Before we even begin to evaluate what has changed in our state since the tragic events of June 17, 2015 — the day that nine men and women lost their lives at the historic Emanuel AME Church — it is helpful to remember the days immediately after the event and consider what our most realistic expectations were, at that time, for change.
No one expected racial disparities in our state to disappear or race relations to automatically improve as a result of one event. There was a magical moment when the community came together — we were united — and it seemed as though all things were indeed possible if that cooperative spirit could only be maintained. It would have been unrealistic to expect immediate changes to segregated schools, a sudden improvement in disparities between races, or the elimination of all historic symbols that could be viewed as racist from places of prominence within the state.
However, at a minimum, it was somewhat realistic to hope that the rare bipartisan moment that occurred when Republicans and Democrats voted together to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse would continue on to more substantive matters. It did not.
That is the disappointing takeaway from the Mother Emanuel tragedy. While our legislature has had several opportunities to build on the symbolic gesture of removing the flag from in front of the Statehouse, it has punted on almost every occasion. First, there was fierce resistance to closing the so-called Charleston loophole, which allows gun dealers to automatically sell firearms to an individual if the FBI doesn’t respond to a background check after three days. This was the very law that allowed Dylann Roof to purchase his weapon. Then there was opposition to removing the Confederate flag from other locations of prominence, including inside The Citadel’s Summerall Chapel, lest a precedent be set. And our legislature actually even considered enshrining bigotry into law with Sen. Lee Bright’s transgender bathroom bill.
There are countless racially motivated killings that stand out as flashpoints in our nation’s long civil rights struggle for African Americans. The Birmingham church bombing which claimed the lives of four young girls stands out as one, and the highly publicized killings of Medgar Evers and Emmitt Till stand out as two others. Taken individually, none of those tragedies resulted in instantaneous racial reconciliation. However, it could be said that in concert, these tragedies affected the nation’s collective consciousness in a way that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968.
We only have one year in retrospect to consider the impact of the Emanuel Nine killings, and the hope is that those deaths have inspired some larger change beyond our state borders. Perhaps taken in concert with the recent killings in Orlando, there is a new emphasis placed on punishing hate crimes. Maybe when considered together with this and Sandy Hook, some legislation will be passed which will restrict access to certain assault weapons. At a bare minimum, perhaps there will be a renewed push to restrict legal access to certain weapons for those who are mentally ill or have a criminal history.
We know such measures will not prevent all mass shootings in the future, but doing something is better than doing nothing, and allowing more guns into South Carolina, as the General Assembly has recently done with its concealed weapons permit reciprocity bill, is not the answer.
True racial reconciliation and progress takes time. And based on the actions of our state government as a whole, we have a lot longer to wait before seeing substantive measures that address these issues.