I have been struggling to know what to say about the Charleston massacre. It is such an evil deed that words seem to be an inadequate response. One of you readers reminded us yesterday that not too terribly long ago, this kind of racist violence — a Southern white supremacist murdering black people, even in church — would have been more common, and would have been seen by many as justifiable in the cause of preserving white supremacy. Think about the Birmingham church bombing, which shocked the conscience of a nation. The Atlantic this morning likens the Charleston shooting to that civil rights-era crime, and recalls the words of a young white lawyer, rebuking white Southern society over it:
All across Alabama, an angry, guilty people cry out their mocking shouts of indignity and say they wonder, “Why?” “Who?” Everyone then “deplores” the “dastardly” act. But you know the “who” of “who did it” is really rather simple. The “who” is every little individual who talks about the “niggers” and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son. The jokester, the crude oaf whose racial jokes rock the party with laughter. The “who” is every governor who ever shouted for lawlessness and became a law violator. It is every senator and every representative who in the halls of Congress stands and with mock humility tells the world that things back home aren’t really like they are. It is courts that move ever so slowly, and newspapers that timorously defend the law.
The suffering of the dead children of the Birmingham church, and their families, helped give impetus to a movement that overturned segregation, and changed America. As the Atlantic points out, prior to the Birmingham bombing, the Klan in Birmingham, “between 1947 and 1965 … planted more than 50 devices targeting black churches, black leaders, Jews, and Catholics.” The size of the Birmingham black church bomb, and the fact that it killed children, made the difference in the cause of civil rights.
It should not be forgotten that today, because of the success of the civil rights movement, the Charleston massacre, though demonic, is an extremely rare act. It has called forth prayers, support, and solidarity from all quarters, and all races. David Graham, the Atlantic writer, likens the racial division in America today to what it was in 1963, when Klansmen bombed the Birmingham church. That’s simply not true, and it’s important to say that it’s not true. Yes, there is racial division today, and it is serious, it is ugly, and it often seems intractable. But this country is not a place where racist terrorism is common and widely embraced, as it was in 1963. The accomplishments of the civil rights movement were real, and give us reason to hope.
It is impossible to achieve utopia; there will always be haters, of all kinds, and sometimes those haters will murder in service of the hate that consumes them. But to deny that things have changed for the better, and can change for the better if we work at it, is to deny to ourselves the hope that inspired Martin Luther King and the civil rights heroes, and kept them from being swallowed up by the injustice and rage over the murder of those little girls in Birmingham.
This morning, I stand in awe at the Christ-like love of the children of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, who was murdered by Dylann Roof in the church she served as a minister:
In a BBC interview at a service at a Charleston high school, her children Camryn and Chris said they felt “love” for the killer. “I just feel a lot of love, I’m a little bitter, but I’m overwhelmed with love,” said Camryn.
Chris Singleton said: “We already forgive him for what he’s done, there’s nothing but love from our side of the family.”
Watch the short video clip here. How do two teenagers respond with such amazing grace in the face of their mother’s murder by a white supremacist? It’s staggering. Those teenagers have the peace that passes all understanding. And here is an excerpt from an NPR interview yesterday with the Rev. Stephen Singleton, who pastored the Mother Emanuel AME church until 2010:
CORNISH: What are you hearing from members of the congregation today?
SINGLETON: Well, there are a lot of broken hearts, a lot of sorrow and a lot of healing to be done. And that’s what we’re going to work on, and that’s what we’re going to focus on because if we get bitter and angry, we just make a bad situation worse.
I was driving when I heard that interview yesterday, and a chill went down my spine when I heard the pastor speak. Here is a man whose community has just suffered unspeakable violence, and yet barely 24 hours since a racist killer defiled the community’s sanctuary, Pastor Singleton responds by refusing hate.
Amid all the darkness, the light shines in the people of Mother Emanuel, and the darkness is not overcoming it. Let them be an icon to the rest of us.
And let the words of the white lawyer from 1963 be a warning to the rest of us. We don’t yet know what kind of world Dylann Roof came from. From what I’ve read, he had expressed his obsession with white supremacy and race war to some, but nobody seemed to take it seriously. Did nobody challenge him? Did his parents know he had this obsession, but gave him a .45 caliber pistol anyway? We must, and we will, dig into Roof’s past, to figure out what made him this way.
The thing we have to remember most of all, though, is that this kind of evil always exists, and evil people will always find cause to do evil. The best we can do is make it less likely that evil seeds find fertile soil in which to grow. The fact that it is much harder today, in 2015, to find that fertile soil than it was in 1963 is a testimony of hope. Let’s not forget that those who died to defeat white supremacy did not die in vain. The best way we honor the sacrifices of the Charleston Nine is to allow their deaths to convert our hearts more deeply to the cause of love and reconciliation. We all need to be more like them, more like those now-motherless teenagers, more like the Rev. Singleton.
My family will be going to Charleston next month for a conference. Julie and I decided last night that we will make a pilgrimage to Mother Emanuel to pray and to honor the dead. Between now and our visit to Charleston, we are going to teach our children about the civil rights movement, and use what happened in Charleston to explain to them the power of evil, but also the greater power of love.
If we, as a people, are to overcome the evil of the world’s Dylann Roofs, we need the power of what the Mother Emmanuel community has in their hearts. We need the power of love. Nothing else will do.