Charleston shooting: 'Out of this tragedy there will be triumph'

The deaths of nine innocent people on June 17 in Charleston, S.C., has made the city a stronger and more united community, according to local residents who vow to honour the legacy of those gunned down during a Bible study meeting.

People from Charleston, S.C., say their city is more united than ever in wake of church massacre

A sign outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last month captures the sense of unity residents say they're feeling in the wake of the mass shooting allegedly carried out by accused gunman Dylann Roof. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

The deaths of nine innocent people on June 17 in Charleston, S.C., has made the city a stronger and more united community, according to local residents who vow to honour the legacy of those gunned down during a Bible study meeting.

The nephew of one of the slain worshippers at the African Methodist Episcopal Emanuel Church, faith leaders and community activists all say their city has changed for the better in the aftermath of the massacre, hopefully for good.

Dylann Roof has been charged in connection with the fatal shootings at the historic black church. He is believed to have targeted the victims because they were black.

The tragedy prompted a debate about the Confederate flag in South Carolina and across the U.S. Roof allegedly wrote racist rants online, and there are photos of Roof posing with the U.S. Civil War battle flag.

Despite the ongoing debate about whether the flag is a symbol of slavery and racial oppression or of southern pride, Charleston has come together in the wake of the shootings.

"June 17th made us stronger," said Andre Duncan, whose aunt, Myra Thompson, was among the victims. "It made everybody come together."

Duncan and others from Charleston were in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to press Congress to pass stronger gun control laws. At a news conference organized by the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence they called for new laws governing background checks for gun-seekers.

Lives sacrificed for unity

Duncan spoke about the way Charleston united in the face of such a shocking and sad event.

"I'm sorry to say this but through that tragedy it made Charleston stronger than it ever was. That nine, they sacrificed their lives to make Charleston stronger than it was supposed to be. It was an act of God to bring everybody together," Duncan said.

Pastor Thomas Dixon, a community organizer, said the city was "galvanized" and walls between races and religions that may have existed before are coming down.

"There is very little division within the community, along racial lines, ethnic lines, denominational lines," he said. "We all have a unified pain that is being shared there."

- Pastor Thomas Dixon

The pain is still raw. Dixon said he, and many others, can't talk about what happened that night without tears flowing into their eyes. That sadness is felt far beyond South Carolina, he said. 

"You didn't have to be there to feel this connection.

"Charleston, it's the wonderful place that it's always been but there is also a greater sense of unity. Where there were ethnic barriers and things of that sort and even denominational barriers, those things have broken down a bit now as we move closer toward unity," Dixon said in an interview. "Out of this tragedy there will be triumph. I can see it happening."

How long the unity will last is a question mark, he said, but that's why he and others were in Washington, pressing Congress to make lasting changes to gun laws.

The Charleston residents are promising not to rest until that happens, and they are also intent on maintaining the new bridges that have formed between faiths and skin colours in their city. Different groups of people are interacting in a way they never used to, Dixon said, and that dialogue must keep up.

Muslims fundraise for burned black churches

"We can't go back to business as usual. We will not go back to business as usual," he pledged.

In the days after June 17, seven predominantly black churches suffered fires in multiple states. Some were arson, others may be due to lightning strikes and others are still under investigation. In the arson cases it hasn't been determined that the vandalism was racially motivated, but the incidents nonetheless have prompted outpourings of support for the affected communities.

A fundraising effort was launched on July 2 by several Muslim organizations that so far has raised more than $32,000 US.

Faatimah Knight, one of the organizers who works at the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, said that as a black woman, she was saddened by the arsons. She also felt compelled by her religion to help.
A woman casts a shadow on a memorial message board outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

"I definitely feel like faith called me, called us, to protect those who are vulnerable, who are in a position where they are frequently attacked or dismissed," she said in a phone interview from her Brooklyn office.

"I really believe that Christians are our brothers and sisters in faith and in humanity."

Rev. Charles Boyer, a representative of the national African Methodist Episcopal community who was at the news conference in Washington, said the Emanuel church in Charleston has also benefited from the support of other faiths.

"Immediately we got an outpouring of support from every religious denomination you can think of," he said. Many AME churches across the country already had good relationships with Jewish and Muslim communities and so it comes as no surprise they are supporting each other, he said.

Like Pastor Dixon, Boyer said he's seen not only different faiths uniting in Charleston, but different ethnicities too.

"There was a pure, genuine, heartfelt hurt and empathy from everyone, and it just strengthened our resolve and our belief that America can be that absolute, beloved community that we've all been pushing for," he said.

Louise Brown, an 80-year-old activist who knew all of the "Emanuel Nine" victims, said she's never seen a community come together the way Charleston has. She had one word to describe it: "Marvelous."