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Five Years After Charleston Church Shooting, America Reckons With Racial Injustice


Five years ago today, a white supremacist murdered nine people in Charleston, S.C. They were worshippers at Emanuel AME Church. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Reverend Sharon Risher’s mother Ethel Lee Lance was at Emanuel AME for Wednesday night Bible study on June 17 when a white stranger showed up.

SHARON RISHER: They welcomed him in. He sat there and listened to this whole Bible study. And when they were in a circle holding hands in prayer is when he took out his Glock 45 and commenced to shooting and killing them like they were animals.

ELLIOTT: He fired 70 rounds. Risher's mother, two cousins and a childhood friend were among the nine people killed. Three others survived. Risher says the killer intended to snuff them out.

RISHER: Because of who they represented and who they were. And just like everybody else that's been killed because of hate and race, we continue to be hurt when all we want to do is be a people that can thrive like everybody else.

ELLIOTT: Risher has written a book about finding hope after the Charleston massacre and travels the country telling her story. Now she questions whether the nation has learned anything since. She says recent police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta show a systemic disregard for black lives.

RISHER: I'm just weary because it feels like the more I talk, the more stuff continue to happen. And even though I know everybody is not a racist and there are people in this country that do want racial harmony, it's just so much to get through you wonder, how long? Just how long?

ELLIOTT: Emanuel AME is known as Mother Emanuel. It's one of the oldest black churches in the South and survived being burned down for its role in a slave revolt. South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, says that's why a white supremacist targeted the congregation.

JAMES CLYBURN: And undertook what he thought would ignite a race war. What he did do would usher in a reexamination of who and what we are as Americans.

ELLIOTT: Shooter Dylann Roof was convicted and sentenced to death. Before the Emanuel massacre, he posted a racist manifesto online, saying he was awakened by the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American shot to death by a white neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida. Roof posed for pictures with Confederate flags.

After the mass shooting, there were ensuing battles over Confederate imagery, and groups formed to foster deeper interracial dialogues similar to what's happening now, Clyburn says. He's among those in Congress, including Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who are calling for federal legislation to address police brutality. Clyburn points out that after the gruesome Emanuel attack, there was no lethal force, let alone violence, when police apprehended Roof.

CLYBURN: The police officer that approached the door of the automobile he was driving, he re-holstered his gun. He didn't point it. There was tremendous difference in his arrest and what we've seen in the last several days.

ELLIOTT: Dashcam video from inside a police car with a radio station blaring shows several officers backing away while one helps Roof out of the driver's door and handcuffs him.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Wherever the 10-4 came from, officer, that is...

KYLON MIDDLETON: It was unspeakable in real time when he was, you know, apprehended.

ELLIOTT: Reverend Kylon Middleton of Charleston's Mt. Zion AME church was lifelong best friends with Emanuel Pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the massacre.

MIDDLETON: Our lives were so intertwined that it was just a major loss. It was literally losing a brother.

ELLIOTT: Middleton says he was outraged at the way Roof's arrest went down and what happened after. Once he was jailed, police brought Roof a meal from Burger King. Just two months before, a white police officer in North Charleston shot and killed Walter Scott as the African American man was running away after being pulled over for a broken brake light. Middleton says it took the church setting to show that racial injustice was real, that black people could be targeted even though they were doing nothing wrong. But he says it was short-lived.

MIDDLETON: That moment of 2015 was not sustained because there were so many things beyond the veneer that still needed to be dealt with.

ELLIOTT: He says the protests for racial justice today, underway for more than three weeks now, including in Charleston, have the potential to become a full-fledged movement. Reverend Anthony Thompson agrees. He's the pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Charleston and lost his wife Myra, who was teaching the Bible study the night of the Emanuel massacre.

ANTHONY THOMPSON: I mean, my wife must have been on every committee in that church.

ELLIOTT: He's been working on reconciliation initiatives since she was killed. Thompson says it forced a reckoning with Charleston's history.

THOMPSON: Well, the city was built on the backs of slaves, so racism has always been a problem here. I mean, we're a very hospitable city, you know, where we are smile and we laugh. But there was always an undertone of racism of which we would never talk about. And none of this came to focus until the Emanuel 9 tragedy.

ELLIOTT: Now he's hopeful the nation has reached a turning point. For Sharon Risher, the test for the movement taking root today is whether people are prepared to endure disruption.

RISHER: We have a tendency to be emotionally reactive when these things happen. And we go on for a couple of weeks, and we get the hashtags and all of these things. But when it comes to the hard work, we retreat right back to our separate corners and live our lives.

ELLIOTT: She says maybe this moment will be the catalyst that unlocks lasting change. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.