This summer I’ve been teaching a Diversity & Equity section of Honors Writing, and Monday morning I had a difficult time in the class. I didn’t say much to my students about Charleston or those who died there last week. I forgot my computer cords at home. I fumbled to get ideas out. I felt generally out of sorts. And instead of talking with them about the tragedy, I chose to focus on their papers (we’ve been studying the issues in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray). But tomorrow is the last day of the class (it’s a 6 week course), and I feel I have to say something.
There are a matrices of issues that have emerged in the wake of the tragedy—from state symbols, to police response, to an archaic and racists southern ethos. It is important to have these discussions, important to weigh our care for each other, and every so often to revisit the way we’ve failed or come up short. I’m pleased to see the evolving (and evolved) attitudes coming forward, and trying to make change. Pulling down the Confederate flag is a good (albeit simple) first step.
But there is a great deal more we all need to do.
This is, in part, why I hope the murderer in this case is not executed. I hope he lives for many more years—imprisoned without hope of parole. I don’t wish this out of compassion or because I have a bone to pick with South Carolina’s system of capital punishment. But I worry that if this boy is executed, many will think the debt has been paid in full, and his crime (and our complicity in it) will be easier to forget.
I have no illusions about rehabilitation. I don’t even know that a person capable of so terrible a crime can ever be recovered. More to the point: I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t even have a name—he lost even his right to that the moment he executed grandmothers and mothers, a whole group of people whose only sin was warmly welcoming him into their house of worship. From now on he is only a crude thing, a tool we’ll keep around for its utility.
But I want him to live—to be a mirror, to remind us of how we failed. To remind us of all the times we didn’t speak up, or laughed (maybe even uncomfortably) alongside a racist, or let a hateful comment or attitude slide. I want him to live a long time—for us. And every time we’re forced to look at him, I want us to remember those he took. I want us to be incapable of forgetting or remaining indifferent to our neighbor’s suffering. And I want us to try to do better by one another. I need this reminder, too.
Growing up on the east coast, I visited South Carolina’s beaches as a kid a half dozen times …mostly Myrtle, and mostly with family. But my most lasting impression of the state came many years ago, when I spent a semester at Clemson, near Lake Hartwell in the rural northern half of the state.
It was the late 80s, and Coach Danny Ford still led the football squad, a few years after bringing the school its first national championship. On the basketball court, Elden Campbell and Dale Davis led the Tigers, and the whole community would turn out for games at Death Valley or Littlejohn Coliseum, roaring their approval with every basket or touchdown.
But despite the intense pride the sports teams inspired on Saturday afternoons and game nights, the community was still deeply divided—black businesses and white ones, black parts of town, others where they weren’t welcome. In broad daylight you could walk down College Ave and Tiger Boulevard and see the dividing line. In the University cafeteria, Black students ate in one corner of the dining hall, and the racial division in fraternities and sororities and other social campus groups was unmistakable. If you questioned it, others would shrug and say “That’s just South Carolina.” Everyone understood this.
Indeed, I suspect that every person in Mother Emanuel church on the evening of June 17th knew it, too.
But it is not ok, and we all need to say that more loudly now. Because ignoring the problem, or insisting it doesn’t exist, or believing (as so many do) that America, but for a few isolated events, has outgrown its racially divided history—these attitudes only keep us locked in brutal past that injures us all.
This Friday, at 11 AM, Charleston will lay their beloved Pastor Pinckney to rest. He was, by all accounts, a champion for his community and church—a public figure who regularly stood up for his large Charleston family, whose final act of compassion and generosity and humanity was to welcome a troubled white boy into his bible study group. That fact is probably difficult to fathom—and knowing the outcome, some may even question Rev. Pinckney’s judgement.
But I choose to see it as a testament to the quality of his character, his faith, and his deep commitment to bettering his community. The doors of the church are still open. Only days after the murders, Bishop Adam Richardson Jr. led Mother Emanuel in a reaffirmation of this AME church motto. This also seems to me an amazing act of faith and courage. But we must do our part, too—to ensure that this goodwill is matched on our end, to guarantee that we are worthy of it, and to safeguard the bonds that connect us to one another, so they are never threatened in this way ever again.
The AME church has set up a fund to help pay for family expenses (these, I feel certain, will be significant). Contribution to assist with burial costs and other related expenses can be directed to:
“Mother Emanuel Hope Fund”
Seventh Episcopal District
110 Pisgah Church Road
Columbia, SC 29203
For further information contact Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, Bishop of Urban and Ecumenical Affairs and Chair of the Social Action Commission of the AME Church at Reginald.firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can go to the Website of the African Methodist Episcopal church at http://www.ame-church.com/