A South­ern city is forced to face his­toric ten­sions

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Christo­pher Gof­fard, Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske and Kur­tis Lee

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Af­ter a white po­lice of­fi­cer in neigh­bor­ing North Charleston shot and killed Wal­ter Scott — black, un­armed, and in full view of a cam­era — there was out­rage, and there were protests. But this sto­ried South­ern town did not erupt in con­fla­gra­tions like Fer­gu­son and Bal­ti­more.

In a state where the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag still flut­ters over the Capi­tol grounds, Charleston is a place fre­quently de­scribed as “gen­teel,” and — be­cause of the abun­dance of churches — as “the Holy City.” Peo­ple say it’s awk­ward, if not im­po­lite, to talk about race.

Now, in the af­ter­math of the mas­sacre at Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church — at the hands of a 21-year-old white man fond of white-su­prem­a­cist sym­bols, po­lice say — the sub­ject is in­escapable. Many black peo­ple say a sense of abid­ing un­easi­ness was never far from the sur­face.

“Black folks re­main on edge, es­pe­cially since this is the South, and we got history,” said Clin­ton Brant­ley, 73, pas­tor of St. Matthew Bap­tist Church in North Charleston.

Kay Hightower, 50, at­tends Emanuel AME and knew the pas­tor — one of the vic­tims — well.

“Peo­ple need to take own­er­ship of all the history,” she said. “And that’s a painful thing to do. Un­til you

have these awk­ward con­ver­sa­tions, you can’t get over it.”

Hightower said she moved back to South Carolina from New York 11 years ago to raise her fam­ily. “It’s more racial­ized down here,” she said. “I’m very cog­nizant of the sep­a­ra­tion be­tween white peo­ple and black peo­ple. It’s more com­pli­cated than to say it’s seg­re­gated.”

She said she was trou­bled when she heard a politi­cian de­scribe the church mas­sacre as “an at­tack on Chris­tians,” be­cause to her mind that misses the point. The vic­tims in the church “were mur­dered for the color of their skin,” she said.

And she took is­sue with another politi­cian’s de­scrip­tion of a mixed-raced crowd of mourn­ers as “the real South Carolina.”

“The prob­lem with state­ments like that is Mr. Roof is also the real South Carolina,” she said, re­fer­ring to Dy­lann Storm Roof, the man ac­cused of killing nine peo­ple at the church.

She com­mended North Charleston for han­dling Scott’s shoot­ing by con­demn­ing the white of­fi­cer’s be­hav­ior and lodg­ing a charge of mur­der against him. She and oth­ers be­lieve city lead­ers’ swift ac­tion ob­vi­ated greater furor.

“They saw mur­der the way we all saw mur­der,” Brant­ley said.

Scott’s death and the church mas­sacre were re­minders of racism’s abid­ing pres­ence, he said. “It’s still here and is known,” he said. “Peo­ple know it, but I do think mostly peo­ple get along well.”

Still, re­minders of an ugly past turn up now and then. Brant­ley, a na­tive of South Carolina, said fel­low mem­bers of his black con­gre­ga­tion pur­chased St. Matthew in 2002 from a white con­gre­ga­tion. The old deed for­bade the selling of the church to blacks.

Sub­se­quent anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws su­per­seded the doc­u­ment. “The fact that it was fi­nally sold to us showed this state has come a long ways,” he said.

A his­toric hub of the south, Charleston’s down­town boasts its own gaslighted French Quar­ter of cob­bled streets and quaint bou­tiques. At this time of year, the streets are full of tourists in beach wear. They walk among land­marks of both the civil rights era and the Civil War. Op­po­site Emanuel AME stands a statue of for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent John Cal­houn, a de­fender of slav­ery.

“Things were ac­tu­ally get­ting bet­ter af­ter Wal­ter Scott,” said Jes­sica Prince, 29, a Charleston na­tive who, like oth­ers, said racial di­vi­sions had been sim­mer­ing for years. “When will we be com­fort­able get­ting in our cars, even to go to church? We were just start­ing the heal­ing process. It puts your guard up.”

Pas­tor Thomas Dixon, who leads Peo­ple United to Take Back Our Com­mu­nity, based in the Charleston area, said black peo­ple felt dis­con­tent and wari­ness.

“We’re still get­ting un­justly stopped by po­lice when we walk. We’re watched in stores as we shop. Noth­ing changes. This hap­pens to black peo­ple not just in the South, but ev­ery­where,” said Dixon. “There are def­i­nitely hot­heads out here in the black com­mu­nity ready to go off. We don’t preach vi­o­lence, but some­times peo­ple will use it to get a re­ac­tion.”

Lon­nie Ran­dolph, 65, pres­i­dent of the South Carolina State Con­fer­ence of the NAACP, said the state’s white ma­jor­ity still op­er­ates in a “Con­fed­er­ate men­tal- ity,” f ly­ing the f lag of the Con­fed­er­acy at the State­house and block­ing mi­nor­ity vot­ers and mi­nor­ity rep­re­sen­ta­tion on state boards, in­clud­ing univer­si­ties.

“They are a C-mi­nus in this state, close to a D,” he said of race re­la­tions.

The state is 68% white and 28% black. Of 170 seats in the state Leg­is­la­ture, 38 are held by mem­bers of the South Carolina Leg­isla­tive Black Cau­cus (Emanuel’s slain pas­tor, Cle­menta C. Pinck­ney, held a 39th seat). Ran­dolph noted that only one of the state’s seven con­gress­men is black, though the state has a black U.S. sen­a­tor, Tim Scott.

Aposia Sin­gle­ton, 24, a lab­o­ra­tory spe­cial­ist, said peo­ple in Charleston live in func­tion­ally seg­re­gated ar­eas: one block black, the next white. Since the mas­sacre, she said, the racial ten­sion in town is pal­pa­ble.

“We had Wal­ter Scott; we had so many things. Then it ei­ther gets hushed or some­thing comes out of it. I hope it does,” she said.

She found her­self in an el­e­va­tor this week, and no­ticed the nor­mally chatty crowd was silent. A white stranger ap­proached and gave her a hug, say­ing, “I’m sorry.”

Chip Somodevilla Getty Im­ages

FAM­ILY MEM­BERS of vic­tims of Wed­nes­day night’s mass shoot­ing at Emanuel AME Church gather for a prayer vigil at an arena in Charleston.

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