[image-1]City and state officials, church leaders, family, and friends all gathered Friday for a service to remember those who died and honor the survivors of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church one year ago. On June 17, 2015, we lost Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Cynthia Graham-Hurd, Susie Jackson, state Sen. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, and Ethel Lance. But this week Charleston isn’t the only community looking back on the anniversary of a mass shooting.
The day before the nine lives were taken at Mother Emanuel a year ago, four were shot and injured at a birthday party in Miami Gardens, Fla. The day before that, four more were shot outside of a Brooklyn bar on Flatbush Avenue. Over the previous 24 hours, 11 were wounded and one killed in mass shootings in Tulsa, Okla., St. Louis, Mo., and Camden, N.J. June 13, 2015: Mass shootings in Georgia, Ohio, New York, and Oklahoma left 17 injured and six dead. Some of these were gang-related, others were crimes of passion, but they all left communities reeling.
Now, one year removed from the deaths at Mother Emanuel, Charleston finds its heart still inextricably tied to the events of that night. But as the community looks back on those we lost that evening in June, our leaders stand divided on how best to honor the dead and their sacrifice.
“We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, out of the gloomy past, till now we stand at last, where the white gleam of our bright star is cast,” said Rev. Dr. Betty Deas Clark, pastor at Mother Emanuel, as she recited the opening hymn during Friday’s ceremony. Earlier in the week, Clark traveled to Orlando, Fla., to comfort those in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s history. Just a day prior to her arrival, Omar Mateen opened fire in a crowded gay nightclub, leaving 49 dead and at least 53 wounded. While in Orlando, Clark talked to reporters about improving gun control efforts and the importance of supporting those who experience such terrible acts of hate and violence — like those that now link our two communities.
In 2013, Mother Emanuel’s previous pastor, the late Sen. Pinckney, introduced a bill to the state Senate that aimed to increase the level of checks involved in the sale and purchase of an assault rifle. The bill would have required firearms dealers to conduct a criminal background check, family background check, a medical and psychological evaluation, as well as a personal interview to determine if a person is mentally fit prior to selling or transferring an assault rifle. President Barack Obama, who traveled to Charleston following the shooting at Mother Emanuel to deliver the eulogy for Sen. Pinckney, was not in attendance for Friday’s ceremony, which played out before a crowd that half-filled TD Arena. But although the president and the first lady did not appear in person, they did send a message to be shared with all those gathered.
“‘Our calling,’ the Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney once said, ‘is not just within the walls of the congregation, but the life and community in which our congregation resides.’ These words still speak to us a year after Rev. Pinckney and eight other precious lives were taken from us in a senseless act of violence,” the president wrote. “Throughout its rich history, the congregation of Mother Emanuel has pursued its calling far beyond the walls of the church building. It has been a central character in the story of Charleston and of our country. A sanctuary to slaves seeking liberty, a pulpit for those preaching non-violence — it has long been a voice for human rights, dignity, and justice. We look to Mother Emanuel for inspiration in the wake of the terrible tragedy in Orlando. As a nation, we are deeply moved by your boundless love and your unshakable resilience.”
After reading the names of the nine men and women who perished at Mother Emanuel, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg spoke of mankind’s long history of violence reaching back to biblical times and the need for action in addressing more modern concerns.
“Today, we have a few other obstacles. You know, they didn’t have assault weapons 3,000 years ago. Can’t we at least remove the availability of assault weapons to those who have broken the law, those who have mental issues,” the mayor said to the applause of the gathered congregation. “Can’t we at least complete reasonable background checks for folks before purchasing weapons.”
Tecklenburg was followed by state Sen. Marlon Kimpson. The young senator told the crowd that he would work in the spirit of the victims of the shooting at Mother Emanuel, adding that the community’s leaders should be expected to tackle the issue of gun violence. This past year, Kimpson introduced five bills that included efforts to ban assault weapons, require that all lost and stolen weapons be reported, and close the three-day background check loophole that authorities say played a part in allowing alleged church shooter Dylann Roof to purchase a firearm.
[image-2]“In the aftermath of the massacre here and San Bernardino and Orlando and many other mass murders that claim the lives of so many of our brothers and sisters in America, we must in Congress and state legislatures all across the country, address gun reform,” Kimpson said.
Taking the stage, Gov. Nikki Haley chose not to discuss legislation or any other political matters. Instead she recounted placing a call to Sen. Pinckney after learning of the shooting — a call that went unanswered. She remembered learning of the three survivors of the shooting last June. And she recalled attending the nine funerals that followed.
“I ask that this not be an anniversary ceremony. I ask that you think of all 12 every day. Because what I have learned from all 12 is something that is beyond explanation,” Haley said as she pulled out the funeral programs from the ceremonies held for those who died in the shooting.
[image-3]One by one, the governor detailed the lives of the victims at Mother Emanuel. Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. — a veteran and public servant. Ethel Lance — a grieving mother who sang to raise her spirits after the loss of a daughter. Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor — parent of four and a gifted vocalist. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton — loving mother and coach. Myra Thompson — a newly certified preacher. Rev. Sen. Clementa Pinckney — a gentle giant, respectful lawmaker, church leader, and family man. Susie Jackson — a sweet-hearted woman who never spoke ill of those she met. Tywanza Sanders — a young man, fresh out of school, with plans to open a barbershop. And Cynthia Graham-Hurd — who lived each day spreading kindness.
This is how Gov. Haley asks us all to remember those who gathered for Bible study last June. And she asks that we never forget them.