For the 9 slain in Charleston, the church was a symbol of faith, freedom and resistance

The men of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity lead prayer outside the Emanuel AME Church on Friday after a memorial in CharlestonThe brick Gothic revival edifice, completed in 1891  was a stop for Booker T. Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The men of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity lead prayer outside the Emanuel AME Church on Friday after a memorial in CharlestonThe brick Gothic revival edifice, completed in 1891 was a stop for Booker T. Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. AP

They gathered as usual around a table in the basement of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for Wednesday night Bible study, a dozen church members, among the most faithful.

They prayed together, several ministers, a librarian, an usher, a barber and other educational and spiritual leaders in Charleston’s African-American community. The church was their refuge, as it had been for their ancestors – what Valerie Cooper of Duke University calls “the beating heart of the black community.”

For hundreds of years in black churches throughout the South, people have gathered not only to worship but also to organize politically and – in the case of Emanuel AME – to plot a slave rebellion. During the Jim Crow era, churches were often the only building that black people had access to.

“Wednesday night would be the night when the faithful members come out,” said Cooper, an associate professor of black church studies at Duke. “So, of course, (the shooter) picked the night the group would be the smallest but would be people at the heart of the congregation.”

On this particular Wednesday, there was a quarterly congregational meeting. Most church members left afterward to go home. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, wasn’t a regular at the prayer group. But because he happened to be in town for the quarterly meeting – not in Columbia where he served in the state Senate – Pinckney stayed afterward, church historian Liz Alston said, and joined the others in the basement.

Like many African-American pastors, such as Adam Clayton Powell of New York and Martin Luther King Jr., Pinckney rose to political prominence through the church.

“In the African-American community, the church is the one place people have historically had control and a voice,” said historian Damon Fordham of Charleston. “That’s why very often you find the minister is the most prominent man in the neighborhood.”

Church transformed them

The church also gave voice to members who might not be considered successful, Alston said. That was especially true in the segregated South, she said, when many black people worked as servants or laborers. Dressed in Sunday finery, they took leadership roles in the church and spoke openly about their dreams of equal rights.

Even today, the black church offers its members a chance for personal transformation.

Alston saw it in Ethel Lance, 70, one of the nine killed Wednesday at the end of the prayer meeting. Lance was a former custodian for the city of Charleston and church sexton.

“Even though her job was ordinary, on Sunday I watched her strut through the church because she was a lead usher,” Alston said. “The church is the one area where people can become leaders without the painful strains of segregation.”

Lance was a regular at Wednesday night prayers as were most of the others. When a stranger entered, a young white man, they welcomed him in the tradition of hospitality. When he asked to sit beside the Rev. Pinckney, a place was made for him, Alston said.

“They were so trusting,” she said. “They are God’s people.”

He sat beside his chosen victims for an hour of Bible study. Alston said they studied Mark 4:16-20, which reads in part: “These are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it.”

They thanked the visitor for coming. They even told him they enjoyed having him, a survivor said. But after listening for a while to their Bible study, he began to argue. Then he stood up and pulled a .45-caliber handgun from his fanny pack.

Dylann Roof, 21, of the Columbia area, is charged with nine counts of murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. He targeted Emanuel AME, a source told WBTV, after researching its historical significance.

Faith and freedom

Emanuel is located on Calhoun Street, named in honor of John C. Calhoun, a proponent of the slave system that fueled Charleston’s wealth during the antebellum years. About 40 percent of enslaved Africans brought to America passed through the city’s harbor.

“This particular church is a symbol of faith, freedom and resistance,” said John Hale, a professor at the College of Charleston. “It was one of the few, if only safe spaces, where slaves and free African-Americans could gather on their own terms.”

In the original wooden sanctuary a few blocks from the current site, Denmark Vesey reportedly plotted a rebellion for June 17, 1822. Wednesday would have been the 193rd anniversary.

Vesey, a carpenter, was a free black man but had been a slave. According to historical accounts, which some now dispute, Vesey and other black organizers hoped to kill Charleston’s white slaveholders, free the enslaved black people and sail to Haiti. But their plans were discovered and the plot foiled. Vesey and 34 others were hung. The AME church was burned.

Fearing more unrest, South Carolina adopted a law in 1834 banning black people from congregating anywhere, including church.

“The AME church went underground until after the Civil War,” Fordham said. Parishioners worshiped in kitchens, in bedrooms, even in the woods. “Hush havens” they were called.

It was only after the Civil War ended in 1865 that black people were free to worship openly. As slavery evolved into segregation, once again the church became a safe haven. From Birmingham and Selma, Ala., to Charleston and Charlotte, blacks retreated to the privacy of the sanctuary to organize boycotts and voter registration drives.

“For the black community, the church has always been a place where we can meet freely and in peace,” Alston said. “Someone comes to our sanctuary and asks to sit beside the minister and then kills him – it is just heart-rending.”

Targeting churches

Because of their significance, African-American churches have historically been targets of racial violence, Cooper said. Hurting the church strikes at the very soul of the black community.

Among the most tragic and galvanizing incidents was the bombing in 1963 of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the center of Birmingham’s African-American community. Members of the Ku Klux Klan planted dynamite beneath the front steps before the Sunday morning service, killing four girls and injuring many other people. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were wearing their best dresses, preparing to lead the Youth Sunday church service when the explosion killed them.

It was one of the moral turning points in the civil rights movement.

Many people hope that last week’s tragedy in Charleston will be a moral turning point on issues of race and violence. Among them is former N.C. state Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte, who grew up in Charleston. His sister, Cynthia Hurd, 54, was killed at the Wednesday night prayer meeting.

“It’s horrifying,” Graham said. “America has been here before. Is this going to be a two-day news story or are we going to have the conviction to talk about these issues seriously?”

Emanuel was a second home to Graham’s family. His mother sang in the choir. Graham served on the usher board. Hurd was an active member. Graham takes solace in the fact that survivors of the shooting told him she was was in good spirits her last night there.

“She lost her life,” he said, “in the church she loved.”

It’s a place that Graham, too, loves. In the foyer of his home in Charlotte hangs a picture of “Mother Emanuel.”

Leland: 704-358-5074

President Obama on Emanuel AME Church

“This is a place of worship that was founded by African-Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery. When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, they conducted services in secret. When there was a nonviolent movement to bring our country closer in line with our highest ideals, some of our brightest leaders spoke and led marches from this church’s steps.”