Malcolm Graham is not ready to forgive the man accused a year ago of murdering his sister.
But on the first anniversary of the killings of Cynthia Graham Hurd and eight others during a prayer vigil at historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the former Charlotte state senator has formed some strong opinions about an appropriate punishment.
If Dylann Roof is found guilty of the murders, Graham believes he deserves to die.
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Graham avoids saying the defendant’s name. For the next five days he and his family will be in his native Charleston, his attention focused not on the confessed killer, but on the lives of his 54-year-old sister and the other victims.
Not now, he says. To forgive Roof, Graham must first spend time thinking about him. He refuses. The closest he came to dwelling on his sister’s killer was at Roof’s first court appearance. There, and perhaps for the first time in his life, Graham believed he was in the presence of evil.
For now, Graham says his spiritual energy is aimed at rebuilding his faith even as he tries to understand what has happened. The nature of his sister’s death, he says, compels him to speak his family’s truth.
“Our truth, unfortunately, is that our sister died in a church basement, simply because she was there and simply because she was black,” Graham says. “That’s the truth. That’s something we should not run away from.”
He believes his support of the death penalty is an intellectual response carved from his years as a state legislator, not simply a neural firing from his pain.
He ticks off Roof’s alleged behavior like he’s checking a series of boxes:
“You invite yourself into a church setting,” he begins. “You are made to feel welcome there. You worship with those in your presence for an hour. You shoot and kill them. You terrorize five others. You say you want to start a race war. You show no sign of remorse.
“... If the death penalty is not applicable in this case, I think you should take it off the books.”
Given what his sister went through, he believes it would border on the glib – a placebo for those unwilling to contemplate the hate and racism behind both the shootings in Charleston and last week’s even larger massacre in Orlando, Fla.
Two days after the deaths at Emanuel, Nadine Collier, who lost her mother and two cousins, announced publicly that she had forgiven the killer. That quickly morphed into a catch phrase assigned to all nine families and the city as a whole: Charleston forgives.
Graham says he’s still not ready to play the scripted, feel-good role.
“Forgiveness is too passive a response,” he says quietly. “What happened needed more understanding. More investigation. More awakening of consciousness.
“What occurred there was an attack against a race of people. ... It was an attack against humanity. And that deserves more consideration than a statement of forgiveness two days afterward. Certainly I understand where that feeling comes from. And my loss is no greater than any other family members’. So I respect that feeling. But I can’t accept it.”
Over the next five days Hurd, a longtime librarian, will have a library named in her honor. The University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston have started prestigious scholarships in her name. A mural depicting rows of Hurd’s beloved books will be unveiled next week.
And then at the close of it all, Cynthia Hurd will still be dead.
Graham says he’s too busy trying to make sense of it all. It helps, he says, that he is rebuilding his relationship with God.
‘Help me understand’
Carl Jung wrote often about “the tension of opposites.” Is there good without evil? Can faith have any meaning without the existence of doubt?
Graham, 53, says the Charleston shooting shook his lifelong spiritual convictions. He crystallizes his doubts, emphasizing word after word, as if nailing them individually to a church door.
“How. Could. This. Happen. In. A. Church?” he says. “This is where God is. This is his home. They were just discussing his message. Why? Why? Help me understand.”
He presses on. “This is where Cynthia felt the safest and most at home in the world, and this is where she was made to suffer the most pain.”
He pauses. “It challenged me,” he says.
He began talking daily with Dr. Clifford Jones, his longtime pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. Graham says Jones offered him safe space for his spiritual crisis.
Jones describes the relationship of faith and doubt as “an unresolved theological issue, and it’s one that confronts us in our realities. And Malcolm’s reality is a murder, in a holy place. How does one reconcile the sovereignty of God with a hate crime?”
Jones said he advised Graham to be true to his feelings.
“Healing starts with honesty. You may not like where you are. You may not like the facts of the situations you’re confronted with. Some may seem irreconcilable. But if that’s what you have, then that’s what you have to confront on your plate of faith,” he says.
The continued role of violence, evil, hatred ... are they ever resolvable? Jones says he is not sure. At the very least there are no easy answers.
“Malcolm has to live the rest of his life with the loss of a sister who was murdered in a church,” Jones says slowly. “There are 50 families in Orlando. Think of them. Their lives will never be the same. Never.” He pauses. “There is so much anger in our world.”
Forgiveness as decreed by Christ is easier said than done, the pastor adds. “But I think we are always moving in the direction of fulfilling that expectation.”
“He’s on the path of forgiveness,” Jones says. “But he’s not way down the road.”
The gift of time
Malcolm Graham last saw his big sister alive at his older daughter’s college graduation party in May 2015.
Kim and Malcolm Graham’s brick home in University City was filled with family and friends. At one point Graham says he was looking for his next beer when his big sister pulled him out on the back deck. She told him, preached to him really, to recognize and celebrate the gifts of life.
Two weeks later, he and Kim were getting ready for bed when a news crawl appeared at the bottom of their TV screen. There had been a shooting at the Emanuel church. Graham says he immediately thought of Cynthia.
When the first of the Graham’s two daughters was born, Hurd sent the new parents a book: Marian Wright Edelman’s “25 Lessons for Life.”
Graham read Lesson 10 during Hurd’s eulogy. “Remember and help America remember that the fellowship of human beings is more important than the fellowship of race and class and gender in a democratic society.”
Graham gets up and goes looking for the book, finds it, then opens the front cover to share Hurd’s inscription. In her closing, she asked her brother and his wife to “believe in the future, with its hope, promise and everlasting renewal.”
That takes faith. Graham says he’s working on it.