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South Carolinians and forgiveness

Kearston Farr hugs her 5-year-old daughter Taliyah visiting a memorial in front of the Emanuel AME Church.
Kearston Farr hugs her 5-year-old daughter Taliyah visiting a memorial in front of the Emanuel AME Church. File photo/The Associated Press

“You’ve hurt me,” she said. “You hurt a lot of people. But God forgive you, and I forgive you.”

We won’t forget Nadine Collier’s words. She spoke to Dylann Storm Roof at his arraignment last week in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church killings. Nine members of a Bible study group died, and Collier spoke of her mother, Ethel Lance, who was 70 and one of them.

South Carolinians seem stunned.

We seem stunned that nine African-Americans were gunned down in an act of racial violence. And we seem stunned that family members would immediately speak of forgiveness.

“People should not find this as extraordinary as they’re finding it,” says the Rev. Joe Darby, presiding elder of the Beaufort District of the AME Church. Darby was co-author in 1999 of the NAACP’s resolution imposing economic sanctions because of the Confederate battle flag.

Christ taught forgiveness, Darby points out. “Black people had to coexist with people who owned them, who could rape, kill or sell them, and the black people couldn’t strike back. Black folk in South Carolina learned to forgive.”

But we are stunned. So we’ve gathered at rallies at the State House, vigils in churches statewide, and formed a unity chain on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. This is just one step. It’s not enough to attend a rally, take a selfie and go home.

At these events we again hear the call to remove the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds. But this is not enough.

After all, this is South Carolina, a state where the governor could say without irony, without blushing, “Today we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds; 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come.”

In 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. In 1861, the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. In 1962, the Confederate battle flag was hoisted atop the State House dome to commemorate the Civil War’s start and to satisfy those who saw a symbol of heritage and those who saw a symbol of white supremacy. In 2000, the flag was moved to a flagpole before the Monument to the Confederate Dead. Roof’s many photos of himself on his website, LastRhodesian.com, show him with a Confederate battle flag.

So it was facile for S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley to say that the events of the past week alone call us to look at the flag in a different way, to consider at long last more than one viewpoint. This is a violent state that has not acknowledged its racist, murderous past or present. The accused shooter is not an anomaly. The deaths of nine African-Americans at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel, called this because of its key role in black history, are not an anomaly.

So there’s another step, after the funerals: Acknowledge that these deaths are part of a continuing story; acknowledge that the suspected killer has much company.

Darby says when he and the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III and state NAACP President Lonnie Randolph were working to remove the flag from the State House dome in 2000, one of them said, “If they kill one of us, the flag will come down.”

And at a North Charleston news conference preceding Haley’s announcement, Rivers said, “It takes often death to make people do the right thing.” Rivers, who has held a variety of state and national NAACP posts, was an organizer of the 2000 march on the State House, when 50,000 demanded the flag’s removal.

There have been so many deaths, not just of the body but the spirit.

We choose to honor Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney, D-Jasper, the pastor of Mother Emanuel, with public viewings at the State House, in Ridgeland, and in Charleston, and with a eulogy by President Barack Obama. Dubbed the “moral conscience of the General Assembly” before his killing, Pinckney was called to preach at 13, appointed a pastor at 18, elected to the S.C House at 23 and the S.C. Senate at 27.

But we choose not to remember Frazier Baker and his family. Baker was appointed postmaster in Lake City in 1897. But he was black, and the whites objected. Eleven set fire to his home, and as the family tried to escape, shot Baker dead. They shot dead Julie, a 2-year-old in the arms of Lavinia, her mother. Lavinia and daughters Rosa and Cora escaped, each shot in the arm. So did son, Lincoln, shot in the arm and stomach. South Carolina would not prosecute. When the federal government did, a mistrial was called because of a deadlocked jury.

We choose not to remember Summerton’s James McKnight. It was 1950, and McKnight had stopped his car by the side of the rode to relieve himself because the state’s blacks were prohibited from using restrooms at white-owned gas stations. A white man beat McKnight dead with a stick, crushing his skull while McKnight’s horrified family watched from their car. The FBI did interviews, but the local inquest did not call the witnesses, and no charges were filed.

We choose not to remember Phynise Pearson, who walked nine miles to school from Davis Station, wearing layers of her siblings’ clothes, putting cardboard in her shoes in the 1940s. Black children didn’t have school bus transportation in South Carolina before Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended segregation in public schools. After her father sued for a bus and then signed the petition for “equal everything,” in Briggs v. Elliot, she slept on the floor because whites regularly shot into their home.

“A lot of white South Carolinians used a type of terrorism, a quiet racism that was deadly and damaging,” says civil rights photographer Cecil Williams. “Lives were not only lost, but so were livelihoods: mortgages called in, loans called in, families separated by someone going North to find a decent living,” explains Williams, 77, who accompanied civil rights leaders as a child photographer then continued documenting the era.

Most whites don’t know these stories and perhaps don’t want to know, too embarrassing, too shaming. Many African-Americans don’t know these stories because their grandparents and parents found them too painful to tell.

It’s time to talk, and without the talk, only a little will change.

Brenda Kneece, executive minister of the S.C. Christian Council, says just taking down the Confederate battle flag is “easy grace.” She says we need more, an effort like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to help whites and blacks come to terms with their past. She says we need places where people can tell stories without fear. She says we need honest conversations that allow relationships to develop.

Most major denominations have been exploring racial reconciliation for decades, says Carl Evans, USC professor emeritus and a founder of Interfaith Partners of South Carolina. But these conversations need to move beyond the church walls. “Somehow, some way we need to come up with a plan to delve deeper into the problem of racism and involve different sectors of the community in different places across the state.” That will take trained facilitators, he says, given the potential for conflict.

This is a state in constant conflict. South Carolina is the seventh deadliest in homicide by gun, the second worst in aggravated assault by gun, the second worst in women killed by men.

Nationally, 66 percent of racially motivated hate crimes are white against black, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. The state reported 51 hate crimes in 2013, the majority racial, but the hate crime statistics are unreliable because two-thirds of victims don’t report the event to law enforcement, according to the most recent National Crime Victimization Survey. And South Carolina is one of five states without a hate crime law.

Nineteen S.C. groups are on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “hate map,” including the Council of Conservative Citizens, cited by Roof as an inspiration. The CCC grew from the white Citizens Councils that initiated the “economic squeeze” devastating to civil rights activists. Roof wrote about reading the CCC website, “I have never been the same since that day.”

So this is South Carolina, a violent place that remains racist. Mourning the dead is one step. Taking down the Confederate battle flag is one step. Are we willing to take other steps, steps we have avoided, steps that will take a long time and more tears?

Brinson is a senior lecturer and program coordinator of the Writing for Print and Digital Media major at Columbia College. She was a journalist for more than 30 years, many of them as a columnist, senior writer and associate editor for The State. She is working on a book on the missing voices of the S.C. civil rights movement.

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