The gathering Thursday night at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church to mourn those killed in Charleston, S.C., was both grief-laden and uplifting.
Between prayer and boisterous songs, speakers from Triangle churches and universities called on the crowd of more than 150 people to take solace in God and to rededicate themselves to rooting out racial injustice.
“When the Emanuel AME church in South Carolina is attacked, every black church in America has been attacked,” said the Rev. Marion Robinson of the St. Matthew AME Church in Raleigh.
The killing of nine congregants at the historic black church shook black religious leaders in the Triangle, many of whom called for stricter gun laws and worried about the sanctity of the church.
Nine candles were lit for the dead on Thursday night. Many of those gathered, black and white, wept as chimes sounded to commemorate them.
“When the four girls were killed at the 16th Street Church, we rose again,” said C. Everett Ward, president of St. Augustine’s University, referring to the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Ala. “Today, we will rise again.”
Those killed at Emanuel were referred to as “martyrs,” and the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s pastor and a South Carolina state senator, was spoken of with special reverence. Pinckney was well-known in the region for his political and religious action.
“We’ve lost a great voice, a clear voice, who represents the people,” the Rev. Gregory Edmond, pastor of St. Paul AME Church in Raleigh and organizer of the vigil, said in an interview earlier in the day.
At midday Thursday, African-American legislators in Raleigh told reporters said that they would withhold judgment about racial motives in the shootings – but they were ready to speak out against the spread of gun violence.
“We cannot become a society that becomes immune to this,” Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat, said at a news conference at the Legislative Building. The son of a 1960s civil rights leader who faced violence, he spoke of his own brush with death in 1985, when robbers nearly severed his left arm with a shotgun blast.
The Charleston shooting deaths came after weeks of debate in Raleigh over legislation to expand gun rights. The House approved a bill Wednesday that would let prosecutors carry concealed weapons in court, after rejecting language that would extend the same right to legislators and staff members at the General Assembly.
“We have to be careful about the laws that we make,” said Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat. “I don’t want to see a shoot-’em-up General Assembly ... ”
Robinson and other members of the Black Legislative Caucus referred to the nation’s history of racial violence, but they said there was more than racial prejudice driving the gunman in Charleston, they said.
“This obviously may have been racial in his mind, but some mental illness or something else was going on, too,” Robinson said.
The legislators, some of them church ministers, said they were shaken by news that the victims included Pinckney and Gladys Hurd of Charleston, the sister of former North Carolina state senator Malcolm Graham of Charlotte – all engaged in prayer and worship when they died.
Rep. Garland Pierce, a Scotland County Democrat and minister, said he would recommend that his church install security cameras like those that captured the image of the suspect in the Charleston shootings.
“This sends a chilling message to all of us,” Pierce said. “Most of you are people who worship in some synagogue or church. This is sad when you cannot go there in peace, knowing that you are going to be safe and you will not experience situations like this.”
Vigil planned for Friday
St. Paul AME Church in Chapel Hill will host a community prayer vigil Friday to remember those killed Wednesday at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.
The vigil is scheduled to begin at noon at the church at 101 N. Merritt Mill Road. The event is open to the public.