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How A Shooting Changed Charleston's Oldest Black Church

Mother Emanuel church stands in the background as a mourner visits a sidewalk memorial last year in memory of the shooting.
David Goldman
Mother Emanuel church stands in the background as a mourner visits a sidewalk memorial last year in memory of the shooting.

Just days after the tragic shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., last year, the pews at Emanuel AME were filled for Sunday service. A black cloth was draped over the chair where Emanuel's pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, should have been sitting.

Holding worship in the church sanctuary — while its basement was still a fresh crime scene — served as a way for the congregation to move forward while acknowledging the deaths of nine of its own.

The church is affectionately known as Mother Emanuel, and it was there that the pastor and eight other worshippers were killed on June 17, 2015, as they bowed their heads in prayer during a Bible study. Authorities say the shooting suspect, Dylann Roof, who is white, chose the predominantly black church for the racially motivated assault in order to magnify the societal impact.

"The only reason someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate — the only reason," Joe Riley, Charleston's mayor at the time, said last year.

A Long History

Mother Emanuel, founded in 1816, is one of the oldest black congregations in the South and was already culturally significant. The church has a long, complicated history: It has survived natural disasters and an antebellum ban on black churches. In 1822, Mother Emanuel was burned for its association with Denmark Vesey, a former slave who tried to organize a slave revolt. It remained a force for social change. Civil rights marchers gathered there, and Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the pulpit.

The church's tall, brown spire is a Charleston landmark. Today, the wrought iron gate surrounding the church is locked and a security guard stands watch.

"Emanuel has become part tourist attraction, part shrine," said the Rev. Joseph Darby, vice president of the Charleston NAACP and a presiding elder with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. He said that since the mass shooting, people have come from all over to see the church — and all that attention has been a mixed blessing. For some, he said, coming here serves as an act of atonement.

"There's a need — particularly for some good white folks — to say, 'I am not Dylann Roof. This does not represent me,' " he said.

A Stream Of Visitors

It's not just tourists who are streaming in on tour buses. Journalists and politicians including Gov. Nikki Haley, Vice President Biden and U.S. senators have visited the church. Earlier this year, Charleston was the site of a congressional civil rights pilgrimage centered on the Emanuel massacre.

And other groups have been taking a close look at what happened here. At Charleston's Second Presbyterian Church — just a block behind Emanuel — people from around the country gathered to discuss the meaning of the church following the shootings at Mother Emanuel.

"For many of us that will be very difficult," said Pastor Spike Coleman, of St. Andrews Presbyterian, who led the session. "You're standing on holy ground right now."

That gathering included Major Naomi Broughton of the Charleston Police Department. She helped coordinate the response in the shooting's aftermath.

"I've never seen the multitude of victims as forgiving as this," Broughton said. "But there was a lot of angry people. I was angry. I don't know if I would have been as gracious as those family members were." Broughton was part of the church meeting.

One of the most dramatic examples of that came at the initial hearing for suspect Dylann Roof, which was televised. The judge allowed the victims' families to speak. Nadine Collier's mother, Ethel Lance, was killed.

"I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul," Collier said last year.

Looking For Justice

A year later, the conversation has turned to justice. Roof will go on trial later this year — he faces the death penalty on both state and federal charges. Some of the families of those slain are against a death sentence. Others support it.

"He took nine lives. He made the decision. He sat with them for an hour," Melvin Graham said. His sister Cynthia Hurd, a librarian, was killed in the Emanuel attack. Graham said mercy and forgiveness don't negate the need for punishment. "This was a purposeful act. This was a murderous act. This was a hateful act and therefore he should pay the consequences for his action."

For the families, the ongoing court hearings and now the anniversary events are tough.

"The hard part is it doesn't go away. It doesn't go away," Graham said. "You have to deal with this day in and day out."

And so does the Mother Emanuel congregation — and it's been difficult. In the months following the shooting, millions of dollars in donations poured in. There were allegations that church leaders mishandled the funds. Lawsuits ensued, but have since been settled. And the church recently distributed $1.5 million to the victims' families.

Now a new leader — Emanuel's first female pastor — has taken the pulpit: the Rev. Dr. Betty Deas Clark.

"Last summer, our church suffered a great tragedy. But we never gave up our faith," she said in a YouTube video from earlier this year. "We never gave up on God because God never gives up on us. Through it all, our church stands strong."

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NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.