Eric Frazier

Amid anger, comfort the grieving

Parishioners comfort one another during a memorial service at Morris Brown AME Church for the people killed Wednesday during a prayer meeting inside the historic black church in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. Police arrested 21-year-old suspect Dylann Storm Roof Thursday in Shelby, N.C. without resistance.
Parishioners comfort one another during a memorial service at Morris Brown AME Church for the people killed Wednesday during a prayer meeting inside the historic black church in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. Police arrested 21-year-old suspect Dylann Storm Roof Thursday in Shelby, N.C. without resistance. AP

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn came home Thursday to join in mourning the nine people at Emanuel AME Church who were gunned down during their Wednesday night prayer service.

But after he joined hundreds in a prayer vigil at nearby Morris Brown AME Church, Clyburn wasn’t in the mood for conciliation.

Like so many other African-Americans in this history-laden seaport, he was angry.

Why, he wanted to know, would a white gunman target the most historic black church in South Carolina, a church that served as a bulwark of the civil rights movement and gave birth to one of the most ambitious slave insurrection plots in American history?

“If this young man committed a haphazard act,” the veteran Democratic congressman said, “that’s one thing. But if he sought this church out, if he saw the history of this church, I want to know how he picked this church. Because I think that will determine what kind of discussion we need to have.”

This is uncomfortable territory for all of us. But Emanuel’s history and significance isn’t something the suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man living some two hours away, would be expected to know without careful research.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church has long been one of the most important – arguably the most important – institution serving black communities in South Carolina. And Emanuel, whose roots stretch back to 1816, is its spiritual heart.

The congregation has survived everything from an earthquake to repeated closures by white antebellum authorities angered by its insistence on offering literacy to its parishioners. One of its members, Denmark Vesey, struck terror in the hearts of whites throughout the Carolinas when authorities in 1822 discovered and snuffed out a planned revolt that could have involved thousands of slaves.

Emanuel was burned to the ground. The congregation rebuilt, and continued its activism. By the time of the civil rights movement, it was only natural that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would visit “Mother Emanuel” as he sought to organize blacks in the Palmetto State.

When I was a kid attending our much smaller AME church about 45 miles west of Charleston, you always heard about some important conference or gathering at Emanuel. Its preachers sounded like royalty to us. Later, as a student at the College of Charleston and then as a reporter for the Charleston Post and Courier, I found that it was just a fact of local life that Emanuel represented the epicenter of the black community.

Given all of that, African Americans here are in no mood for talk of the shooting being simply the random, murderous actions of a psychotic loner.

Clyburn and others suspect this wasn’t solely an attack on a church, or an attack on a black church – it was an act of war against the black community.

We naturally recoil from that kind of hot-blooded statement. At a time like this, we should first comfort the grieving, and look to tighten the bonds of interracial solidarity. Those are good, and right, things to do.

But given the details dribbling out about Roof’s background, the darker questions won’t be going away anytime soon.

Roof’s Facebook profile picture shows him sporting a jacket with patches favored by white supremacists. He allegedly said to his black victims, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Tensions are running high. Even as suntanned tourists strolled by, police were blocking off the historic district blocks around the crime scene at Emanuel. Several bomb threats at government buildings forced evacuations.

A few young protesters holding “Black Lives Matter” signs pounded African drums outside the vigil Thursday and shouted angry slogans. Inside, an interracial crowd of citizens and civic leaders prayed and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

South Carolina’s leaders had better recognize the delicate nature of this moment. When the state and national flags were lowered to half-staff Thursday at the state capitol, the Confederate battle flag was not.

Amid the pitched battles it took to get the flag moved from the Statehouse dome to the nearby Confederate soldier monument 15 years ago, the state legislature mandated that the flag must fly 30 feet above the monument’s base – the better to prevent any meddling by anti-flag activists.

It would take an act of the legislature to lower it. Let’s hope someone in the legislature has the good sense to make that happen.

When U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Charleston-area resident and former South Carolina governor, was asked on CNN if the state’s troubled history on race relations might have anything to do with this shooting, he said no.

Clyburn thinks otherwise – and rightfully so. As he sees it, one man pulled the trigger inside Emanuel.

But that hate in his heart? It didn’t grow on its own.

Clyburn wants answers. We all do.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com; @Ericfraz on Twitter.

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