Issac Bailey

Charleston shooting: Interracial hugs and tears and mourning not enough to guarantee lasting change

Glenn Beck, on his way to Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, shakes the hand of a man (in the background) wearing a “Black lives matter” T-shirt.
Glenn Beck, on his way to Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, shakes the hand of a man (in the background) wearing a “Black lives matter” T-shirt. Issac J. Bailey/The Sun News @ijbailey

The last time I visited Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was 25 years ago this summer.

I attended a morning service then hurriedly made my way to Memorial Park to view a Ku Klux Klan rally.

On Friday I returned to Emanuel, a couple of days after a young man who allegedly had deeply racist thoughts killed nine black people during a Bible study.

The walk from Emanuel to Memorial Park, where the Klan rally was held in 1990 and where TV/radio personality Glenn Beck and the mostly white Lowcountry Conservatives In Action gathered Friday to support the black victims, was shorter, more peaceful this time around, likely because I no longer had the unregulated anger of a clueless black 17-year-old roiling through my veins.

On Friday, interracial groups prayed, black and white people hugged, black and white people declared that the evil which visited Emanuel Wednesday night would not win.

The sentiment 25 years ago was similar, though the scene was more openly angry. I vaguely remember a black woman in a heated face-to-face shouting match with a Klan member not far from where I was standing, but I also remember others who were focused on ways to fight the urge against bitterness and only wanted healing.

On Friday, the area near the makeshift memorial — flowers, teddy bears, peace signs — in front of Emanuel was solemn, as though everyone knew they were standing on sacred ground.

On Friday, the crowd aimed its defiance at a guy named Dylann Roof, while the crowd a quarter of a century earlier focused on the Klan.

Each was united in a curious mix of disgust and a passionate love.

Maybe that’s why the interracial coming together so many are noting hasn’t moved me as it has others.

I had seen it before, seen how an emotion-filled gathering can quickly fizzle, leaving most of the hardest-to-solve problems untouched.

I had seen forgiveness in the face of evil — the kind family members of victims extended to the alleged murderer Friday — watched people tame their anger despite blatant hatred hurled their way all those years ago, say they hoped God had mercy on the souls of even Klan members.

I know the well of personal reconciliation runs deep in my native state. That’s never been at issue.

It’s the institutional kind that still divides us, despite our soft smiles and admired Southern hospitality.

During the 25 years between my visits to Emanuel, South Carolina’s prisons expanded enormously, largely on the backs of young black men and because of disparate racial treatment at every level of the criminal justice system.

The “Corridor of Shame,” a small contingent of mostly black rural under-funded schools, kept shipping unprepared students out into a world in which a formal education was becoming more important by the year.

Through all those years, South Carolina’s definition of racial equality largely remained the same: quiet without peace, sporadic progress without long-term justice.

That period also included the construction of an African-American monument on the Statehouse grounds ostensibly to balance the presence of the Confederate flag and monuments and statutes and tributes for white men who participated in the enslavement of black people in the 1800s and the lynching of black men in the 1900s.

There have been debates about the worth of Denmark Vesey, who once found refuge at Emanuel. Vesey was a former slave who planned an insurrection in Charleston, including the killing of white slave owners, so he and other black people could escape to freedom.

What would have been a bloody attempt by black men longing to throw off the shackles of slavery was planned for June 16, 1822.

In a state in which many people view Vesey as a murderous traitor, almost 193 years to the day — June 17, 2015 — Roof allegedly walked into Emanuel and said “you’ve taken over our country, and you have to go.”

“We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me” a white supremacist manifesto on a website with photos of Roof read.

In South Carolina, many harbor negative or mixed feelings about the black man who was willing to fight for his freedom and defend stories-high monuments to the men who did the enslaving, including one for former Sen. John C. Calhoun for his “eminent statesmanship” — never mind his legendary defense of the subjugation of black people — just a three-minute walk from Emanuel, a church that sits on a Calhoun, not a Vesey, street.

That was true in 1990 when black residents and white residents united to stand against the Klan, which, on that day, was little more than a dozen or so poor, malnourished lost, white souls. It remains true in 2015 even as we’ve come together again to stand against another poor, lost soul who did Wednesday what the Klan did in South Carolina, often with the blessing of the state’s residents and leaders, for decades.

It’s a mark of real, if incomplete, progress.

It’s also the kind of unity that makes us feel good in the moment but does little to repair the damage of centuries of racial mistrust and misdeeds.

If it’s to be different this time, it’s going to take more than black people and white people mourning together.

It’s going to take the kind of hard, unflinching work I’m not sure most of us are ready for.

Contact ISSAC BAILEY at ibailey@thesunnews.com or on Twitter @TSN_IssacBailey.

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