Meeting Street – Living up to its name early Friday morning. Photo: Chris Dixon
Not two weeks ago, during a vacation to England, my wife and I watched in horror and disbelief as a deranged young racist thrust our hometown onto the center of the world stage after mercilessly gunning down nine black parisioners whose only crime was to invite him into their church for a Bible study.
Watching events in Charleston unfold from overseas – and the subsequent reaction of Charleston was a painful, surreal and eventually, a wondrous thing to behold. The cradle of the Confederacy has, plenty of times in its storied past, come to symbolize the very worst in humanity, but over the last ten days, Charleston has revealed some of the most admirable human behavior I’ve ever seen. The stunning act of forgiveness by the victims’ families during the killer’s hearing, the crowds at Mother Emmanuel church and a long line of Charlestonians joining hands across our iconic Ravenel Bridge represented something magical – a sea change in a port city riddled with 400-year-old racial fault lines. Sitting in a camper watching the BBC on the beautiful British coast, I reckon I’ve never been so homesick for a place or a people in all my life.
The Ravenel Bridge, Sunday a Week Ago. Photo: Mathew Fortner, The Post and Courier.
On Friday morning, not ten hours after my plane landed, I decided to pay my respects by attending a memorial service for the 41-year-old leader of Charleston’s “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a state senator, pastor, husband and father of two young girls named Clemente Pinckney. I rose early and rode my bike along Charleston’s oddly quiet three-hundred-year old waterfront before turning towards the intersection of Meeting and Calhoun streets. It wasn’t even 7AM. Surely, I reckoned, I would land a spot in the 5,000-plus seat arena where Pinckney and eight others would be eulogized by President Obama. How wrong I was.
The line on Meeting Street. Before 7AM. Photo: Chris Dixon
Reaching the intersection, I just stood there sort of agog. The rest of the city was oddly quiet because, it seemed, the entire city was converging here. A vast, deep, noisy line of every sort of person who calls The Holy City home stretched far, far up the now most aptly named Meeting Street. It was already smotheringly hot, but the throng stood smiling and resolute, sweating and fanning themselves in church finery. They banged drums, sang gospel hymns, held up signs and handed out water bottles. Way up the street, I eventually found the end of the line – and worrisomely, it seemed 5000 might already in front of me. But even this wasn’t the end of the line for long. Thousands more would line up behind me. I don’t think downtown Charleston has ever seen anything quite like what was happening.