I attend church but I find him to be wise, entertaining and a fierce advocate of peace.

I asked Dr. Goff how Charleston had come together when other cities had been torn apart. 

“Charleston is not called the holy city for nothing,” Dr. Goff replied. “Its in our DNA.”

He wore a well-fitting, black, three-piece suit with a gold cross dangling at the end of a long gold chain. He leaned back in his chair and was at ease.

I asked, “What precisely is in our DNA?”

“Faith,” he replied. “It is difficult to know how we will react to evil until we are in it. When we are in it and confronted with it we must find some way to reconcile its existence. When you are tested, as we were on June 17th, it is an opportunity.”

“To show your strength?” I asked.

“To affirm our faith,” Dr. Goff replied.

Hold on, I thought. I have half a convent full of nuns in my family back in St. Louis and my father went to church at 6AM almost every day of his life. Is he saying that Charlestonians have stronger faith?

Dr. Goff continued, “On June 21st we opened the doors of Emanuel AME and held services,” he explained. “Do you understand? The church was actually still an active crime scene.”

I began to understand. I imagined the families and friends of the Emanuel 9 walking into Emanuel just days after their loved ones had been mercilessly slaughtered there. My father was killed thirty years ago in an accident on a construction site. To this day I have not visited the spot where he died. Yet these folks – men, women and children had the strength of conviction to worship in to the very place where their loved ones had been killed days before. I began to understand something about the folks at Mother Emanuel.

“It was important for the world to see that evil will not keep Emanuel’s doors closed,” said Dr. Goff falling into his animated preacher’s cadence and leaning forward in his chair. “It was important for us to speak unapologetically with a single voice. When leaders do not lead, a void is created. And as we have seen elsewhere in our country, other voices will fill that void and those voices may have political or personal agendas. When that happens, then you have a fractured community.”

As he spoke to me about the unified response of the Charleston’s leadership, Dr. Goff spoke warmly of Mayor Riley, Police Chief Mullens and Governor Hailey. I couldn’t help but remember how the leaders in the city where I grew up chose sides and deepened existing divides leading to violence. The strength of the leadership and the unity of the voices were key and I could see Dr. Goff’s point. But I can’t help but think that there was another factor at play.

St. Louis, the city of my youth, has been referred to as the most segregated city in America. Growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis there was zero diversity - zero. Bill Rankin’s demographic map of St. Louis confirms that not much has changed. The blue represents African Americans living in inner city areas that are, by the way, specifically excepted from sharing in the tax dollars (and income) that is enjoyed by St. Louis County. St. Louis did not implement an effective plan to desegregate its schools until the mid 1980s. I vividly remember because I was in school at the time. You could hear people talk in hushed voices about how many of them were going to be bussed in. We were ignorant of one another and so we feared one another. Charleston, on the other hand, was the first city in South Carolina to desegregate its schools in 1963. While segregated pockets still exist, the peninsula remains relatively diverse.

Wait, you might say. You’re not actually suggesting that Charleston, a southern city with deep roots in the slave trade and the epicenter of the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ is progressive are you?

I lived in St. Louis for the first 20 years of my life and Charleston for the last 20. I can tell you unequivocally that St. Louis is far, far more segregated than Charleston. Ignorance and fear beat at the heart of every segregated society. Dr. Martin Luther King frequented Emanuel AME and even preached there. He once said, “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” But that is not what I saw when I recently attended Sunday service at Emanuel.

I arrived early for the 9:30 service. The church is beautiful. There was a drummer and trumpet player accompanying the organ. The choir consisted of a couple dozen really good singers – all of whom danced into the church. The service was powerful and inspiring and everyone I met was gracious. The congregation was as you would expect in an AME church mostly African American, but on that Sunday it was about 33% white. So much for being the most segregated hour of Christian America.

I felt comfortable and not excluded at all as I sat and listened to Dr. Betty Deas Clark, the new pastor at Emanuel deliver her sermon. “It’s so quiet in here,” she said occasionally as she preached to her congregation about right and wrong. And it was quiet, because we all knew she was right. I hadn’t come for a lesson but I was given one anyway. Coming from a Catholic background, I had always felt that it’s a great loss that women are not allowed to say Catholic mass. For me, Dr. Clark is confirmation of that. It seems a shame to have quieted so many voices, especially those like Dr. Clark who have so much to tell us.

When I spoke with Dr. Clark after the service and asked her about the response of the leadership to the shootings, she responded, “We will not let anyone define who we are. We will be who we have been all of our lives. In times of crisis we will let people see the Christ that has always been in us.”

I asked Dr. Clark about her thoughts on Mother Emanuel being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and even tried to get her to visualize an all expense paid trip to Oslo. I had hoped I might be able to write to the Nobel Committee quoting Dr. Clark. Please just tell me how much you love the Norwegian people so we can schmooze the committee for you. Trump has been nominated for the prestigious award too and I think he owns some property in Norway. Dr. Clark didn’t bite. Her only comment on the prestigious award was, “that’s not our focus.” I think that Dr. King, who received the award himself in 1968 would have appreciated that comment . . . all business.

When I asked Dr. Clark what the biggest change was that she had seen in Emanuel and her congregation, she replied “joy is returning.” I got the distinct impression that her mission is to see that joy not only returns to Mother Emanuel but to all of Charleston. She’s just the woman for the job.

There is still a lot of healing to be done. The men and women who were slain were good people. Senator Clementa Pinckney’s friend and colleague, Senator Marlon Kimpson told me. “Clementa would have personally greeted that young man and would have made a special effort to make him feel welcome.” I asked Dr. Goff if Mother Emanuel has done anything to change the way that it accepts visitors.

“No,” he replied and then after a moment he added, “we have many more visitors now and we welcome them all the same.” 

I asked, “You’re not afraid?”

Like he did many other times during our interview, Dr. Goff entwined his words with scripture. “Better that we show hospitality and not turn away angels unawares.”

As our country debates whether to build walls, I applaud the quiet courage of Mother Emanuel and am pretty sure it’s what they’re looking for in Oslo.

Special thanks to Giovanna Athias, Dr. Maxine Smith, Dr. Norvell Goff, Dr. Betty Clerk, Senator Marlon Kimpson and the nice people at Emanuel who made me feel so welcome.

Laura Olsen

Houston, TX