You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea. Similarly, you can massacre members of a congregation and assassinate the state senator who served as their pastor, but you cannot kill the mission and spirit of the church to which they belong. And the spirit of Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina is one worth preserving, and celebrating, in the wake of this Wednesday’s tragic act of domestic terrorism that occurred there.
Emanuel AME Church is the oldest African Methodist Church in the South, and it has long served as a bulwark for organized defiance to white supremacy and discrimination. Founded by freed black slaves, it was affectionately known as “Mother Emanuel,” and the institution’s history of challenge and resistance mirrors the movement toward racial progress that it fostered in the South.
In 1816, Mother Emanuel church was investigated for its role in a planned slave rebellion organized by Denmark Vesey, one of its founders. Vesey was executed. Then, for thirty years beginning in 1834, its parishioners had to worship secretly because of a ban on black churches. Mother Emanuel was burned down only to be rebuilt, and shut down by the state only to continue operating as a symbol of resilience and devotion. Throughout it all, the congregation endured, and the church hosted dignitaries from Booker T. Washington to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the decades that followed the Civil War.
Mother Emanuel’s pastor, who was slain in the violence Wednesday, was a man that we have both had the honor of knowing. Reverend Clementa Pinckney truly represented the mission and movement of Mother Emanuel. Rev. Pinckney was a pastor at age 18, an elected official at age 23, and a South Carolina state senator at age 27. He was known for his kindness, his commitment to community, and his strong and passionate voice. He fought for police accountability and gun control in a state where both fights were uphill battles, but in the spirit of his church he did not let that defeat him.
There were eight other victims that day: Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cythia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Susie Jackson, DePayne Doctor. Three men and six women total, together they represented mothers, grandmothers, pastors, community leaders, coaches and college graduates. In short, they represented a devoted and beloved community in the best black church tradition. Their moment of reflection – each praying alone and in unison at once – tragically cut short.
Wednesday’s attack, which was motivated by racial hatred, will not be the first time that the congregation of Mother Emanuel church faced an outside force that simply could not abide the thought of its continued existence.
Yet, the church still stands, and on Thursday afternoon its congregation and the community joined hands for a powerful rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” In Hebrew, Emanuel means “God is with us”, and there is no doubt that God will remain with the congregation that has seen so much pain, yet so much triumph. Mother Emanuel AME will overcome and her spirit will be stronger still.
Ben Jealous is Partner at Kapor Capital and former President and CEO of the NAACP.
Jotaka Eaddy, a native South Carolinian and member of the A.M.E. church, is a political strategist and advocate and former Senior Advisor at the NAACP.