Some of the Emanuel Nine families and survivors have been involved in various anti-racist and social reform initiatives in memory of their friends and relatives. Emanuel A.M.E. Church is today a site of pilgrimage bringing visitors seeking spiritual strength inside its storied walls.
Race martyrs. On the evening of Wednesday, June 17, 2015, twelve devout souls gathered in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for prayer meeting. That night a young white man visited them. Although silent during the service, at its conclusion during the benediction, while all others closed their eyes, he pulled a gun and randomly shot at everyone in the room. Seventy-seven bullets killed nine people that night. They were Reverends Clementa Pinckney, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., DePayne Middleton-Doctor, and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton along with Myra Thompson, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, and Tywanza Sanders. Collectively they became known as the Emanuel Nine. Polly Shepard, Felicia Sanders, and her granddaughter, also in the room, survived. Each of them, the deceased and the survivors, were deeply committed to their church and to community service. Although the shooter escaped he was apprehended the next day; the investigation quickly revealed his motivations. He was a neo-Confederate white supremacist who accused black men of being rapists and African Americans of taking over the country. Ultimately he hoped to incite a race war. “Mother” Emanuel, as the church is affectionately known, was targeted because of its prominence, its long and storied history, and because of its high profile and activist historical and contemporary leadership. Denmark Vesey, the free black who unsuccessfully attempted to organize a slave insurrection in 1822, was a leader of Emanuel’s antebellum predecessor congregation. In the 1960s the church was a center of civil rights activism. At the time of his death, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the senior pastor, was a state senator who supported progressive causes including improving African American education, expansion of Medicaid, and a higher minimum wage. His legislative efforts were instrumental in passing the state law that now requires police officers to wear body cameras.
“Mother” Emanuel’s assailant sowed the seeds of racial discord and Charleston could have gone the way of Ferguson or Baltimore because of the heightened racial tensions from several police shootings of unarmed black men. However, that did not occur. Two days after the murders, some family members of the Emanuel Nine stunned the world by offering forgiveness to the killer. They created a teachable moment and showed an astounded world what a deeply committed Christian life looks like. This set the tone for much that followed in their community, including many unprecedented acts of interracial engagement. New organizations such as Arm and Arm were formed in South Carolina to promote gun safety legislation; some Emanuel Nine family members joined this effort. Charleston and North Charleston took steps to promote better police-community relations. Similar acts were echoed around the nation. After the Emanuel tragedy, two Baptist churches in Macon, Georgia located proximate to one another, one black, the other white, began discussions about racial and other issues in their community for the first time ever.
The Confederate flag on the South Carolina State House grounds had long been a major point of contention. For years there had been marches, regular demonstrations, and a protracted NAACP economic boycott of the state to effect the flag’s removal, yet all in vain. After the murders the anti- flag forces gained momentum and after a rancorous legislative debate, the flag was finally removed on July 10, 2015. What happened in South Carolina contributed to the growing antipathy many felt around the nation, against the symbols of the Confederacy and sparked contentious movements which demanded they be removed.
Some of the Emanuel Nine families and survivors have been involved in various anti-racist and social reform initiatives in memory of their friends and relatives. Emanuel A.M.E. Church is today a site of pilgrimage bringing visitors seeking spiritual strength inside its storied walls. After the 2018 anti- Semitic attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, its members and leaders visited Emanuel. As a place connecting race, grace, and the quest for social justice, it will forever occupy a special place in the history of Charleston, the Holy City.
Frazier, Herb, Bernard E. Powers, and Marjory Wentworth. We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel (Thomas Nelson, 2016)
Berry, Jennifer Hawes. Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness (St. Martin, 2019)