Emanuel Church Confronts Racial Violence

by James M. WallReuters:Randall Hill

When Barack Obama began his first term as the 44th president of the United States, he delivered a stirring inaugural address that called on  this nation to join with him in addressing the problems facing the nation.

It was an address of realism and challenges, as he noted:

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily nor in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.

Racism was one of the major challenges our first African-American president had in mind. 

Racism, in all its violent hatred, exploded in Charleston, South Carolina during a Wednesday night Bible Study in the basement of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, June 17.

The picture above shows a gathering of men outside the church, shortly after the killings, praying together in their shock and grief. 

David Zirin describes the church which experienced that massacre and which evokes prayer as a response:

The more you read about Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, otherwise known as “Mother Emanuel,” the more awe you feel for its historic resilience amidst white-supremacist terror.

This church is now known as the scene of a massacre, which is being investigated as a “hate crime.”  Nine are dead, but this institution will not fall. We know this because it has stood tall amidst the specter of racist violence for 200 years.

What happened in Charleston after the killing of eight parishioners and the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a miracle of grace. There was no rioting in the streets, no cries for revenge.

What happened in the aftermath of a senseless slaughter, was that “Mother Emanuel” church once again stood tall and looked upward with forgiveness out of the depths of a dark and tragic event.

The church congregation, the bereaved families of the church’s pastor and Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, all, as though in unison, set an example of how challenges are met.

They must be met through grace, as President Barack Obama so eloquently put it in the moving eulogy he delivered at the funeral for Pastor Clementa Pinckney at an overflowing auditorium of the  College of Charleston’s campus on Friday afternoon, June 26. The full text of his eulogy is here.

As he stressed the significance of grace as the means by which the believer is called to address such dark events, the President paused for a few seconds and then began singing Amazing Grace, words written by John Newton, a clergyman who had once been captain of a slave ship.

The President was joined by the congregation as he sang: 

The “historic resilience amidst white-supremacist terror” that David Zirin examines in his Nation report, is an indication of how “Mother Emanuel” has confronted the evil of slavery and racism. Zirin writes:

It was 1816 when the Rev. Morris Brown formed “Mother Emanuel” under the umbrella of the Free African Society of the AME Church. They were one of three area churches known as the Bethel Circuit. This means that a free church in the heart of the confederacy was formed and thrived 50 years before the start of the Civil War.

It had a congregation of almost 2,000, roughly 15 percent of black people in what was, including the enslaved, the majority-black city of Charleston. Because the church opened its doors to the enslaved and free alike, services were often raided by police and private militias for violating laws about the hours when slaves could be out among “the public.” They were also raided for breaking laws that prohibited teaching slaves to read at Bible study sessions.

In his Nation article, Zirin reminds his readers that “it was at one of these Bible study sessions that the shooter opened fire Wednesday night, after sitting among the people for over an hour.”

The response of what President Obama correctly calls “the miracle of grace”, is in the tradition of Mother Emanuel AME Church.

The church and its members did not lash out in fury against racist hatred, which led to the deaths of nine African Americans sitting quietly in a Bible study group. It did what had been its style for the 200 years of its existence.  

It came together in prayer and a resolve to go forward, surrounded by, and filled with, the miracle of grace. There is a power in that grace, an unexplained mystery. 

When words feel inadequate, there is always the poetry of music, as President Obama demonstrated in leading his Charleston congregation with Amazing Grace

Music has been with President Obama since he took office.

Following President Obama’s first inaugural address in 2009, Dr. Joseph Lowery, delivered the benediction. Dr. Lowery, a civil rights leader with Martin Luther King, Jr., began his prayer with words from another notable African American song.

Lowery’s prayer began with the third verse of James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, which, since its composition in 1920, has become known as the “national anthem” of the African American community.

An Emory University event honoring Alice Walker, another icon in the African American struggle against racism, ended with the singing of Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing. Leading the singing is Emory graduate Garrett M. Turner

In the days following the Mother Emanuel massacre, two hymns seem appropriate for religious or secular groups wishing to honor the memory of the nine who died in that historic church. A good opening hymn would be Lift Every Voice and Sing.  

A concluding hymn? Try all the verses of Amazing Grace.

