Amazing Grace in a Holy City. An Unforgettable Mourning in Charleston.

by Chris Dixon

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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.

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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.

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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.

I took a spot alongside a pair of savvy and funny young black women, Aris Richardson, 34, and her best friend, who was skipping work that day, so I’m not giving her name. Both live in Atlanta, but grew up in an old African American farming and fishing community just across the road from my neighborhood called Sol Legare (prounounced Sol Legree). It turned out that a black shrimper buddy, a classic character everyone knows as Poochie, was one of their neighbors. The girls grew up playing on Sol Legare’s tidal creeks and metal detecting for Civil War relics along an ancient canal that separates Sol Legare’s farms from the salt marsh. “It was a wonderful place to grow up,” said Aris’ friend. “But you know, we lived a few miles from Folly Beach, and hardly ever went there. Now when I come home, it’s the first thing I wanna do.”

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Aris Richardson. Photo: Chris Dixon

We discussed what we love – and hate – about Charleston. There’s the mystically lovely landscape of marsh, ocean, sand, forest and stunning antebellum architecture. It was, Aris and her friend pointed out, their skilled slave ancestors who hand built most of downtown’s architecturally significant buildings. Charleston, we agreed, is a town of warm, kind people of every race and walk of life. In many ways, there’s more interaction between black and white folks here on a daily basis, than maybe any other American city. People here are friendly, and respectful towards one another in an almost British way. But deep, deep cultural gaps remain – and we lead very separate lives. This is because the very history that defines Charleston also divides it.

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Fort Sumter, under Union Command, on the eve of the Civil War. The first shots of the Civil War took place here, on April 12, 1861, as Confederate batteries opened fire, bombarding it for 34 straight hours.  Image: The National Archives. 

There are still people alive in Charleston today – black and white – who knew both Confederate soldiers and living slaves, and there plenty more who can recently recall – or took part in – the ugly segregation of the Jim Crow south. Aris and her friend’s roots ran locally as deep as Charleston’s iconic Angel Oak. They could trace their families back to slaves — perhaps from McLeod Plantation, a place founded by a distant cousin of my wife’s – who were granted land after the Civil War. Both women remember talks with elderly family members whose aunts, uncles and grandparents had toiled in the fields – subject to the whim and whip of their masters. A McLeod slave once told an interviewer, “I run away one time. Somehow the overseer knew where I was. The mistress of the house had me tied to the tester bed, and she whip me ‘til the whip broke.”

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McLeod Plantation, just up the road from my house. This is the main house. Photo: Quinn Dixon

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And this is where McLeod’s slaves lived. Photo: Quinn Dixon

In Charleston, long established names; McLeod, Drayton, Ravenel, Manigault and even Pinckney appear after both black and white first names. But those last names have very different historical connotations. The white families with those names owned the slaves. The black families with those names were the slaves (even if they sometimes chose the last names of neighboring families as a form of silent protest). There’s plenty of mixed blood too. Hell, Strom Thurmond, one of the most ardent segregationists in the recent history of my state (and a man who eventually repented his racist ways), fathered a black daughter. “As far as we know, we could all be related,” Aris laughed.

Talk turned to why the women left Charleston – being young, the lure of the big city and the simple fact that cosmopolitan Atlanta, unfortunately, offers way more opportunity for black folks. Now that she’s a mom though, Aris said she’d happily move back. Recently, she went to interview for eight local paralegal job positions, but was passed over for a white person in each instance. And even in an Atlanta school, she said, her young daughter is constantly being called out for behavior that the white kids get away with — something her daughter notices, and brings up regularly. But Aris isn’t bitter. “That’s just how it is,” she sighed.

We talked too, about Charleston’s voluntary segregation, especially of churches and even local schools. The situation here is improving, but the simple fact is, that white, and Aris said, even black parents often keep their kids in schools of predominately the same race. And with few exceptions, the long established churches have congregations mostly divided between white and black. We wondered; how much closer all Charlestonians might be if, at some point in the year, the mostly segregated churches would exchange half their congregations for a day?

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When talk turned to the horror of the shootings, we marveled at how much life changed in Charleston – and South Carolina – in just a week. Things could have gone so badly. The shooter did, after all, hope to start a race war. But few could have predicted the grace of the families of the shooting victims, the outpouring of outrage and solidarity, and the sea change in politics. Last week, Republican Senator Paul Thurmond, son of Strom Thurmond, and the father of a boy in my daughter’s elementary school class astonished South Carolinians by calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina capital.

