When New York Times reporter Kevin Sack caught wind of the heart-wrenching tragedy on June 17, 2015 at Mother Emanuel church in downtown Charleston, he knew he needed to be there.

“It wasn’t really part of my portfolio to cover breaking news,” he said in an interview with CP. “I was, and am, on our investigative project team, but the pull of the story was very strong.

Sack, who writes for the New York Times from Atlanta, drove to Charleston and spent the ensuing two weeks writing a profile on late reverend and state senator Clementa Pinckney, covering President Obama’s “Amazing Grace” eulogy, and taking in the stories of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

He is now working on a book about the church’s 200-year-history that will be published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing.

“I became familiar with the vague outline of the church’s history and grew fascinated with the back story of the place, with everything that led up to that moment and with the incredibly rich history that made it matter that these shootings had happened where they happened,” he says. “That wasn’t just a randomly selected place. That was clear.”

Less than 24 hours after killing nine people at the South’s oldest AME church, white supremacist Dylann Roof admitted to specifically choosing Mother Emanuel because of its historical significance.

“The reason I chose Charleston is, I like Charleston. It’s a historic city … It was a historic church,” he said in an interview with authorities.

Sack spent much of his time as a reporter covering political races in the South, which inevitably led him to visit many churches, and helped develop his interest in congregations as sites of social and political movement.

Mother Emanuel incubated a planned slave revolt by church co-founder Denmark Vesey, a former slave who bought his freedom with money he won from the East Bay Lottery. Vesey and 34 other alleged co-conspirators were eventually hanged.

A monument to Vesey was unveiled in Hampton Park in 2014, about a year and four months before the shooting at Mother Emanuel.

More than a century after Vesey’s death, the church became entrenched in the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of pastor and Charleston NAACP president Benjamin Glover.

“I think the stunning thing is how much has happened there across every era of the church’s life,” Sack says.

He says he still does his best to attend a service when he’s in town.

“There obviously have been changes in security: There are cameras, the doors aren’t open anymore,” Sack says. “I’ve been to other black churches as well. When a stranger or a white stranger walks in, they certainly get some attention. It’s certainly not anything I take personally. It’s a bit of a loss of innocence, and that’s a shame.”

Sack will discuss the history of Mother Emanuel at the College of Charleston’s Addleston Library on Mon. March 5 at 6 p.m. The talk is free and open to the public.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.