Grace Beahm / The Post And Courier / AP

Charleston residents reckon with church massacre

Crowds from various religious faiths gather for vigils in support of shooting victims at the African-American church

CHARLESTON, S.C. — On Sunday morning at 10 a.m., every church bell in Charleston will ring in unison in a show of support for the victims of a Wednesday night mass shooting in an African-American church that local authorities have deemed a hate crime.

Nine victims have been identified in the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in the heart of the city’s historic district, and at least one more has been injured. After a manhunt by federal and local law enforcement agencies, police arrested a suspect, Dylann Roof, in Shelby, North Carolina, midday Thursday.

Around Charleston, scenes of mourning and unity unfolded throughout the day as residents reckoned with one of the worst shooting events in the city’s history. An overflow crowd of hundreds gathered close in the stifling heat in front of Morris Brown AME Church, where a prayer vigil was held at noon. Outside on the street, a crowd from a broad range of religious faiths gathered to sing “Amazing Grace,” a popular Christian hymn composed by an English slavery abolitionist. Some kneeled as a street preacher fell to his knees and proclaimed, “This is an attack on the body of Christ!”

Elsewhere on the Charleston peninsula, a small group of about a dozen gathered around a statue of Denmark Vesey, an African-American leader at Emanuel AME who was executed in 1822 for plotting a slave revolt. Some held each other and cried.

As they gathered, an African-American family on vacation from Chesapeake, Va., approached with their young children. Craig Smith explained that his wife Tikia had grown up partly in Charleston, and they were in town visiting his father-in-law and seeing historical sites. After news of the shooting broke Wednesday night, Smith said he had a “healthy conversation” with his children about the history of the American South.

“A lot of times we don’t talk about history in general, but if they understand, then they’ll present themselves in a proper manner to fight some stereotypes. It’s important,” Smith said.

In addition to being a site of historical significance, Emanuel AME continues to be a cornerstone of religious and political life in Charleston. Presidential candidates regularly make appearances before the congregation, and the pastor — Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims of the shooting — was a well-regarded Democratic state senator who spoke out often on topics including racism and the need for African-Americans to register to vote. The church was home of numerous illustrious Charlestonians, including Jack McCray, a journalist and champion of the local jazz music scene whose death in 2011 was commemorated with a full-band jazz parade starting at Emanuel.

Damon Fordham, a historian in neighboring Mt. Pleasant who grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal, or AME, denomination, said the shooting was “a tough blow,” especially to the city’s black community.

“Mother Emanuel means so much,” Fordham said, using the church’s nickname based on its founding role in the state’s AME movement. “This is not only a wound to the physical flesh of the individuals, but it’s a wound to the psyche of African-Americans in Charleston.”

Fordham grew up in and still attends Friendship AME Church in Mt. Pleasant, where another of the shooting victims, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., served as pastor in the 1990s. Fordham described Simmons as having been “a pretty no-nonsense, rather stern individual.”

Fordham also got to know Pinckney when the two co-hosted a radio program on local black radio station WPAL, and Fordham said he was surprised with Pinckney’s entry into state politics in his early 20s.

“I was very impressed with him, being 10 years his senior, at his command of the facts as well as his command of the language,” Fordham said. “But not only was he good on those counts, but he was also very friendly and personable.”

When the church bells ring for Sunday services, some churchgoers will be ill at ease, even with a suspect behind bars. Jerod Frazier, minister of social justice at the predominately black Charity Missionary Baptist in North Charleston, said his church will likely have a lookout posted at the door to ensure the safety of the congregation.

“We consider that to be a sacred time, and this threatens that peace,” Frazier said. “If someone black goes into a white church someone white goes to a traditionally black church, heads are going to turn around and say, ‘What’s going on now?’ It’s kind of a broken peace, if you will, a disturbance of peace.”

Elsewhere, churches are banding together in different ways. Prayer vigils were organized throughout the day and night in neighboring communities. Wendy Hudson Jacoby, pastor at North Charleston United Methodist Church, said her church will send a small delegation to nearby St. Peter’s AME Church on Sunday morning “to worship with them in solidarity.”

The city is in the process of organizing a prayer vigil Friday night in the College of Charleston’s basketball arena. A Mother Emanuel Hope Fund has been set up, starting with a $5,000 donation from the city.

And for the people who know and love the congregation at Emanuel AME, Rev. Pinckney’s words at an April 26 event called the “Requiem on Racism” are echoing with haunting overtones:

“We know that only love can conquer hate, that only love can bring all together in our name. Irregardless of our faiths, our ethnicities, where we are from, together we come in love. Together we come to bury racism, to bury bigotry and to resurrect and revive love, compassion and tenderness.”

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