Editor’s note: The following remarks are from a prayer vigil for the victims of the Charleston massacre held Friday at St Paul’s AME Church in Chapel Hill.
I am asked to speak on behalf of our community, a task that I’ll be sure to fall short of, because it is not possible to express all the thoughts and feelings that have washed over our community since we learned of this tragic massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
But one thing I am sure of is that we all have come to grieve the lost lives of nine beautiful souls and to try to make meaning of this tragedy.
In our grief, there is also comfort in knowing that they, and the others with them, were deeply in the presence of God – in God’s House – as their lives were being terrorized. True to who they were, they acted in selfless ways, even as their lives were threatened and stolen. We trust that they were received into the loving arms of God, and we pray that God’s strong and merciful arms now surround their families and friends who are left behind to mourn their loss. We ask they find comfort and peace, even in the face of this heinous assault on trusting, loving, hospitable people who welcomed a young white man into their midst, having no idea about the racial hatred and violent intentions that had overtaken his mind and heart.
And I think we have to lift prayers for us, the larger community of witnesses, who are left reeling, despairing, and wondering what does this act say about us, as a people, as a nation. We need comfort and healing, for we are hurting, but we also need divine guidance and strength for how we find our way out of this mire and muck of racism upon which our nation was built and that has characterized every day of our history.
We have only to look at the history of Emanuel AME Church that was founded in 1822 by Denmark Vesey who was known for planning a slave revolt, for rebelling against the ruling white class of his state and his nation that supported and condoned the kidnapping and enslavement of African people. For this he was convicted and he was hanged and the church was burned down. With a resilient spirit, even in the face of white terror, the people of Mother Emanuel rebuilt their church.
Was Denmark Vesey’s act a trivial one? No! At the time he led the revolt, the colonies that would become America had been kidnapping and enslaving African people for 200 years. 200 years. And now here we are almost 200 years since Denmark Vesey was hanged for protesting a sinful, unjust, violent, destructive system and we have a young man come into the place he helped build and say: I have to do it. You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.
While we have certainly made some progress in overturning white supremacy since Mr. Vesey’s day, the civil rights legislation of the ’60s did not come until 350 years after the careful construction of a white race that would enjoy the wealth, power and privileges of this new nation a nation built for advantage of white people on the backs of people of color. With 350 years of white dominance and white affirmative action, we now have a system that runs on auto-pilot and is all but invisible, especially to us white folks who enjoy its spoils. Even civil rights legislation is now used to uphold the rights of white people. Lord, have mercy!
I raise this history to get back to the ways in which we are standing in the need of prayer. for clarity, for guidance, for strength, for justice – for justice that is framed in love and compassion for each other.
Denmark Vesey was said to have been tired of black people being enslaved and persecuted. Black people today are sick and tired of being sick and tired – of being treated like second-class citizens in this nation of wealth and plenty. Black people today say that they don’t feel safe here in this country, that is still dominated by white power, culture, preferences, privileges. It doesn’t feel safe to drive our streets, to send children into schools that still seem to be set up for white people, to go into our health clinics where they will be evaluated and advised differently, to go into our banks where they will be charged higher interest rates. Black people are tired.
So I have to ask my white brothers and sisters. Are we tired? ARE WE TIRED? White people, the problem of racism in America that underlies the massacre in Charleston, was created by white people and we have acted as if the problem needs to be solved by the protests of those we have oppressed or allowed to be oppressed.
Lord knows, protest is warranted, but we white people need to work tirelessly to figure out how to dismantle the systems of racial oppression and advantage that also imprisons us, diminishes us, makes us part of an empire that was built on our nation’s original and perpetual sin of racism.
We owe this to Denmark Vesey and to all the others, black, brown, and white who have come before us to say: This is not who God calls us to be. To all of those who have said and still say: Systems of racism distort and belie who we say we are as Americans and as people of faith.
We ask that God mold us with courage and shape us for action to create a world where the acts that we come to mourn today are truly unthinkable.
We owe this to our nine brothers and sisters, who were martyred on Wednesday evening for what they and their indomitable church represent in a nation still riven by racism.
Wanda Hunter is a long-time resident of Chapel Hill. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.