Hope in Charleston

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Eugenerobinson@wash­post.com

It is im­pos­si­ble to know whether the Charleston tragedy will some­day be seen as a turn­ing point in the na­tion’s long, dif­fi­cult strug­gle with race. But we can hope.

At Fri­day’s fu­neral ser­vices for the Rev. Cle­menta C. Pinck­ney, one of nine men and women who were slain June17 at his­toric Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church, hope was very much in the air. But what was the al­ter­na­tive? The slaugh­ter of in­no­cents at prayer, al­legedly by a young white racist who killed black peo­ple tomake a point, was an act of mon­strous evil. De­spair is one way to process such an event; imag­in­ing that some mea­sure of good can come of it the other.

The an­tecedent that Charlesto­ni­ans of­ten men­tion is the Birm­ing­ham, Ala., church bomb­ing in 1963. But only in ret­ro­spect did that hor­rific act of racial ter­ror­ism be­come a piv­otal mo­ment in the civil rights strug­gle. Com­mon re­ac­tions at the time were anger, fear and grim re­solve.

But it’s not 1963, as ev­i­denced by the fact that the pres­i­dent of the United States, de­liv­er­ing Pinck­ney’s eu­logy, spoke with the ca­dences of an AME preacher, get­ting the rhythm so right that the or­gan­ist be­gan to or­na­ment the ser­mon with lit­tle runs and arpeg­gios. Pres­i­dent Obama even broke into a verse of “Amaz­ing Grace” — and thou­sands of mourn­ers at the Col­lege of Charleston’s TD Arena sang along.

For Obama, it must have been a dizzy­ing sev­eral days. First there was the mas­sacre. Then mem­bers of the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies con­fronted the al­leged killer with for­give­ness. Then South Carolina Gov. Nikki Ha­ley (R) sparked what looks like a de­fin­i­tive push by gov­ern­ments and busi­nesses to get rid of the Con­fed­er­ate flag. Then the Supreme Court up­held a corner­stone of the Af­ford­able Care Act, se­cur­ing Obama’s legacy. And then, just hours be­fore Obama spoke in Charleston, the jus­tices ruled laws pro­hibit­ing same-sex mar­riage un­con­sti­tu­tional.

The theme of Obama’s eu­logy was “the power of God’s grace,” which he said he had been con­tem­plat­ing all week. The killer at Mother Emanuel com­mit­ted “an act that he imag­ined would in­cite fear and re­crim­i­na­tion, vi­o­lence and sus­pi­cion.” The pres­i­dent added, “Oh, but God works in mys­te­ri­ous ways!”

The church, or rather the arena, said “Amen.”

Obama went on to talk about the Con­fed­er­ate flag and a host of other is­sues— poverty, ed­u­ca­tion, jobs, racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, crim­i­nal jus­tice, po­lice vi­o­lence, vot­ing rights, gun vi­o­lence. But he spoke in­di­rectly and metaphor­i­cally, us­ing the lan­guage of the pulpit.

The pres­i­dent said that in re­cent days he has sensed a new open heart­ed­ness. That’s cer­tainly the way Charleston felt to me. The city, and re­ally the whole state, dis­played a re­mark­able sense of unity and com­mon pur­pose. The crowd at Pinck­ney’s fu­neral— and ear­lier, at a huge gath­er­ing on the soar­ing Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge — oblit­er­ated all racial and ide­o­log­i­cal lines. Mother Emanuel is be­ing smoth­ered with love.

This might be tem­po­rary, of course, and in any event isn’t fair. Nine peo­ple shouldn’t have to die be­fore state of­fi­cials re­al­ize the Con­fed­er­ate flag is of­fen­sive and be­fore neigh­bors of dif­fer­ent col­ors look each other in the eye as they pass on the side­walk. Sym­bols, how­ever po­tent, can­not be passed off as a sub­sti­tute for sub­stance. And how­ever mag­nan­i­mous the vic­tims’ loved ones may be, so­ci­ety can­not for­give the Charleston killer or the hate groups that inspired him.

Af­ter a few cho­ruses of “Kum­baya,” things tend to go back to the way they were. Is there any rea­son to be­lieve that this time things will be dif­fer­ent?

Any­one who went to Pinck­ney’s fu­neral at least has to en­ter­tain the pos­si­bil­ity. As the Mother Emanuel choir gave a ren­di­tion of the gospel song “Goin’ Up Yon­der” that would warm even the most frigid soul, I couldn’t help but think of the verse in He­brews that says “faith is the sub­stance of things hoped for, the ev­i­dence of things un­seen.” And that brought me back to the sub­ject of hope.

Which, as I re­call, is where Obama first came in— hope and change. There hasn’t been much of ei­ther em­a­nat­ing from the White House re­cently. But a con­flu­ence of events man­aged to in­fuse that Charleston arena with more of a sense of hope, and more of the pos­si­bil­ity of change, than I’ve felt in a long time.

We have no choice but to find some way to un­der­stand the mean­ing of Charleston. So yes, let’s hope it opens hearts and minds. If so, then nine pi­ous men and women will not have died in vain.

A con­flu­ence of events man­aged to in­fuse that Charleston arena with more of a sense of hope than I’ve felt in a long time.

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