Just days after the tragic shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., last year, the pews at Emanuel AME were filled for Sunday service. A black cloth was draped over the chair where Emanuel’s pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, should have been sitting.
Holding worship in the church sanctuary — while its basement was still a fresh crime scene — served as a way for the congregation to move forward while acknowledging the deaths of nine of its own.
The church is affectionately known as Mother Emanuel, and it was there that the pastor and eight other worshippers were killed on June 17, 2015, as they bowed their heads in prayer during a Bible study. Authorities say the shooting suspect, Dylann Roof, who is white, chose the predominantly black church for the racially motivated assault in order to magnify the societal impact.
“The only reason someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate — the only reason,” Joe Riley, Charleston’s mayor at the time, said last year.
A Long History
Mother Emanuel, founded in 1816, is one of the oldest black congregations in the South and was already culturally significant. The church has a long, complicated history: It has survived natural disasters and an antebellum ban on black churches. In 1822, Mother Emanuel was burned for its association with Denmark Vesey, a former slave who tried to organize a slave revolt. It remained a force for social change. Civil rights marchers gathered there, and Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the pulpit.
The church’s tall, brown spire is a Charleston landmark. Today, the wrought iron gate surrounding the church is locked and a security guard stands watch.
“Emanuel has become part tourist attraction, part shrine,” said the Rev. Joseph Darby, vice president of the Charleston NAACP and a presiding elder with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. He said that since the mass shooting, people have come from all over to see the church — and all that attention has been a mixed blessing. For some, he said, coming here serves as an act of atonement.
“There’s a need — particularly for some good white folks — to say, ‘I am not Dylann Roof. This does not represent me,’ ” he said.
A Stream Of Visitors
It’s not just tourists who are streaming in on tour buses. Journalists and politicians including Gov. Nikki Haley, Vice President Biden and U.S. senators have visited the church. Earlier this year, Charleston was the site of a congressional civil rights pilgrimage centered on the Emanuel massacre.
And other groups have been taking a close look at what happened here. At Charleston’s Second Presbyterian Church — just a block behind Emanuel — people from around the country gathered to discuss the meaning of the church following the shootings at Mother Emanuel.
“For many of us that will be very difficult,” said Pastor Spike Coleman, of St. Andrews Presbyterian, who led the session. “You’re standing on holy ground right now.”
That gathering included Major Naomi Broughton of the Charleston Police Department. She helped coordinate the response in the shooting’s aftermath.
“I’ve never seen the multitude of victims as forgiving as this,” Broughton said. “But there was a lot of angry people. I was angry. I don’t know if I would have been as gracious as those family members were.” Broughton was part of the church meeting.
One of the most dramatic examples of that came at the initial hearing for suspect Dylann Roof, which was televised. The judge allowed the victims’ families to speak. Nadine Collier’s mother, Ethel Lance, was killed.
“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul,” Collier said last year.
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