A time to mourn

Charleston, S.C., has worked for racial har­mony, but hate left nine dead there

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - KATH­LEEN­PARKER kath­leen­parker@wash­post.com

The hor­rific mur­ders of nine African Amer­i­cans as they prayed in a Charleston, S.C., church, al­legedly shot by a hate-filled racist on a geno­ci­dal purge, have left me search­ing for words.

How does one com­ment upon an event that is be­yond com­pre­hen­sion? How could the shooter sit for an hour of Bi­ble study and prayer with the very peo­ple he in­tended to kill? Sus­pect Dy­lann Roof, now in cus­tody, made his mis­sion clear when 26-year-old Ty­wanza San­ders tried to talk him out of shoot­ing his aunt, Susie Jack­son.

No, you have to go, Roof re­port­edly said. Blacks are “rap­ing our women and tak­ing over the coun­try.” Then he opened fire. We know this from a wit­ness, the sin­gle per­son spared so that she could re­count what hap­pened. When San­ders dived in front of his aunt to pro­tect her, he took the first bullet. It didn’t mat­ter who died first, Roof al­legedly had told San­ders be­fore he shot him, be­cause he was go­ing to kill them all any­way. Unimag­in­able. We try to place our­selves in that church in that time, sit­ting with the pas­tor, Cle­menta Pinck­ney, who was also a state sen­a­tor and a mar­ried fa­ther of two chil­dren. His boom­ing voice, re­played in videos, and the tes­ti­mony of friends will echo in our mem­o­ries for a long time. Yet the imag­i­na­tion hits a wall. It is too painful to pon­der those last mo­ments when these nine peo­ple, rang­ing in age from 26 to 87, re­al­ized that the per­son they had wel­comed into their sanc­tu­ary, if not pos­sessed of evil, was in that mo­ment not quite hu­man. Un­speak­able. If any con­so­la­tion can be found in the car­nage, it is that the vic­tims’ spir­its were close to God when they were taken.

The grief Charleston and all of us feel is nau­se­at­ing. The lay­ers and lay­ers of mean­ing in that sin­gle, sick act — the church’s his­toric role as a meet­ing place for blacks from be­fore the Civil War through the civil rights era to the present — add ex­tra di­men­sion to losses so pro­found and freighted with sor­row that one weeps for hu­man­ity.

To the peo­ple of Charleston, among whom I count my­self as my fam­ily set­tled there more than 300 years ago, this sense­less mur­der was a deep gouge in the soul of a city that has de­lib­er­ately re­con­structed it­self as both a place of beauty and a bea­con of di­ver­sity. For most of re­cent history, blacks, who make up about a third of the city’s pop­u­la­tion, and whites, have gov­erned the city to­gether with the mu­tual goal of racial har­mony and co­op­er­a­tion. Much credit goes to the lead­er­ship of Mayor Joseph P. Ri­ley Jr., who was mayor when I be­gan cov­er­ing him in the late 1970s as a re­porter for Charleston’s af­ter­noon pa­per.

You’ve likely seen him on TV — the white-haired fel­low wear­ing tor­toise-shell glasses and bear­ing the coun­te­nance of a man be­reaved. He is one of the na­tion’s long­est-serv­ing may­ors for good rea­son. Not only did he en­vi­sion that Charleston could be­come a tourist des­ti­na­tion but he also has been a leader for so­cial jus­tice and racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion for decades.

Back when I sat in the coun­cil cham­bers tak­ing notes, Ri­ley presided over a City Coun­cil that usu­ally voted along racial lines. The­mayor cast the tie-break­ing vote, most of­ten to my rec­ol­lec­tion in agree­ment with the African Amer­i­can coun­cil mem­bers. Although a Demo­crat, Ri­ley’s wasn’t an ide­o­log­i­cal vote. Rather it was the re­sult of ex­ten­sive rea­son­ing, the process and cul­mi­na­tion of which he shared in a con­cil­ia­tory tone that has served him and his city well.

Charlesto­ni­ans, black and white, have re­sponded to his lead­er­ship with civic pride and racial unity, as tele­vi­sion view­ers have wit­nessed these past few days. At least sev­eral res­i­dents have re­minded re­porters that the shooter wasn’t from Charleston. We’re not like that, they were say­ing.

Thus, my sad­ness as I write is also for Ri­ley, who has worked so hard to achieve what was unimag­in­able not so long ago — a vi­brant, di­verse city where race isn’t swept un­der the rug but dis­cussed with mu­tual re­spect and pur­pose. This is the Ri­ley dif­fer­ence.

As I hear talk-show hosts scram­ble to turn this tragedy into is­sues— gun con­trol, race, men­tal ill­ness, what’s next?— I can’t help think­ing that some man­ners are in or­der. Peo­ple need time to re­cover from shock and to heal. Grief isn’t bound by dead­lines or ex­pressed in sound bites. South­ern­ers, es­pe­cially, like to take time with their mourn­ing.

Let’s al­low them.

BREN­DAN SMI­ALOWSKI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

A me­mo­rial out­side the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., where a gun­man killed nine peo­pleWed­nes­day.

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