The picture at top was taken outside the Emanuel African American Methodist Church in Charleston, SC. It is a Reuters photo by Randall Hill, from The Nation website.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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6 Responses to Emanuel Church Confronts Racial Violence

  1. Samia Khoury says:

    Thank you James for this beautiful and moving coverage of this very sad and brutal attack on the church and for the two beautiful clips. Indeed Amazing Grace!!!

  2. Jack Graham says:

    I have two things to say about this tragedy:

    My associations with the African Methodist Episcopal Church over the years show me that this denomination has done more to promote good feelings between the races than any other organization that I have ever encountered. They are a Bible-reading and Bible-loving church. Everyone I have ever met from that church is an apostle for a peaceful society.

    And the Confederate battle flag was meant to facilitate identification of military units on the field, was designed from the cross of St. Patrick and the cross of St. Andrew to symbolize the Christian civilization of the Old South, and stands for the right of a State to secede from the Union. Its meaning has been distorted by those seeking to create antagonisms between the races.

  3. Noushin Framke says:

    YES! Thank you! I’ve watched the Amazing Grace speech now 4 times. Can’t get enough of it. And thank you for including “Lift Every Voice” which I just played and sang. I will never forget my first encounter with this hymn; it was at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, KY at an MLK Day service. Coming from a white suburban church then, I did not know the hymn. As I stood and sang from our blue hymnal with everybody who was at the Center that day, the enormity of the words hit me like lightning. And every time the refrain came, I felt it lift me up into a rolling wave which crashed onto the beach of history, only to start over again. It’s hard to forget that first time I sang, “…we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered” which hit me at a visceral level because I thought of my own slaughtered Armenian family. What was a new experience for me though, was the incredible hope expressed in the same song, “…Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last, where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”

  4. Robert says:

    Thanks Jim, A beautiful piece about divine beauty shining through horrible tragedy.

  5. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    This was a most powerful commentary about the tragedy in Charleston. Thank you, Jim, for covering it in your thoughtful, genuine, and compassionate way.
    Like for most people of all races in America, this heinous massacre hit all concerned people right in the guts. People of all races in America can identify with the victims of this cowardly, criminal act. It also reminded us how hatred and bigotry still lurk in our beloved country and that there is a great deal of work still ahead of us, even in a country as great as ours.
    The epic stories about the valiant struggles against racism, by the African-American community, for centuries, are rarely told. They are too few and far in between. We rarely see it on TV, or in the movies. It is as though our media coverage would rather distract from our own huge issues and talk about “others'”.
    The new generations, who are going to be more diverse than ever, are missing out on having more such coverage and debate that will teach us about our history and about the dark passages, intermingled with our glorious past. We need to focus on creating more tools, avenues, methods, and opportunities to build a more tolerant future of genuinely understanding or embracing “the other”. America can do it and can lead the way.

  6. Pauline Coffman says:

    We first encountered “Lift Every Voice and Sing” while serving a church in Singing Hills of Dallas during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The neighborhood had been redlined and was quickly changing from white to black. Our church maintained an integrated presence during those stormy years. We quickly learned that every occasion…dance recital, PTA meeting, whatever, included a singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the audience didn’t need to be told to stand. What a joy to sing this song in community and solidarity (we are white). Thanks, Jim, for this moving tribute.

    Coincidentally, we attended an event at UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) yesterday afternoon…Angela Davis was there in solidarity with Rasmea Odeh, the Palestinian American woman wrongly charged by the US Immigration Service with not telling them she was arrested by Israeli forces back in the 1970’s and spent 10 years in prison there (raped and beaten). She later immigrated to the US. Currently, she is out on bail, pending appeal of her conviction which would have her serve 18 months in prison and subsequent deportation. Angela spoke out strongly in solidarity with Rasmea, with Palestinians, and described the activists in Ferguson as giving a huge boost to a movement in the U.S. to challenge policy militarism and mass incarceration.

    All in all, quite a weekend! (Angela Davis almost split the Presbyterian Church back in the early 1970’s when our mission arm gave $10,000 to her to help ensure a fair trial after she was accused of being a Communist. We supported her activism then, and loved seeing her again.)

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