There have been hundreds of thousands of words written and spoken about the unspeakable tragedy of the nine people gunned down at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. In time, there will be many more; books will be written and countless analysis will be presented seeking to find some meaning in what happened.
In time, the events of the tragedy will become a permanent part of the history of Charleston and our people, indeed the whole state and nation. Though I have lived in Charleston for more than 40 years, Emanuel Church is in my neighborhood and I knew Clem Pinckney for 20+ years, I don’t claim to have any special insights or wisdom.
Instead, what is most striking to me are the many ironic aspect of the tragedy. The dictionary defines irony as “an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected… the incongruity of things or events.” So, in no particular order, below are a few observations on some of the ironies of the events.
Mayor Riley’s racial legacy. Joe Riley was elected in 1975, soon after the Voting Rights Act was passed. He understood the new racial realities of politics in Charleston and he was the first politician who actively and unabashedly sought black support. Among some of his critics, it earned him the nickname of ‘Little Black Joe’. His work to overcome the racial divisions of Charleston’s past was the consistent theme of his 40 years in office, yet it was senseless racial violence that so deeply wounded him and his beloved city in the closing days of his 40th year tenure as mayor.
Riley and the Confederate Flag. For years, removing the Confederate flag from the state house was a burning passion for Riley. In 2000, he led a historic five day march of more than 600 people from Charleston to Columbia calling for the Confederate flag to come down from atop the statehouse dome. Despite years of his and others efforts, there was little progress. The flag was removed from the capitol dome but it was simply moved to another location on the capitol grounds. Within days of the Emanuel murders, there was a spontaneous rush in Columbia, across the South and the nation to remove the Confederate flag and other manifestations of the symbol from our daily life.
Charleston began and ‘ended’ the Civil War. As every school child knows, the Civil War was begun by the people of South Carolina and the first shots that began the bloodshed were fired on Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor. In the year of the 150 anniversary of the end of the War, the killings in Charleston may have ‘ended’ the War, or at least the public display of some of the most visible Confederate symbols and vestiges of the War.
Strom and Paul Thurmond. One of the most eloquent speeches calling for the removal of the flag from the state house grounds was made by state Sen. Paul Thurmond of Charleston. His impassioned plea was an explicit repudiation of the symbols and racism that were the very bedrock of his father’s long political career in South Carolina and nationally. In his speech, Paul said that he had ‘found his purpose’ as a senator.
Denmark Vesey and race wars. Dylann Roof sought to set off a race war by killing the minister of the church that Vesey help start. On June 17, precisely 193 years after Vesey planned to lead his slave rebellion in 1822, Roof killed Vesey’s successor in the church Vesey help found.
From race war to Nobel Prize. Roof’s hoped for race war in Charleston did not happen – there was no blood in the streets. Instead, the killings touched off demonstrations of love, peace, reconciliation among blacks and whites such that it’s said that the City of Charleston has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Gov. Nikki Haley as the tipping point. Gov. Haley had long opposed any efforts to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds – and then after the killings, she suddenly did an about face. If the flag is eventually removed as most think it will, Gov. Haley’s actions may be remembered as the political tipping point that brought the flag down.
Glenn McConnell was invisible. More than any other politician in South Carolina, former state senator and now President of the College of Charleston, Glenn McConnell, was the personification of efforts to fly the Confederate flag and venerate the symbols of so-called historic heritage. But, on the most historic and famous day in the history of the College of Charleston – the day of Sen. Pinckney’s funeral and President Obama’s eulogy at the College’s arena – McConnell was invisible. The day before, McConnell sat silent as the College’s Board voted to support removal of the Confederate flag. The next day, McConnell did issue a statement supporting the decision.
And on and on it goes. In the days to come as events continue to unfold and the implications of these events become clearer with time, the ironies will likely multiply and deepen.
In South Carolina’s history – and indeed today – our triumphs are all tangled up with our tragedies.