The historical significance of Charleston's 'Mother Emanuel' church

The Charleston church shooting would have been horrific anywhere, but this week's attack was made on a site of huge historical significance. The Emanuel African Methodist Church is one of the oldest black congregations in the U.S.
The steeple of Emanuel AME Church rises above the street as a police officer tells a car to move as the area is closed off following Wednesday's shooting, Thursday, June 18, 2015 in Charleston, S.C. (David Goldman/Associated Press)
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The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of this week's shooting, is one of the oldest black churches in the South. One of their early members organized a failed slave uprising in the 1820s, causing white Supremacists to burn it down, though it was later rebuilt. In the 1960s, it became a hub for civil rights organizers. Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor and State Senator who was among the nine people killed in this week's shooting, was involved in social causes such as the fight for police body cameras. Growing up in Charleston, Reverend Carey Grady went to the Emanuel AME Church and knew Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Grady is the pastor at the Reid Chapel AME church in Columbia, South Carolina.

Let's talk about Clementa Pinckney. Do you have a memory of the very first time you met him?

We were 13, 12 turning 13. We were on the steps of Emanuel AME Church and he was lost in the city of Charleston. Clementa is actually from Ridgeland, South Carolina. We were going to be meeting at one of the Reformed Episcopal churches to have our youth meeting and he didn't know where the church was and so I actually told him where it was and we ended up walking over to the South Atlantic Conference branch Young People's Department meeting together and we struck up a friendship since then.

Did he impress you in any way, was there anything special about him that stood out?

I did recognize his voice was pretty deep. I said, wow his voice is deep (laughter). So that was on a Saturday the next day he was presented as a person who was going to be accepted into the ministry classes to start preparing for ministry. So when I was talking to him he was about to start the process.

So he was on the path but that was the beginning also of your friendship.

Absolutely.

And can you describe the friendship for me?        

We would see each other several times a year. AME's we meet a lot during the year for various conferences so I saw him then. Sometimes he would be with his uncle in Charleston and I would bump into him and we would just talk about high school, school, stuff like that. I remember Clementa being into comic books as a college student already in the ministry. At the end the day he was a regular dude, he had a regular childhood but he felt called to preach and he started on a track to study and it happened for him. He wasn't shy, he was very very interested in asserting leadership at a very young age.

When was the last time you spoke to him personally?

About two and a half-three weeks ago, I owed him a lunch. But before that, in March, I was visiting a friend of mine who works at the State Capitol and I went over to the Senate chamber and it just happened to be the time that they were addressing the Walter Scott situation. He addressed the Senate. He was very eloquent. He talked about their desire for law enforcement across the state to wear body cams. So we were always in conversation about how to engage our congregations and our communities.

And some of those conversations that you had were about the issues that the community cared about like body cameras. And that fits with what I've read about the issues that Reverend Pinckney cared about - gun control, police accountability - do you think that that Clementa Pinckney saw himself as a civil rights leader?

Yes and no. I think if you grow up in the African-American church you grow up with a sense that you are in the tradition of the prophetic leadership of the African-American church. All of us have that, if we grew up in the church and understand that we're supposed to speak truth to power and be a mouthpiece for the voiceless. I don't think that we wake up in the morning and say, "Hey, I'm a civil rights activist." I don't think we look at it that way. I think it's just who we are in our D.N.A. It's how we were raised.

I want to talk a bit about what Emanuel Church is and how it came to be. President Obama called Emanuel a "sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America." So tell us how the church came into existence.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church started in 1787. By about 1816, it was fully functioning and fully organized . So in the height of slavery in Charleston you had 19 blacks per one white person. It's like 20 to one. So blacks had congregations, their own churches before the AME church really developed. Emanuel was one of those churches. What happened was Denmark Vesey was a blacksmith. The blacksmith in the 1700s-1800s was the most important tradesperson in the community.  Horseshoes, pots and pans... everybody trusted the blacksmith. Denmark Vesey was trusted by blacks and whites. He had the trust of the white community. When they found out that he was planning a slave insurrection, the white community was angry. So they closed Emanuel AME church down and that's why it didn't open back up until the end of the civil war.

What was the response of the white community, the people who burned down that church in retaliation, what was their response when the church rose again?

Emanuel at that point was in the black community. So the white community, that was not a part of town that they wanted to be and so that was one reason it was allowed to be built again.

What about the military school that was built next door to it, what happened then?

The Citadel was built -- and this is something they leave out of the history books -- it was built and the cannons were placed in the direction of the black community in case there was a black uprising.

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke inside this church. He led marches from its steps.  Later, Coretta Scott King as well. Your father was a pastor in the church at the time that Martin Luther King was there and there's a dramatic picture of him and Dr King. Can you tell me about that picture?

This picture has Herbert Fielding, attorney Daniel Martin, my father and there's one other person. Basically, King was talking about black power and white power, that that he didn't want to see anything to develop in the black community like white power because white power had been destructive. All the clergy were leaning forward because they thought they heard a gunshot. And I don't even think that King heard it when he was speaking. But all the ones on the stage, you could see it in their eyes. They were frightened and they were leaning forward. Attorney Danny Martin has that picture hanging in his office today. My parents have it hanging up at their home. It means a lot because at that moment they thought that something was going to happen.

Martin Luther King Jr. (center) speaks at a podium at Charleston’s County Hall in 1967, three years after the Civil Rights Act passed. Also pictured are (first from left of King) future state Sen. Herbert Fielding, future AME Bishop Z.L. Grady (father of Rev. Carey A. Grady, interviewed by Day 6)

But that was over 50 years ago and look where we are today after the murder of nine people inside a church this week. What does that tell you about where we are in the struggle for equality?

I think that we need to really be real. It really was an assassination. A person could go into any church in Charleston. They call it the "holy city" because there's tons of churches in Charleston. Emanuel represents that history of a church fighting to overcome the shackles of oppression. Now, I want to say this very respectfully. Emanuel is a very large building. It has all that history, but it does not have thousands of members today like it may have had 50 years ago. When you think about a person going into a Bible study and killing nine people... he could have gone to any church, but he chose that church. That means it was specific and I don't believe that a kid who failed ninth grade twice was that smart to recognize all of that. I believe he had help to go to that church and to ask for the pastor. So I think it was strategic and we need to really call it what it is.

Reverend Grady you have to address your congregation on Sunday. What's the message that you want them to hear?

The message is that we will not live in fear. Our people have been struggling hundreds and hundreds of years. The 16th Street bombing in Alabama happened in the '60's, just like we weren't afraid to go to church after the 16th Street bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. We're not going to be afraid to go to church. See, terrorism is a dangerous thing. The idea is to scare people but black people have never been afraid to worship God, and we're not going to start now.

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