Four years ago this month, Dylann Roof opened fire on a Wednesday night Bible study class at historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people, including an 87-year-old woman named Susie Jackson and 41-year-old Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and senior pastor at Emanuel.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes was preparing for bed that night in June when she opened Twitter on her laptop and started seeing tweets about the shooting from her colleagues at Charleston’s daily newspaper, The Post and Courier.
“I had been the religion writer for a while, so I knew that if it was a shooting inside the church, particularly a mass shooting, the fact that it was Emanuel was most likely going to be very significant because it is such a prominent, historic civil rights church,” said Hawes.
Hawes filed her first story at 1 a.m. that night about the history of the church, the oldest AME church in the South, whose name, Emanuel, which means “God with us,” was chosen by the congregation at the end of the Civil War in 1865.
But it wasn’t until autumn, when Hawes first interviewed the two adult survivors for a story about their experience, that she became more deeply involved in the coverage. The idea to write a book came from a literary agent who contacted Hawes unsolicited and suggested the survivors’ stories would make a good book. Hawes agreed, especially since other issues had bubbled up over time, making it a more complex story.
“There was a lot of dissension in the city because there were a lot of questions about the church’s handling of the donations,” said Hawes. “There was this fallout that I had been following between the survivors and the church, and myriad other stories that told me this was a much deeper, broader story than what we could cover in the newspaper. We could cover those things piecemeal, but it doesn’t have the same effect.”
The result is “Grace Will Lead Us Home,” being published June 4 by St. Martin’s Press, a gripping retelling of the shooting and everything that followed, from Roof’s bond hearing where victims’ families astonished the nation by proclaiming forgiveness, to the Bridge to Peace unity march, to President Barack Obama’s eulogy at Pinckney’s funeral, to the Confederate flag’s removal from the South Carolina state Capitol, to the controversies surrounding Emanuel’s handling of donations and beyond.
Hawes, who will discuss and sign copies of “Grace Will Lead Us Home” at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum on June 14, spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the book recently.
Q: In the book, you talk about how police procedure and training has changed significantly since mass shootings have become so common, due in part to lessons learned from the Sandy Hook massacre. How do you think that shaped the way the Emanuel shooting was handled by law enforcement?
A: That night when the police arrived, instead of forming a perimeter and waiting for the SWAT team, they just rushed in because now there is the feeling that there is going to be so much more loss of life if they wait. So the four officers that arrived first just went in. They had no idea of the scenario. I can only imagine the bravery of that when you know there is an active shooter and multiple people probably dead. To me, that is just a really unappreciated thing that law enforcement does.
One of the most amazing things to watch afterwards was, the FBI has this unit that goes to mass casualty events with lessons learned from other mass casualty events. To see that in action was really interesting because right away they put together these teams of people that, once they released Roof’s picture the next morning, they quickly had these teams ready to take calls, and the teams involved local, state and federal agents so that whatever type of call it was, they were ready to handle it. It was such an organized rollout. Then a family center was set up at Embassy Suites where afterward (victims’) families could go to receive information. (The families) all talked about what a huge relief that was.
Q: You paint a moving portrait of the Bridge to Peace event, in which, two days after the shooting, people, both black and white, crossed the landmark Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge and met in the middle in a jubilant demonstration of support. But you say some people in Charleston found fault with it. Can you explain why?
A: It was obviously a beautiful moment for all these people to come out and to essentially honor what happened and to try to unite in that moment. But the reality is that some people felt it really glossed over the racial disparities that existed. Some African Americans felt like it was a pat on the head (that implied), “Well, gosh, we gave you a hug. Can’t we all just be happy now?” (But) there were not these policy changes that some of the family members wanted to see, things that might address racial disparities or might help protect black residents from people who might want to harm them. Like, South Carolina still does not have a hate crime statute. We’re one of four states now, I think, that doesn’t have one. The legislature did not enact anything to extend the waiting period for background checks (on gun purchases).
The unity walk encapsulates that disconnect. Charleston is a place where plantations are tourist attractions and wedding venues, and white people have just not thought a lot about it. They would not go to Germany and visit a concentration camp and have a wedding there. That would just be shocking and appalling on every level. But we don’t think about plantations the same way. We haven’t treated them the same way. And it’s that whitewashing of history that some people felt the unity walk just gave a nod to. But all that said, it was a pretty incredible sight to see. All of these people of different races coming to show love and support afterwards. So I think in that sense, it was very moving. But if you try to paint it into a racial commentary, there’s a disconnect there.
