Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Charleston Massacre

In my opinion, that is what it was, on the evening of June 17, when that young white man went into a prayer meeting at a church and gunned down nine black men and women.

To me, that was a manifestation of evil.

Those men and women who died weren't just victims; they were martyrs.  The word martyr means "witness".  They witnessed to their faith, but they also witnessed to the racial hatred that still flourishes in our country.

To have this take place in Charleston is a bitter message, too.  Charleston is the place where the Civil War began, when the cadets from the Citadel fired the first shots from Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor.

I lived in Charleston from 1984-86, and taught at the Catholic High school there.  This school was noted because it was the first high school integrated in that city in 1964. When I taught there, I did not witness any racial problems. That doesn't mean there weren't racial problems experienced by the students, either there or elsewhere in the city.

Charleston is a very beautiful city. We lived at 103 Bull Street, not too far from the oldest part.

my dad and I, in the shade of the palmetto tree outside the house where I lived.

103 Bull Street

In our back yard, attached to the house, was still what is called in Charleston, "the Dependency," which is where the slaves lived.  It was empty and broken down, but haunting.

The Dependency behind 103 Bull Street, 1985

Church Street

East Bay Street, near the Battery
Rutledge Avenue, 1991.  Note the Confederate flag.
I am adding to this blog entry  a short essay/reflection posted on Facebook today by Josephine Humphreys, a novelist who was born and raised in Charleston, and who lives nearby now.  It was so powerful I had to share it here:
Josephine Humphreys:   
Danger and Deliverance
After the last few days of reconciliation events and impressive examples of people coming together, why am I suddenly feeling uneasy and afraid? It may be because I’m hearing voices.
I’ve heard them all my life, the voices that defended segregation, warned against liberal leanings, denied that slavery had anything to do with the Civil War, whispered that the black race was inferior. They were so dominant in my childhood that I’ve often wondered how I eventually managed to break free of them. I was an obedient child, I loved my parents, and for a long time I hardly noticed the discrepancy between their clear good-heartedness and their political opinions. So where did I get my liberal leanings? White Charleston was a place where the voices were everywhere, not just at home but in school, among friends, at church. They were quiet, assured, and not to be argued with. They pointed out examples of people who had deviated, who consorted with black people and were therefore given a name that was like a scarlet letter or searing brand. The deviants were ostracized, subtly or not so subtly. Everyone knew who they were.
I had secret deviations in my heart, and paradoxically they had come from my parents, from church, and from school. The basic teachings of all three were clear. My parents taught generosity and kindness. School taught democracy and the rights of man. Church taught God’s love for all. But the voices contradicted all that. They scared me, and I toed the line.
What finally the made me stop listening?
It was my youngest sister.
She became a Head Start teacher. I believe she was still in college. It was the first time a member of the family had any kind of extended relationship with black people. It changed her, and it changed my parents. I remember the day she told them flat out, if they continued with the voices she would never speak to them again. She was their favorite child. They gave no argument. They complied. The way was clear for me, even though the voices were still audible outside our home. My sister gave me courage.
She still does, as do my husband and my children.
But now, suddenly, I am hearing the voices again. They come mostly from Facebook and from online comments on news stories. I try not to listen, and try not to fear them. But my fear is a different kind now. It’s not the cowardly fear of deviating, not the fear of losing friends or breaking with my parents. It’s a fear of damage to the community, a fear of losing ground, a fear of ruin and violence. In fact these voices are more full of hate than any I heard as a child.
In high school when we studied the American Revolution, I read Thomas Paine’s THE AMERICAN CRISIS (1777), and have never forgotten this passage: “The nearer any disease approaches to a crisis, the nearer it is to a cure. Danger and deliverance make their advances together, and it is only the last push, in which one or the other takes the lead.” I don’t know if we are in that kind of moment now. Yesterday my cousin said so well what I am feeling now. “Deep down I harbor this hope that what we have been seeing is a sort of last gasp of the real hate - that this moment we are in represents the violent, cathartic end of the dark forces of division in our part of the South. And I know it is not. But I still cling to that glimmer of hope.”

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