CHARLESTON, S.C. — Kimberly Mills listened to her mom’s stories. She couldn’t relate. Mills, 35, enjoyed a childhood free of white terror.
She took her own children to church on Thursday. They heard preachers try to make sense of racist murder. They sang “We Shall Overcome,” a civil rights anthem they had only known from the movies.
At 12 and 13, in 2015, Mills’ kids lived the Jim Crow experience of their grandmother.
“I’ve never felt the pain that my mother and my ancestors felt. Now I’m able to feel the anger, and the hurt, and the heartbreak,” Mills said as she left. “It’s horrible. It’s despicable. It’s demonic. And I just pray that this will be the last time. But the sad thing is, it won’t.”
Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was arrested Thursday morning for the Wednesday murder of nine people studying the Bible at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Photos of Roof, and accounts from people who know him, suggest he had sympathy for white-nationalist views.
The sanctity of the church violated, Charleston, nicknamed “the holy city,” turned Thursday to the church. A rare mixed-race crowd packed the pews at another African Methodist Episcopal congregation just around the corner from the scene of the crime, widely known as “Mother Emanuel.” Pastors and politicians, citing the Bible, vowed good would triumph over evil.
“This church, our church, is built upon a rock, and no messenger, no act, will ever destroy this congregation. You’re wasting your time,” Rep. James Clyburn said of Roof, and the crowd applauded, but not as loudly as when a senior bishop, John Richard Bryant, brought up “the elephant in the room.”
“There’s violence on playgrounds. There’s violence in our homes. There’s violence in our schools. Now there’s violence in our churches. And there is one common denominator in all of the homicides. And the one common denominator is the gun,” he said.
Bryant criticized legislatures that have granted “more and more freedom” to gun owners, and the audience stood and shouted its approval. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, a gun owner, stayed seated.
Like most of the conservatives in her conservative state, she opposes most gun control.
“If this can happen at a church,” she said, “we’ve got more praying to do. If there’s one thing the people of South Carolina can do, we can pray.”
Businesses opened late on account of the manhunt, which ended when Roof was captured around 11 a.m. about 380 kilometres from the church. The sweltering city remained jumpy even after the arrest.
The police received a bomb threat soon after the church service. A second bomb threat forced the evacuation of the public building where the coroner had just released the names of the nine victims.
Clementa Pinckney, 41, the church pastor and state senator. Cynthia Hurd, 54, a library manager. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, speech pathologist and high school track coach.
Jacqueline Starks, who attended the church service, described her slain friend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, a 49-year-old pastor, as “a talented, angelic woman of God.” Susie Jackson, a longtime church member, was 87.
“The school board. The library. Churches. These were people who were an integral component of our city. And it’s going to take us a while to get past that,” said William Dudley Gregorie, a member of the church and a city councillor. “But we will come together as one Charleston and heal. And I think that’s what all the victims, who I knew very, very well, would want us to do.”
The remaining victims were identified as Tywanza Sanders, 26; Myra Thompson, 59; Ethel Lance, 70; and Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74.
South Carolina has a tortured racial history. The flag of the pro-slavery Confederacy still flies at the state capitol. A North Charleston police officer faces murder charges for the April killing of unarmed, fleeing Walter Scott. In Charleston proper, a quiet racial tension has simmered over downtown gentrification that has pushed out black residents.
On Thursday, blacks and whites united in not only grief but astonishment. While there may not be perfect harmony, many said, there has never been this.
“An isolated incident. I think it’s just a one-time thing,” said lifelong resident Willie Brown, 65, who is black. “This particular guy might have had racial issues, but it doesn’t speak for all of South Carolina.”
“Just a total absolute stunning shock,” said James Trimble, a white real estate broker. “Most people get along really well here. I have black friends who have lived everywhere, and this is the least racist place they’ve ever lived. Everybody just gets along.”
And then he added: “I’m afraid Al Sharpton’s bringing in trouble with him. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but they bring in professional people they pay to come and riot. Trouble’s coming.”