Our city, state, and country owe the families of the Emanuel Nine an enormous debt of gratitude. They provided proof to the rest of the nation that love can conquer hate. This is not an overstatement. After all, it was their remarkable display of grace and forgiveness to Dylann Roof, the alleged murderer of their loved ones, which set the tone for the community-wide unity we are now seeing, as well as the new attempt by the good citizens of Charleston, both black and white, towards racial reconciliation.
Over the past year, we have seen other communities torn apart by civil unrest and conflict after the loss of life where the victim’s race is an apparent factor in his or her death. In cities like Baltimore, Md. and Ferguson, Mo., the black and white communities were generally at odds before the tragedy and did not come together after it. Sadly, the only outlet that some in the African-American community felt they had was to commit acts of violence or destroy property.
Charleston has been different.
After the shock of nine horrific murders within a closely knit community, many of us immediately yearned for justice on behalf of not only the victims, but their grieving family members. But after seeing the families offer forgiveness to the shooter, it was impossible not to be moved by their words and actions. This expression of faith through grace was a unifying moment for the Charleston community, the state of South Carolina, and our nation as a whole. Whether one identified with the victims as fellow Emanuel AME Church members, African Americans, fellow Charlestonians, South Carolinians, or Christians, there was a unifying bond which allowed us to put aside politics for once and contemplate some significant changes within our community. It is highly unlikely this would have happened without the example set by the victims’ families.
Now, aided by a moving eulogy from President Barack Obama, a movement is underfoot to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds; that both blacks and most whites are calling for this speaks volumes. Meanwhile, many in the black community of Charleston have let it be known that they don’t want outside groups like the New Black Panther Party speaking on their behalf.
The question is, where do we go from here?
How do we ensure that the unity in response to this tragedy is not lost and we as a community continue down the path of racial reconciliation?
The answer is simple: We must continue to do what we have been doing.
There has been a unity march on the Ravenel Bridge and a gathering in Marion Square to show togetherness in the face of adversity. Local restauranteurs are banding together to organize an event to benefit Mother Emanuel and the victims’ families. Facebook organizers planned to create a human wall to shield the funerals from the hateful Westboro Baptist Church in the event they protested the funerals. In each of these instances, the community has come together out of respect and honor to the Emanuel Nine and their families.
To the extent we can continue to come together to honor those who were lost and the examples set by their families, good things will continue to happen in our community and state.
The deaths of four young girls in a Birmingham, Ala. church, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and so many others along the path to justice moved this country in a way that political discourse, boycotts, and demonstrations could not. The loss of innocent life tends to move Americans in a way that few other things can. It motivates people to act for the collective good. We are seeing that in Charleston today.
We all can play a role in making sure that good things continue to happen as a result of this heartbreaking tragedy. If we continue to honor the Emanuel Nine, it will be the best possible tribute to the victims and their families.
Dwayne Green is a licensed attorney practicing in Charleston. He is a former assistant attorney for the City of Charleston and graduated from Princeton University with a degree in politics and the University of Iowa College of Law.
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