Thurmond said, “…some say that the Confederate battle flag represents the South’s heritage and ancestry. Let’s talk about the heritage aspect. My family has been in South Carolina for many generations. I was told that my great-grandfather was with General Lee when he surrendered at Appomattox. I am aware of my heritage. But my appreciation for the things my forebearers accomplished to make my life better doesn’t mean that I must believe that they always made the right decisions, and for the life of me, I will never understand how anyone could fight a civil war based in part on the desire to continue the practice of slavery. Think about it for just a second: Our ancestors were literally fighting to continue to keep human beings as slaves, and continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will. I am not proud of that heritage.”

Sen. Paul Thurmond has a son in my daughter’s class in Charleston. A most remarkable speech.  

The line inched towards the arena where Reverend Pinckney was to be eulogized, and we marveled at how the crowd continued to swell. An email buzzed on my cellphone from an editor at the National News desk of the New York Times. Since I was standing in line, could I get some thoughts from some others who showed up to possibly blog?

The first person I asked for a comment was, of course, Aris. “Just to see how we can come together as one like this, and the outpouring of support the city has received just shows the epitome of love,” she said. “I just pray to see that the outcome of all this continues to bring about change.”

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Roses made of sweetgrass and palmetto fronds have been an icon of Charleston for decades. This is how the Post and Courier honored the shooting victims last Sunday. Click the image to blow it up. 

Standing behind me, occasionally breaking into song, was a lady named Katina Spann, from just up the road in Goose Creek. In 1994, her eighteen-year-old son Michael was shot in the head because he’d simply stopped to watch a fist fight that had broken out after school. “When I heard about this shooting, it just brought out so many memories,” she said. “It’s all just been so wrenching.”

On Friday, she said, all the events from the preceeding week really sank in and she basically cried all day long. But today, her spirits were high. “In the end,” she said, “a lot of positive will come out of all this tragedy.”

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Katina Spann lost her son in a high school shooting in 1994. Photo: Chris Dixon

Just in front of me, a white couple stood sipping water and mopping their brows. Mary Kivett, a property manager and her boyfriend Andrew Weiner, an electrician, who lives on a tiny little spit of land near my home called Bowen’s Island. A week earlier, Weiner had written an op-ed to our Post and Courier newspaper challenging his fellow Charlestonians – and southerners – to stand up to friends, and strangers, who make racial slurs in private. It’s something that happens here far too often. He wrote: I wonder how many people heard this young man’s (the Charleston shooter) racist rants over the years and nodded in acquiescence. How many went along and nodded? How many white people, myself included, have either nodded or failed to say anything when someone said the N word or spoke the speech of hate? 

 He’s gotten plenty of support, he said, but plenty of blowback too. But he’s resolute. “The black people aren’t gonna change the white people,” he added. “The white people have to change the white people.”

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“The white people have to change the white people.” Mary Kivett and Andrew Weiner. Photo: Chris Dixon

After about an hour and a half shuffling forward under the summer sun, the line stopped moving. Unfortunately, despite the fact that I was near the entry gate, the line would move no more. The arena was full. Patiently standing next to me awaiting final word, was a tall, handsome guy in an impeccably pressed suit. Charles Johnson was a personal friend of the slain Reverend Pinckney. He was also a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Army who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Today he’s an educator who specializes in intervention efforts for troubled teens. In short, he was simply someone worthy of immense respect. “We can’t see each other as foes anymore, but as friends,” he said. “Demonstrating compassion, and treating each other with respect. That’s one thing I learned in the military. Whenever we’d go into another country, you treat people with respect.”

The change in Charleston, he said, was palpable. He hoped it would continue far into the future. “Other than maybe Hurricane Hugo, I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “It’s just too bad it takes such a tragedy to bring us all together.”

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Charles Johnson. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Nearing the end of the line. Photo: Chris Dixon

A couple of hours later, I was back home, sitting on a couch with my wife, solemnly watching the president deliver a eulogy that people are comparing to Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech.

To us, one particular passage about the young gunman resonated like a cannon fired from Fort Sumter.

He (the killer) didn’t know he was being used by God. Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group—the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court—in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.  He couldn’t imagine that.

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley—how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond—not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood—the power of God’s grace.  

And then, 35 minutes in, the President paused, and sang Amazing Grace.

Can I get an amen?

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Just down the coast from Fort Sumter, surfers paddle out off Folly Beach and join hands, in honor of the nine who lost their lives. Photo: Misty Lister. 

From this moment forward, Charleston sails into uncharted waters. To me, at least, it feels like the earth has shifted perhaps more than the great earthquake that rocked this great city back in 1886. Maybe, a hundred and fifty years on, the Civil War has finally ended here – in the city where it all began.

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