A year ago, Charleston experienced one of the worst moments in its history with the tragedy that occurred at downtown’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17, 2015.
What happened next was something amazing, something that captured the world’s attention: It was the way the church members of Mother Emanuel reacted with incredible poise, emotional openness and a remarkable demonstration of forgiveness. The members of that church and the families directly affected by the tragedy truly inspired everyone around them, and their example shaped the greater Charleston community’s response of reconciliation, forgiveness and unity.
For the College family, it was a fitting tribute to what these men and women stood for. On that fateful night, we lost one of our own – Cynthia Hurd, a long-serving campus and Charleston County librarian, a woman dedicated to education. And I know she would have been pleased to see Charleston come together as it did – men, women and children of every race and ethnicity holding hands in Marion Square and marching together across the Ravenel Bridge.
Several days later, on June 26, 2015, at the College’s TD Arena, grace and unity were again experienced when Charleston and the world celebrated the life of South Carolina Senator Clementa Pinckney, the reverend of Emanuel A.M.E. Church who was killed along with eight of his parishioners in the mass shooting.
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It was a moving experience, led by President Barack Obama, and a proper tribute to Senator Pinckney, a man of much good, but, unfortunately, a man of even greater potential whose life was ended way too soon.
One year later, on June 17, 2016, the College again opened its doors to Mother Emanuel, which used the same TD Arena for an anniversary event to honor the victims, the families and the congregation.
One year later, and I ask myself: what, if anything, have we learned as a society in the aftermath of that horrific event? Unfortunately, I can’t say for certain that we have truly learned much. Racial tensions are high around the country and multiple mass shootings have taken place since that fateful night in Charleston, most recently in Orlando, Florida.
We, as the College, join with the countless choruses of people in standing with the LGBT community in Orlando and across the nation and the world, and we affirm to our LGBT brothers and sisters that they are welcome and accepted at the College of Charleston. We will always strive to be a place that is tolerant, inclusive and respectful for all members of our campus community. That is what a university – our university – stands for.
With all of these violent acts – fueled by racial, sexual and religious intolerance – we, as Americans, seem caught in a demoralizing cycle of cutting and pasting our condolences and outrage, and not being able to take any substantive action. However, there is hope. We saw it in our response, and we saw it again in Orlando’s response, the long lines of people ready to give blood – their blood – to help others in need. And it is in a moment like that, I am reminded that we, as a people, are not weak, we do not cower. Rather, we come together.
As we honor the victims of Mother Emanuel, as we honor the victims of so many other tragedies that have touched cities and towns across our great nation, we must remember that hate tries to divide us, but we are stronger than that, much stronger – united, we are Orlando Strong, we are Boston Strong and we are Charleston Strong.
Glenn F. McConnell is the president of the College of Charleston and a former S.C. lieutenant governor and former president pro tempore of the South Carolina Senate.