CHARLESTON, South Carolina – Kenneth Washington was watching his TV in Cleveland Wednesday when he learned that a gunman shot up his family’s church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Hours later, he discovered that the loss struck even closer to home.
“I saw a picture of the church on TV,” Washington said. “I was born and raised here in Charleston, on Alexander Street, where my aunt, Susie Jackson lived. Tywanza Sanders was my cousin. Ethel Lance was my cousin. So we had three in the family who were killed.”
Washington joined the throngs of onlookers Friday who braved the sweltering 97-degree heat to stand in the street outside Emanuel AME Church. They honored the fallen: Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons and Myra Thompson.
Traffic was tied up most of the day as a steady stream of cars and pedestrians traveled to the church on Calhoun Street. Many added bouquets to the makeshift floral memorial that spanned the length of the church front. Others clasped their hands, and bowed their heads in silent prayer.
Keith Biggs, a staffer at nearby Citadel Square Baptist Church, and his wife Janice pulled bottles of cold water from two ice-filled coolers and offered them for free to the sweaty crowds.
“We’re brothers and sisters in Christ,” Biggs said. “It was not two weeks ago that we helped Rev. Pinckney with a funeral they had. He sent me a thank you note with a $50 certificate I could use to take my wife to dinner.
“They extended love to us, and we wanted to do the same for Brother Pinckney. We know they’re with the Lord now, but we want to help those who are suffering through this. We want an extension of Brother Pinckney’s love.”
Biggs was not the only person impressed by the 41-year-old Pinckney, who, police say, Dylann Storm Roof killed along with eight of his parishioners in a bloody rampage as their evening Bible study class ended.
Several people hailed Pinckney as a virtual Renaissance man; a caring, intellectual pastor first elected to the state legislature at age 23; a community leader and quiet man who, outside the pulpit, only spoke when he had something important to say.
Charleston City Councilman and mayoral candidate William Dudley Gregory traces his family’s membership in Emanuel almost to the church’s founding in 1816.
He now sits on Emanuel’s Board of Trustees.
“This church has produced so many great leaders, starting with Richard Allen and Denmark Vesey,” Gregory said. Vesey was a former slave and Emanuel minister who launched a failed slave revolt from the church in 1822. “It’s a church that has always been a part of the leadership of this city. That’s why it’s called Mother Emanuel.”
AME bishops assigned Pinckney to Emanuel in 2010, and “he brought to the church this young energy and vision, and put this vision with action,” Gregory said. “It was quite refreshing.”
Under Pinckney, Emanuel renovated three rundown church-owned properties and was installing the sanctuary’s first elevator.
“So you’re talking about someone who was a visionary,” Gregory said. “Within five years we were able to complete all those projects, and from there we will start restoring the sanctuary.
“He was clearly an intellectual, well studied, well versed,” Gregory said. “I liked to call him ‘quiet fire.’ He had this knack of taking on a lot of sometimes controversial things in the church with this even keel, but still being very effective. That is a real trick when you’re trying to run a church, and you’re younger and coming up with totally new ideas and new approaches.
“He had the ability to move among opposition and still get what he wanted,” Gregory said. “He was a very hopeful person who clearly understood that without hope there was never-ending darkness. He knew you had to peer through that darkness to see the light.”
NAACP President Cornel Brooks, a fourth generation AME minister, said many other issues surround the killings.
“I am here to lend support and to make clear that we support the vigorous prosecution of this crime and the ongoing investigation of this crime to determine whether or not there are any others complicit in it.”
Noting that Dylann Storm Roof had a Confederate flag on his car, Brooks said, “We are here in a state where the capitol has a Confederate flag flying over it. Bringing down that flag will not bring about an end to racial hatred, but it would do a lot to prevent the nurturing of this kind of hatred.”
The Stars and Bars does not fly over the state capitol, per se. Thanks to a legislative compromise in 2000, a smaller Confederate flag now flutters on a pole on the statehouse lawn. Not surprisingly, at this time of high emotions, controversy surrounds even this lower-profile presence of what many consider a symbol of racial oppression.
Charleston Mayor Pro Tem and District 7 City Councilman Perry Keith Waring and retired Charleston Chief Municipal Court Judge Arthur McFarland said they hoped police were able to determine if Roof acted alone, something both men doubted.
“This young man repeated the ninth grade,” McFarland said. “Yet he drove over 100 miles from Eastover, South Carolina to Denmark Vesey’s church to shoot the minister. He could have shot a lot of black people between here and there. He meant to come here.”
“These were all good, Christian people — not a criminal among them,” Waring said. “This shows how a community loses when something like this happens, because Christian people give back.
“After the funerals, do we go back to business as usual?” Waring wondered. “My fear is we will. Out of the Walter Scott shooting, body cameras for police officers became the buzzword, the strategy.
“What’s going to come out of this?
“President Obama is right,” Waring said. “If elementary kids can be mowed down in Sandy Hook with no results; if the people out in Colorado can be mowed down in a movie theater, with no results; if people in Bible study can be mowed down, with no results, the silence is beginning to be deafening.
“If this becomes just another massacre in our rear view mirror, if nothing positive comes up to make it better, then shame on us.”