When a self-proclaimed white supremacist gunned down nine worshipers in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston a year ago today, it sent waves of shock and revulsion across the state, the nation and the world.
It also sparked one of the most visible and politically charged changes in the Palmetto State in decades: The Confederate flag – which accused shooter Dylann Roof embraced prior to his rampage – was removed from the State House grounds.
But did the horrific effusion of blood, the worldwide outpouring of emotion, the personal pain of loved ones lost and the stunning forgiveness of the victims’ families for the emotionless, unrepentant killer cause real change in the state?
Depends on who you ask, and how you frame the question.
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“Hearts have changed,” said Bob McAlister, a Republican strategist, public relations executive and former chief of staff for Gov. Carroll Campbell.
“Not universally, but individual to individual,” he said. “That’s hard to categorize, because we are used to talking in terms of group-speak. I’m just talking about people. It’s not top down. It’s bottom up.”
It’s not top down. It’s bottom up
Bob McAlister, former chief of staff for Gov. Carroll Campbell
Others say that individual empathy aside, real change hasn’t happened, nor is it even being attempted.
“We shed real tears, copious tears,” said Alex Sanders, former president of the College of Charleston and a former judge who ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat against Lindsey Graham.
“But shortly after, those tears dried up,” he said. “They didn’t extend to the gun laws that would have prevented the murderer from obtaining the tools of his slaughter. They didn’t cause us to revisit the means of health care for children. They didn’t move us to sincerely address the problems the victims of prejudice and discrimination have endured for so long.
“Is change going to go beyond what has already happened?” he said. “If not, it’s a pretty pitiful response.”
McAlister said change can’t be measured strictly by policy.
“If we start judging each other solely because of our politics, God help us,” he said. “We’re never going to get anywhere. That’s because there is a line of demarcation in politics – Republican and Democrat.
“To judge someone solely by their politics is shortsighted and shallow. What I have learned from Charleston is that people who may disagree with me on political issues are not people I don’t enjoy being around. I knew that before and I know it more deeply now.
“Legislators have gotten a lot closer together because of this – some of them,” McAlister said. “When you cry on each others’ shoulders out of just total sadness, that brings you closer together.”
Marjory Wentworth, the state’s poet laureate, said she struggles with how to judge the state’s reaction to the tragedy.
“I don’t see any changes in terms of the institutional, like making it a priority for every kid to get the same level of education,” she said. “There are lots of other things happening, but how you quantify it is beyond me.”
Bernard Powers is a history professor at the College of Charleston who co-authored the book “We Are Charleston,” released this week, with Wentworth and Herb Frazier, a former reporter for The State.
The differences in the perception of change stemming from Emanuel, he said, often breaks along racial lines.
A dramatic act of this kind heightens awareness
Bernard Powers, College of Charleston history professor, author
“You probably have many more white South Carolinians that are now aware of the depth of racial animosity that continues to exist in the state and in the country,” he said. “People tend to judge the world around them by their limited experience. If they don’t see something like this, they think everything is fine. A dramatic act of this kind heightens awareness.”
But for many blacks and others, said Adolphus Belk, a political science professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, change goes beyond a deeper understanding of what divides us.
“They look at substantive issues – incarceration, police misconduct, employment,” he said. “Those concerns haven’t gone away for people of color.”
For many, the defining moment in the tragedy was not the act of cold-blooded murder in a misguided, evil attempt to start a race war. It was the victim’s family members standing before the stone-faced killer in a preliminary hearing and forgiving him, even promising to pray for him.
“I don’t know if I could be that kind of Christian,” said Herman Yoos, bishop of the South Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA.
Yoos said the shootings – as tragic as they were – and the reactions of the families have helped springboard an extended and much-needed dialogue between the races.
“It was like those families unleashed the energy of God’s love through Jesus Christ and a powerful wave of grace and forgiveness flowed out of Charleston and into the world,” he said.
A powerful wave of grace and forgiveness flowed out of Charleston and into the world
Rev. Herman Yoos, bishop of the South Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
As a result, he said, “I think something has shifted. There is a new awareness about the energy needed to make those connections. I believe that more white people today would like to have a conversation about race, but don’t have a vehicle to do it.”
To bridge that gap, he said, the 3.8 million-member national ELCA, and other denominations as well, have instituted a commitment to dialogue between the races.
In South Carolina, for example, Lutheran congregations have been inviting African-American congregations to watch the movie “Selma” together. The movie depicts the historic freedom marches through that Alabama town during the civil rights era.
Discussions are then held on the reality of race, the need for reconciliation and what role the church should play.
“My hope is that we build enough relationships that we can start serving our communities together,” Yoos said. “That is made easier because of what happened in Charleston – those words of mercy. After that, how can we fall back into a state of complacency?”