There are moments in American history so unspeakably tragic they crush our hearts, crater our souls. Certainly, “9/11” was such a time for all Americans. But “6/17” was yet another heartbreaking day for most African Americans. Wednesday, June 17, 2015, to be exact. On that day, racist Dylann Roof gunned down nine innocent, unsuspecting people – all black – inside historic Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., including Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who had waged a hard and patient battle against the Confederate flag’s presence in South Carolina.
For many of us, that day brought a mix of mournful and enraged tears, not unlike those that welled up on September 15, 1963, when dynamite planted by the Ku Klux Klan blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young, black girls. Or, frankly, on August 9, 2014 when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot multiple times and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Or earlier this summer, when unarmed African-American, Spencer Lee McCain, was gunned down by police in Baltimore.
I am reminded of James Baldwin’s exceptional essays in his best-selling 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, a response to America’s social and racial injustices of the time. He wrote then, that “we, black [people] and white [people], deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation.” In the face of racism’s evil, blacks and whites have a history of supporting one another. In that spirit, Baldwin’s plea applies still today, more than 50 years later.
As many of us wrestle with America’s protracted problem of racism and the need to unite, I asked my friend, a native Charlestonian, to help by relating his experiences and knowledge of South Carolina, and his feelings in the aftermath of that state’s divisive events. My hope, and his, is that they provide a bit of perspective and peace so that we land upon a rainbow and not a fire next time. His essay follows.
By Damian Joseph
After that day, June 17th, the nation’s eyes focused on Charleston, S.C. There was shock, panic, outrage, grief, finger pointing, sadness and abhorrent celebration.
Immediately, the country unleashed a frenzy of communications. In what has become the closest our society comes to having a conversation, citizens shouted at each other from their computers, phones and studios.
Welcome to Charleston.
The nation got a glimpse of what it’s like to grow up in a place like South Carolina, where the conversation on race is vivid, alive and evolving. Yes, it is true that generally speaking, more racists live in the South. But what is also true is that the South, in many ways, is the frontline of the battle against racism.
You saw it in the outpouring of support. Black and white church leaders came together to decry and reject. Thousands of Charlestonians marched on Calhoun Street and the Cooper River Bridge to unify and clarify. Black and white alike stared down that evil in the courtroom.
But this wasn’t new to Charleston. For years, those same church leaders have been meeting together in hopes of dismantling what is a common joke there: “The most segregated time in America is on Sunday morning.”
In Charleston, for every southerner touting a confederate flag, there is a punk-rock kid wearing a “fight racism” patch. For every group of supremacists, there are teams of teenagers from all races trying to turn double plays and musicians from all races trying to lock in time with their drummer. For every slur-slinging good ol’ boy, there is a well-intentioned white student at the College of Charleston studying the civil rights movement.
I know because that was me, and those were my friends. I talked to them on the phone in the aftermath. I saw what they wrote on social media. I saw what they chose to re-post. They stood strongly.
I didn’t think the flag would come down so soon, though. There was a bitter, ugly battle over it 15 years ago. You should have heard talk radio – post-9/11 politics didn’t create the monster. The NCAA and the NAACP both boycotted the state. BBQ sauce companies using it on their label where shamed, but not bankrupted. More or less, the flag stayed flying.
But it came down quickly this time, didn’t it? Perhaps a sacrifice to the gun debate gods, it took over the conversation post-haste. I won’t say that was orchestrated, but I also won’t say that South Carolinians demanded it be yanked down only for their image. After that day, most of the people there seemed to want that flag down right away.
I suppose it took that kind of brutality to break through.
Now I live in Chicago, where there is no conversation. There’s no perceived threat of immediate or institutional hatred. There’s no ex-Klansmen or redliners. I don’t see the old symbols or hear the old jokes.
Yet, this city is far more segregated than any city in South Carolina. With the exception of a few exquisite neighborhoods, the north and south sides of this city might as well be in two different countries. The brutality here is cyclical and persistent and infamous.
Welcome to Chicago.
This city bears the scars of racism, too — deep, racism. That’s not how it is usually framed, though. It’s guns, poverty, politics, etc … and the people just happen to be mostly minorities.
There’s hypocrisy in how the north paints the south as old-timey racists, while wholesale sections of its cities are nicknamed after warzones. The moniker “Chiraq” is shameful.
Chicago needs the kind of outpouring you saw in Charleston, but a lot more of it and a lot more often. Either that, or commensurate brutality will jolt the citizens of this city, too.
The South Carolinians that worship, work, play and march together should be recognized. Southerners that fight against racism and violence should be held up as example. Many of them are rocks of equality, formed against waters of ignorance.
Damian Joseph is a former writer for BusinessWeek and Fast Company who now works in public relations in Chicago, specializing in innovation, technology and design.