The Mother Emanuel Nine and 'Charleston united for equality - now!'

by Tom Grubisich

The massacre at Mother Emanuel Church on June 17, 2015, generated a broad and spontaneous outpouring in Charleston not only of shock and grief but also a resolve to create a community that was united in striving toward racial equality. 

Among family and friends, in encounters on the street, at business lunches, in houses of worship, on the grass of Marion Square as nine bells tolled, the people of Charleston of all colors and stations came together. The words “Charleston united for equality – now!” written on posters and recited out loud bound everyone together.

The words were not expressed in vain. In the past year, this is what has happened to make Charleston more racially equal:

  • The Medical University of South Carolina has substantially strengthened its diversity program by giving hospital workers a direct role in settling long-standing grievances. The goals of the 1969 strike are finally within reach.
  • Charleston County School District Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait, in a “brutal” truth telling, has pledged to close the system’s white-black achievement gap through a broad range of new and strengthened programs in both academic and social and emotional learning. 
  • The local business leadership, reaching out to the broader community, has initiated a OneRegion strategy for a more globally competitive Tri-County economy whose eight components include achieving equality and equity. This is a major first for the region’s business community.
  • The Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation has established an operation in Charleston that it hopes will become a national model for a wide-ranging program of racial reconciliation.
  • The Charleston Police Department has begun its Illumination Project to build better relationships between the community and law enforcement.
Metro Charleston must come to grips with the disproportionate number of police stops of black motorists.

The goals of each of these five undertakings will not be achieved quickly or easily. But they are now, what they weren’t before, written prominently into the community’s agenda.

This agenda for action on equality is incomplete. Most glaringly, the region – in particular the cities of Charleston and North Charleston – must come to grips with its disproportionate number of police stops of black motorists. 

The Charleston Area Justice Ministry has put the facts before the leadership of the two cities. These charts by Beyond Catfish Row show the extent of the imbalance.

Drawing of Rev. Clementa Pinckney that mourner placed in front of Mother Emanuel within days of the massacre that claimed the lives of the pastor and eight church members during Bible study group he was leading on the evening of June 17, 2015.

Drawing of Rev. Clementa Pinckney that mourner placed in front of Mother Emanuel within days of the massacre that claimed the lives of the pastor and eight church members during Bible study group he was leading on the evening of June 17, 2015.

Another major area of inequality is Charleston’s public history. The city likes to promote its “living history.” But, in fact, the long struggle for social justice in Charleston remains largely buried. Officially sponsored tours still put too much effort in polishing the brass of the slave society that defined Charleston’s first two centuries.

The long-planned International African American Museum should redress part of what’s missing in local public history, but it is only at the halfway point in funding. Local history activists are working to win state approval of a historical marker honoring the 1868 state constitutional convention, an assembly of 126 white and black delegates that approved, by wide margins, a remarkable array of civil and human rights. The group also wants to put on a 150th anniversary celebration of the convention, whose debates echo in today's about equality
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At this time, the community honors the nine members of the Mother Emanuel congregation who were called on June 17, 2015. Their sacrifice helped unite the community in its long-deferred mission to bring racial equality to Charleston. If we tarry in carrying out the mission, we should remind each other what we said and pledged to each other one year ago: “Charleston united for equality – now!”