In the same arena where the beloved pastor-senator Clementa Pinckney was memorialized almost a year ago, hundreds came together Friday to remember Pinckney and the eight lives that were taken with his in the massacre at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015.
To the survivors of the shooting and the families of the victims, “anniversaries don’t mean anything,” S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley said at a memorial service Friday morning a block from where the Emanuel Nine were slain in their sacred space. “They’re living this each and every day. It is our job as a people to prove to them that June 17 was not in vain.”
Haley spoke personally of each the nine who were killed – Pinckney, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson – and the three who survived when a racist gunman brought terror upon their Wednesday night Bible study one year ago Friday.
Haley referred to them collectively as “the Charleston 12” and said she thinks of them daily.
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“Don’t forget these people. They taught us amazing grace,” she said.
Eulogizing Pinckney last year in the same arena, President Barack Obama, too, invoked “Amazing Grace,” leading the congregation in a moving rendition of the traditional hymn.
On Friday, the president and his wife, Michelle, sent a message read to the crowd lauding the response of Mother Emanuel and the Charleston community. That response has been an inspiration to the nation as it grieves other such incidents, most recently the Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 50 people.
“As a nation, we are deeply moved by your boundless love and your unshakeable resilience,” the Obamas said in their message. “The enduring hope that you’ve embodied is not only a profound expression of your faith but also a symbol of the courage that has guided America forward for generations.”
The service was attended by at least 2,000 people, with speakers including Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, Democratic state Sen. Marlon Kimpson and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a Charleston Republican.
Kimpson and Scott, along with a message read from U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, took the occasion not only to honor the legacy of the Emanuel victims and survivors, but to advocate for action and change moving forward.
Implicit in their messages was that, while the community’s response to the Emanuel slayings remains inspirational, the larger response of state and national leaders has not gone far enough in the past year.
“It takes no courage to sail the placid seas of contentment,” Kimpson said. He delivered a straight-forward call to action for a ban on assault weapons and an improved system of background checks for would-be gun buyers.
A message from Clyburn, which was spoken on the U.S. House floor Tuesday and read at Friday’s service, echoed the plea for reformed gun laws, referencing the so-called “Charleston loophole” that allowed accused Emanuel killer Dylann Roof to purchase a weapon – which he should not have legally been able to do, as he had a drug charge – because his background check was not completed within a three-day window.
“Words alone, no matter how sincere or well-intended, can never be substituted for sustained, meaningful action,” Charleston Mayor Tecklenburg said. “Can’t we at least remove the availability of assault weapons to those who have broken the law, those who have mental issues? Can’t we at least complete reasonable background checks for folks before they can purchase these types of weapons?”
But for whatever else has remained unchanged since the Emanuel shootings, one thing that has and must remain unchanged is the loving character of the church itself, said some in attendance at Friday’s service.
Roslyn Arnold, a decades-long member of Emanuel, said she hopes people all around can join her in recognizing the church “as the Mother.”
“Because you can always come home to Mother,” she said. “Mother is strong. When everybody else says, ‘Do away with him,” Mothers says, ‘Save him. He’s mine. Bring him home.’”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.