Q: After the shooting, Emanuel underwent much upheaval. Its leadership changed multiple times, its services were overrun by tourists, controversy surrounded its handling of the monetary donations it received for victims and their families, and survivor Felicia Sanders publicly accused it of failing to provide her with spiritual guidance. What is the situation at Emanuel now? How has the church changed?
A: The last time I went there, when they asked the visitors to stand up, it was a quarter or a fifth of the people there. But I feel like Emanuel has settled into that role more. They’ve had the same pastor since the first anniversary. It has settled into more of a normalcy, even if it’s a new normalcy. They aren’t in constant upheaval with their ministers changing, with huge masses of visitors. I think there’s stability there.
With the survivors, Felicia wants nothing to do with Emanuel partly because the church never gave any of the donations to her granddaughter (who survived the shooting). That was immensely painful for (Felicia). (The granddaughter) was the youngest person there, she’s going to carry the trauma the longest, and it really broke (Felicia’s) heart that the church didn’t share the donations with this child who’s going to need all this care. And that is still a source of hurt for her.
Q: At the same time Dylann Roof’s trial was underway in the federal courthouse, the trial for police officer Michael Slager, who was accused of shooting Walter Scott, an unarmed black man detained in a traffic stop for a broken tail light, was underway in the county courthouse directly across the street. This was in late 2016, at a time when the country had experienced several race riots over similar issues. What was the mood of the city while these trials were underway? Was there fear of a public outlash?
A: I thought there would be more tension than there was. There were a few protesters outside, but it was remarkably little. I was surprised even when Michael Slager, the police officer, had a hung jury. There was not that sense of imminent explosion of frustration. Particularly because (Scott’s) family, much like the Emanuel families, came out and spoke and asked people to be calm. And the solicitor was very forthright that she was going to try this case again as soon as possible. People really retained this sense of, they charged him, they’re pursuing a conviction, and we’re going to wait and see what happens. And for a lot of people, I think there was a sense that, OK, at long last what we’ve been saying has been proven true because (the body cam) video demonstrated what we’ve been saying for years and years and years. So there was this sense of hope that, OK, now maybe people will believe what we’ve been saying. We’re going to wait and see what happens. And, in fact, Michael Slager ended up pleading guilty to some rights violations and went to prison for a long time. It was worth the wait, right? The criminal justice system did its job.
Q: How has Charleston changed since the shooting?
A: As a broader community, I would have to say relatively little. People are certainly more aware of Confederate monuments and all that kind of thing after the Confederate flag was lowered. I think that generally, people are more understanding of the fact that white supremacists’ views can become so violent. But we haven’t seen the sort of systemic changes to policy that would affect communities of color. What we have seen is more personal changes. For instance, Felicia is going to a predominantly white church now.
One big example I would point to is that there are two churches, a black and a white church, that sit next to each other. The black church is Mount Zion AME, the daughter church to Emanuel, and its neighboring white church is the grand, beautifully structured Grace Episcopal. The clergy of those two churches came together and formed a book study that can draw upwards of a hundred people. And they read books and essays about race and discuss them. And to me, that’s really an interesting, more personal way that people are having these conversations that they didn’t used to have.
Another thing I would add is the city of Charleston voted to issue an official apology on behalf of the city for the institution of slavery. That was a big step for a lot of people, but it still was a very narrow vote. So you see this progress and certainly more attention is being made to the racial history of the city since the shooting, but South Carolina hasn’t passed a hate crimes bill. We haven’t addressed the kind of policies that create systemic improvements. Like, I’m sure it’s the same in Georgia, we have enormous racial disparities in almost everything — education, health outcomes, income. I think a lot of people were hopeful that we’d see bigger changes than we’ve seen.
Q: How can Charleston reconcile its robust tourist industry, which is built on a romantic view of the antebellum South, with its parallel history of slavery and black oppression?
A: I find it fascinating that we treat plantations as tourist stops and wedding venues. They’re a huge national stain, and we often don’t treat it like that. We don’t see it. We bury it. We whitewash it. I find that fascinating, and the question is, how do you address that in a way that’s more honest? I’m very curious to see how it all plays forward and see how a city like Charleston confronts it. One thing that will be interesting to see is when the International African American Museum opens here (in late 2020 or early 2021) because that could provide a really important venue for seeing that history discussed.
Questions and answers were edited for clarity and space.
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