Dave Gillespie —
On June 17, 2015 Dylann Roof murdered nine African American parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. More than a year later, on December 15, 2016 he was found guilty on 33 charges associated with the murders. And, in January 2017, Dylann Roof was sentenced to death.
The true story of Dylann Roof will now always be a significant chapter in the Charleston story, a supremely tragic chapter appearing in the historical record of a city with three and a half centuries of history to tell. Two Charleston scenes, not just one, dominate this Roof narrative of course.
One occurs in Courtroom Six at the Four Corners of Law, the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets in Charleston that hosts the State Court House, the City Hall, the Federal Building, and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. It is the scene of a strong, able judge, of prosecutors with a powerful case to make, and of a defendant who successfully sabotages the case his own defenders set out to make in order for him to live. This is the scene of journalists and reporters from far and near, of grieving families and loved ones present to honor the lost and to shine the beacon light for justice, of citizen jurors, black and white, doing what they could to bring justice home.
The other is a scene of welcome, betrayal, and bloody mass murder, heinous crime motivated by hate and the will to turn back the clock, to return to a system in which whites ruled and blacks knew their place and if a post-racial society existed as anyone’s vision anywhere it certainly was not here. That is a scene that happened in a large activity room just below the sanctuary at that historic black church, Mother Emanuel, at 110 Calhoun Street. The two scenes, homicide and trial, are and always will be inextricably linked. Cause and effect. Crime and punishment as a true Charleston story.
The two scenes are also connected in another way. The size of the contained space within which both events took place is small, really tiny, an area totaling less than a single square mile. Put another way, a traveler setting out on foot from Mother Emanuel to reach the scene of the trial would have to walk just under a single mile to get to Courtroom Six.
Along the way the perceptive hiker might observe some very important sites from the rest of Charleston’s historical story. There, available to pass by or see, are Francis Marion Park and a gargantuan statue of John C. Calhoun within it, a Confederate museum at Charleston’s famed City Market, a marker identifying the site of the long-gone but very historic Institute Hall,1 the hotel where General Robert E. Lee slept when in town, and a small city park with a statue of George Washington commemorating a visit America’s first president once made to the Holy City.
After the Roof trial had run its course, the 18 who had occupied the jury box in Courtroom Six decided that they should visit the site of that other pivotal scene in the Dylann Roof story and that they should do it together as a group. They agreed to meet at the church on Sunday, February 5. The 18, every one of them, showed up for the worship service that day.2
Emanuel’s Pastor Manning publicly acknowledged and welcomed them there. He introduced them but not by name or juror designation. They were, he told his parishioners, “civil servants” who had done a good and useful thing for which the church was grateful. Sitting there in the sanctuary, the jurors recognized the faces of many they had seen sitting on those gallery pews to the right in Courtroom Six.3
After the service, Pastor Manning prayed with them. He told them they would always be part of the Mother Emanuel church family.
The jurors made their way down the narrow staircase taking them to that activity room where Dylann Roof had committed mass murder. None of the jurors had ever been there before. They had imagined it only through the testimony and graphic pictures they had heard and seen during the trial. The 18 fell mute, but their silence was soon broken by single word one of them uttered: “Surreal.”
And then they saw in that very room what they would later write was a wonderful new scene: “children playing and parishioners enjoying each other’s company.”4
It was an unspoken sign: Life goes on. Mother Emanuel is a special place.5
1 In 1860, Democrats from around the country gathered at Institute Hall for their national convention. They would return to their homes a divided party, a party hopelessly split by the issue of slavery. Later that year, after the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, there was a gathering of locals at Institute Hall, their purpose being to sow the seeds of secession.
2 “Jurors Share Their Emanuel Story,” The Post and Courier,” February 26, 2017.
5A quote from Man’s Search for Meaning, the influential and deeply profound 1946 book by psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl, comes to mind when I think of the responses of the survivors of Roof’s rampage of 17 June 2015 and those of the families and loved ones of Roof’s murdered victims to him, his act, and his utter absence of remorse. Frankl wrote that “the one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”