It’s very hard for me to talk about South Carolina without talking about the day a white supremacist walked through the doors of the Mother Emanuel AME Church and murdered my friend.
It was four years ago today — June 17, 2015 — when he sat down with the Bible Study group that met there every Wednesday night. He didn’t look like them and didn’t share their background, but they welcomed him into their circle. They talked with him and prayed with him, and he repaid their kindness by pulling out a gun he should never have had and killing nine men and women, including Mother Emanuel’s pastor, my dear friend Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
It was four years ago, but it still hurts so much. It hurts the people of South Carolina and all of us because this white supremacist was trying to start a race war by massacring men and women — Christians who were simply doing their best to worship their God. It hurts because this racist took my friend from me, took a father from his children, took a husband from his wife, took a dear uncle and brother from his family.
Several things come to mind as we reflect today.
We’ve seen 1,424 mass shootings in this country since that horrific day. We’ve seen a significant rise in hate crimes — a 17% increase over the last year alone, and a more than 30% increase since 2014. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have said that white supremacist extremists are responsible for more homicides and attacks than any other domestic group in America.
Our places of worship continue to be targeted by those seeking to fan the flames of division and hate. And as in the days of my sharecropping grandparents, public praise of white supremacy and racism is becoming a norm.
And sadly, when we look to our leaders to help us stem the tide of hate and prevent another mass shooting from taking place, we hear crickets.
Thankfully, the 116th Congress, led by Democrats under the leadership of Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Rep. Joe Cunningham, recently passed legislation that would close the “Charleston loophole” that allowed this murderer to have such a deadly weapon in the first place. But that bill hasn’t seen the light of day in the Republican-controlled Senate.
I wonder why that is?
It has been said that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. So how do we react when the people with the power to do good choose instead to do nothing? What happens next? How will we respond to a new generation of racism and bigotry and stand against the white supremacists and the violence they bring with them?
Can we even prevent another Mother Emanuel tragedy? How will we protect our families, our communities, and our great nation from tumbling down this black hole of hate?
Thinking back to that moment four years ago, I can’t help but be reminded that we are not the first to feel that the obstacles before us are too great to pass. South Carolina has had more than its fair share of triumph and tragedy. Yet there is a spirit that runs deep in my home that still sings “We Shall Overcome.”
It is that spirit that reminds me that, despite all the heartache past and yet to come, our state motto remains Dum spiro spero: “While I breathe, I hope.”
So today, because I yet draw breath, I find it in myself to hope. I hope that this American experiment will be judged on our ability to repair our fault, to plow through the filth of racism, bigotry, hate, gun violence, and, yes, white supremacy and emerge stronger and cleaner on the other side.
And I know this hope is shared and so becomes stronger. This is our story. This is our shared memory, not of tragedy, but of grace.