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Between Hope and Hate, There's Charleston

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We found a concrete example of Amazing Grace on the streets of Charleston a week ago.  In a world that teeters toward hate—fueled as it often is by bigots with political aspirations—being part of a crowd that gathered a year after the mass shootings at Mother Emanuel AME Church moved us to tears.

Emanuel AME.jpgOn Calhoun Avenue, named for a defender of slavery, cradled inside police barricades and flashing blue lights, my wife Leanne and I joined a couple thousand witnesses in prayer, song, remembrance, and the planting of 15 trees: 9 for the dead, 5 for the survivors, and 1 for the church itself.

In the year after the shootings, Charleston has pushed back against racial hate mongering.  Starting with the startling courtroom forgiveness of Dylann Roof, the shooter, by families of the victims, the city has seen hope in tragedy.  Under the banner of #Charlestonstrong, scores of events have sought to build understanding, cooperation, and work on root causes. (See the Charleston Magazine for a recap of events and ongoing efforts.)

In one symbolic step forward, the Confederate battle flag was finally seen as what it is: a symbol of hate.  Republican legislator Jenny Horne, who claims to be a descendant of Jefferson Davis, declared it as such.  After years of advocacy, the legislature acted, and Gov. Nikki Haley ordered it removed from the state Capitol grounds.  Ironically, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Emanuel's pastor and one of the nine victims, was among those who protested the rebel flag when he served in the South Carolina Senate.

Hate can be kept at bay behind the yellow tape—the biggest police presence I've seen in many years—and civic action can breed hope, but as Jelani Cobb wrote in the New Yorker, the flag didn't stand for a lost cause but one that had been found: "the cause of self-exoneration, righteous victimhood, and a tacit racial contempt."

These instincts are not dead, only pushed back.  About a mile away from the ceremonies around Mother Emanuel AME, I saw men in vintage rebel uniforms surrounding a truck-mounted Confederate battle flag.  And down at City Market, a stern faced woman sold signs containing the cross-bar flag and extolling the virtues of MR-15 assault rifles as protectors of liberty.

Which is why the moments of grace are both amazing and important.  

(A year ago yesterday, President Barack Obama, sang the hymn "Amazing Grace" at Rev. Pinckney's funeral.)

Emanuel AME Photo: CTK






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