A Visit to Charleston in the Wake of Tragedy

The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was the scene of a tragic shooting on June 17, 2015, that left nine people dead.

The Stars and Bars hangs lazily outside Charleston’s Confederate Museum, languid in the afternoon heat that has topped out at a muggy 95. Its red, white, and blue stands in bright relief against the jaundiced yellow of the museum, which sits temple-like atop the western end of the city market.

Seven blocks to the north on Calhoun Street—in fact, almost exactly due north as the crow flies—thousands of flowers well past their colorful prime remain stacked against the front of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Some of the flowers have weathered Charleston’s heat and humidity since mid-June. They’ve weathered Charleston’s heartbreak, too, even as they’ve helped express it.

The last of the victims killed in the June 17 shooting were still being put to rest when my family and I arrived in Charleston last week. The city had not erupted into race riots, was not burning the way Baltimore had earlier this year. The only storms were those that ripped in from the west some evenings when the summer humidity finally broke with thunder.

Hundreds of expressions of condolence and hope line the sidewalk outside Mother Emanuel Church.

One such storm swept in the evening my daughter and I stopped by “Mother Emanuel” Church to pay our respects. Dozens of other passersby also stopped. Flowers. Flowers. Flowers—most well past their prime and yet still struggling to show solidarity. Votive candles. Teddy bears. Floral wreaths. American flags. Handmade signs and posters. “In our hearts.”

The wind picked up as my daughter and I looked at the church, tried to take in the immensity of the memorial landscape—not its physical size, but its heartbreak. And its hope. “Hatred will not divide a city united,” read one sign.

Clouds dark as hate bulldozed across the sky and began to spit rain. We made it to our vehicle just before the heavens themselves opened.

The Confederate Defenders of Charleston protected by today’s defenders of Charleston

Not far from the home where we were staying, at the very south end of town at the tip of the Battery in White Point Park, a Confederate monument looks out across the harbor: “To the Confederate Defenders of Charleston.” It features two classical figures in dramatic, action-hero poses. One, naked but for a fig leaf, carries a round shield in one hand and a short sword in the other. Just behind him stands a second figure, robed with sleeves like Batman wings and a hand upraised.

On June 21, just days after the church shooting, graffiti appeared on the monument: “Black lives matter.” Another message said, “This is the problem #racist.” After police covered up the graffiti with black plastic, another sign appeared that said, “All lives matter.” Then “Take down racist statues.”

By the time I arrived in town with my family on June 29, the graffiti had been cleaned off the monument and a barricade encircled the statues. Yellow police tape—“Police Line Do Not Cross”—flapped in the wind off the harbor. For the first few days, a squad car always hovered nearby and a policeman stood nearby on foot patrol.

Otherwise, the only indication I saw of the trouble anywhere were occasional signs that read “Charleston Strong.” A vertical banner hung three stories tall from an old factory being converted into apartments. A comedy club sold $5 “Charleston Strong” wristbands to benefit the church. The Chamber of Commerce advertised the message.

Tourism otherwise went on as usual—the fuel of the city’s economic furnace. The fight had moved elsewhere: an hour and a half to the northwest, in Columbia, where lawmakers had begun heated debate on a proposal to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state house. The alleged church shooter, a racist whack-job named Dylann Roof, cited neo-Confederate beliefs in his manifesto, and embraced the Confederate battle flag as an inspiration. A firestorm of controversy over the flag immediately erupted and has burned hotly ever since.

“We’re placing blame on what one deranged lunatic did on people who hold their Southern heritage high,” said Sen. Lee Bright during Monday’s debate in the South Carolina Senate, “and I don’t think that’s fair.”

But Sen. Darrell Jackson countered with a point made frequently over the past three weeks. “When I see a Confederate soldier, I don’t get goosebumps and feel all warm and fuzzy,” said Jackson, who is black. “I respect the fact that [others] do. All I’m saying is, you can’t force all of us to have a passion that some of you have about certain things.”

Up until now, I’ve felt torn about the flag because I understand it has different meanings for different people, and those meanings unfortunately come into direct conflict. I understand the racially charged symbolism of the flag, both as a symbol of the slavery-supporting Confederacy and in resistance to the Civil Rights movement. I also understand why flag supporters look at it as a symbol of the courage for their forefathers, who followed that flag into battle, and I understand why some of the flag supporters feel so embattled and besieged when their flag gets targeted.

But as Sen. Larry Martin pointed out, the Confederate battle flag “doesn’t represent all of the people of South Carolina, and we need to remember that.”

The capitol is the seat of government for the people—all the people. Flying a flag that privileges some of those people while insulting others seems contrary to the mission of good government.

This harkened back to my experience in Montgomery, Alabama, in late May, where I pondered the presence of the Confederate flag on the capitol grounds there. Martin’s argument in Columbia on Monday solidified my own thinking from a month and a half ago.

The South Carolina Senate voted 37-3 to remove the flag, although a final vote has to take place later today. From there, the bill would have to go to South Carolina’s House of Representatives. If passed by the House, Gov. Nikki Haley has said she would sign the bill. She is, after all, the person who first called for its removal shortly after the Charleston shootings.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service has removed Confederate flags from gift shops, and Virginia has pulled its Confederate flag license plates. While I had also heard of alarmingly reactionary moves like “The flags are being removed from museums,” that has turned out to—thankfully—not be the case. If anything, that’s exactly where such flags need to be displayed and contextualized and explained.

The more familiar Confederate battle flag is often misidentified as the "Stars and Bars," but that's actually the name of the first national flag of the Confederacy, which is still on display outside the Confederate Museum in Charleston.
The more familiar Confederate battle flag is often misidentified as the “Stars and Bars,” but that’s actually the name of the first national flag of the Confederacy, which is still on display outside the Confederate Museum in Charleston.

And so, amidst the heat, I was glad to see the United Daughters of the Confederacy still flying a Confederate flag outside their museum in Charleston. Theirs is a museum devoted to educating people about the past, and their flag flies in context. Such institutions are vital. We need to understand that past so we can better live with the legacies of that past, which are very real and very present.

Yet, with so many shoppers swirling through the marketplace, I see very few of them ascend the stairs and open the great, silent white doors to look inside. Maybe it’s the heat today making people lethargic. Maybe there’s just too much shopping to be done. Or maybe it’s larger: society’s widespread historical apathy.

The history on Calhoun Street is more recent, more raw. There, the legacy of our past is real and present—and for nine families, heartbreakingly so. It’s not in the Confederate flag where one can turn to find any sense from this senselessness. It’s in the thousands of flowers that line the church’s sidewalk: the thousands of expressions of solidarity and hope.


4 Responses to A Visit to Charleston in the Wake of Tragedy

  1. Great article Chris! Something stuck in my mind when reading the article and that was a comment by Sen. Larry Martin “that the confederate flag doesn’t represent all the people of South Carolina”! Recently the Supreme Court of the United States in a (5-4) decision legalizing same sex marriage! The White House ( the peoples house of America) had rainbow colors shining on the White House on the Courts close 5-4 decision! I don’t believe the White House decision reflects my views or many American’s views accepting same sex couples! In fact it goes against Christian views! Yet , I haven’t seen any uproar about The People’s House (White House)
    not representing many American’s views on same sex marriage, etc.! So the comment by many about confederate flag not representing them does what in in face of what our President approved on America;s House? Just a thought on double standards!

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