PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL BOOINI
“A better world can come from this battered church in the heart of the Holy City.” This is the final sentence of “We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph” (2016). With the simple word We, the book’s title encompasses not only the three authors and everyone in or from Charleston, South Carolina, but also everyone in and throughout the world. Not a fictional world in which the story’s plot must be believable, but the real world where truth is often stranger than fiction.
Journalist Herb Frazier, historian Dr. Bernard Powers, Jr., and South Carolina’s Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth create a testament to the Christian belief that love conquers hate. The 192-page treatise focuses on church history and the personal stories of what has become known as the “Charleston Nine” and their family members. We see their forgiveness as an exploration of faith, family, and mercy in living through the unimaginable, calculated murder of nine people.
Frazier, Powers and Wentworth leave the crime aftermath story for others to write. Instead, they combine their unique personal and professional histories as Charlestonians to write about the church and its people in the context of America’s racial history. Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, known as Mother Emmanuel, was one-year shy of its 200th anniversary, having been founded by former slaves and freedmen in 1816. “We Are Charleston” explores the history of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, which grew out of the Free African Society established in Philadelphia in 1787. As a matter of seeming necessity, the authors briefly recount how the killer, “a skinny young white man with a classic bowl haircut,” sat for nearly an hour with a group of people while they studied the word of God before terrorizing the Christians, firing “seventy-seven bullets, leaving eight people dead and one mortally wounded.” Less than 48 hours later, during his first appearance, five family members of those who had been killed expressed forgiveness and prayers for the killer’s soul. The televised bond hearing broadcast the family’s forgiveness, thereby extending the grieving Charleston community to people of all faiths around the world.
Since learning that a 21-year-old carried out such a cold-blooded, terrorist attack inside a church during prayer, I have been fighting the conclusion that the South’s racist past is destined to be relived. “We Are Charleston” helps me to hold on to the faith that all is not lost. There are more people who love than who hate, and Mother Emmanuel is a testament to that fact. Indeed, “We Are Charleston.”
ABOUT JANICE LUCAS
Janice Lucas is the Executive Director of the LEAD Coalition of Bay County, Inc. and an adjunct professor at Gulf Coast State College. She has taught African American Literature for more than 20 years. The third generation Panama City native is active in the community and enjoys travelling, writing, and talking— not necessarily in that order.
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