Heroes in the Mother Emanuel Tragedy

You know the main villain in the Emanuel story: Dylann Roof, a 21 year old Columbia area white racist, intelligent but a ninth grade drop-out. Roof murdered nine parishioners at Emanuel AME in Charleston on June 17, 2015. His motive was to divide us racially. To foment a race war, which he expected whites to win. Clementa Pinckney, one of Roof’s victims, was Emanuel’s pastor and a state senator. The murdered nine ranged in age from 26 to 87. They all were people of accomplishment or promise. But this is about the massacre’s heroes. People need heroes when mass tragedies occur, and there were heroes aplenty in the wake of those June 17 murders. There was Debbie Dills, a Gastonia woman. Heading to work the morning of June 18, Dills spotted what she thought looked like Roof’s car. Bravely pursuing for 35 miles, she called her boss, who contacted the police. In under an hour Roof was in custody awaiting return to Charleston. Dills said that “I had been praying for these people on my way to work. I was in the right place at the right time that God puts you.” Ordinary folks did extraordinary things. A girl, age seven, drew a picture of Emanuel church with nine doves ascending from its steeple. It quickly went viral, appearing on social media, shop windows, and tee shirts. So did a drawing by artist Gil Shuler. It featured our blue state flag with nine doves arising from its palmetto branches. Bells pealed in churches across South Carolina the first Sunday after the Emanuel murders. That night 15,000 people, black and white, packed the lanes linking Charleston with Mount Pleasant on the Ravenel Bridge. Their message to Roof was that he had failed. Instead of dividing he had made us one. Hundreds of people brought flowers, so many that they eventually extended for a full block in front of the church. One day a young white mother with three tiny children approached that flowery shrine. Each carried a modest bouquet. The young family knelt and said a prayer. Then, standing up, they carefully placed their flowers and walked away. Many state media people spoke out courageously after the murders. Speak-truth-to-power editors like Larry Franklin of the Clinton Chronicle. People like the Sumter Item’s Graham Osteen, who wrote four days after the murders that if now the legislature failed to take down the Confederate flag “we might as well replace the Palmetto tree on the proper state flag—the beautiful blue one—with a swastika.” People worldwide reacted to a remarkable picture taken at the Statehouse last July 18. Its power lay in its visual irony. A pudgy white supremacist, member of a Tarheel KKK group there to protest the flag decision, had been overtaken by Columbia’s sweltering heat. The photo showed a black police officer (Leroy Smith, Public Safety director) coming to his aid, walking him to shade and a drink of water. Seeking to console, Governor Haley brought her children along when she went to church at Mother Emanuel the first Sunday after the murders. She then traveled back and forth between Columbia and Charleston, attending the funerals of all nine Emanuel murder victims. Five days after the massacre, Haley and a bipartisan of political leaders declared their commitment to bring down the Confederate flag flying on the Statehouse grounds. The next day Paul Thurmond, Strom Thurmond’s last-born child, addressed his fellow Senators. Critically analyzing Southern heritage claims, he implored them to remove “this symbol of racism and bigotry from the Statehouse.” The necessary enabling legislation had overwhelmingly passed both chambers by July 9, and the flag came down the next day. Nothing in American policy-making happens that fast, certainly not something as controversial and significant as that. All these people deserve hero status. But the principal heroes are Mother Emanuel’s parishioners who lost beloved family members in Roof’s homicidal act. Something remarkable began to roll out on Friday following the Wednesday murders. It happened at Dylann Roof’s mandated appearance to face state murder charges. Members of the murder victims’ families attended and used their right to address the perpetrator. What crossed their lips was not hatred or vengeance but the will to forgive. “You, you’ve taken my loved one and I’ll never see her again. But I forgive you. And I ask you to confess to God and ask his forgiveness.” That was the gist of what they said, one-by-one, and they said it again on the last day of July, when Roof appeared to confront federal charges. Forgiveness at such a time. It was amazing. David MacDougall, a Charleston reporter, wrote that forgiveness had not for years figured so prominently in a news story like this. It was a message reported and heard around the world. Folks traveling out of Charleston on I 26 now come across a billboard bearing a message from the people of Mother Emanuel. It is the church’s expression of gratitude to the larger community. I feel pride whenever I see it, but I also think it In Charleston, President Obama had spoken of (and sung) “Amazing Grace.” He must have been thinking of the forgiving grace of Emanuel’s people. That was the spirit that defeated Roof and the motive underlying his heinous crime. Far from dividing, that will to forgive had brought us closer together. So thanks for the thanks, Emanuel folks; but it is we, all South Carolinians, who owe you the debt of gratitude. (Now retired and living in Charleston, David Gillespie and his wife Judi resided in Clinton from 1979 to 2006. At PC, David taught political science and Judi served as Financial Aid Director.)

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