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Review: 'We Are Charleston' finds wisdom, grace in a savage crime's aftermath

Published Oct. 20, 2016

It was an unimaginable crime: nine church members gathered for Bible study slaughtered in a historic church by a stranger whom they had welcomed to join them as they talked about the Gospel. He sat with them for an hour before drawing his gun.

In the aftermath of that horror came something just as astonishing, in an utterly different way: the families of those victims speaking out to forgive their killer.

That galvanizing moment led to yet another surprising event: the removal of the Confederate battle flag, seen by many as a symbol of racism, from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse, ending a fight that had gone on for decades.

The deaths of the Charleston Nine on June 17, 2015, in the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., are the inspiration for We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel, but the book's heart is the community that church served and from which it grew, a community that was the source of the grace that moved a nation.

The book was co-authored by Herb Frazier, Bernard E. Powers Jr. and Marjory Wentworth, each of whom brought a different kind of expertise to telling the story.

Frazier is a journalist who has worked for five newspapers in the South, including Charleston's Post and Courier. Powers is a professor of history at the College of Charleston, where he teaches U.S. and African-American history. Wentworth is the poet laureate of South Carolina.

Together, they put the murders into a much larger context, delving into the past and looking toward the future.

The book begins with a description of the killing of the Charleston Nine: the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney (the church's pastor), Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. and Myra Thompson.

The authors write that the gunman, Dylann Roof, fired 77 bullets. In a nearby room, Jennifer Pinckney, the pastor's wife, and her youngest daughter, Malana, heard the shots.

We Are Charleston does not, however, dwell upon the scene of the crime, nor does it spend much space on Roof, who faces 33 federal charges and 13 state charges. His trial is expected to begin in November.

Instead, Frazier, Powers and Wentworth turn their focus on the victims and on the history of their church and community. Pinckney was a state legislator as well as Mother Emanuel's pastor, Simmons a Vietnam veteran who tried to disarm Roof, Sanders a young barber who pleaded with the gunman to stop during one of the five times Roof paused to reload his gun. Lance was the church's 70-year-old sexton, Jackson an 87-year-old choir member, Hurd a librarian. Coleman-Singleton, Middleton-Doctor and Thompson were all ministers. They were spouses, parents, sons and daughters with myriad connections throughout Charleston.

Evidence gathered about Roof strongly suggests the attack was born of racism — Roof is white, all his victims black, and his online presence attests to his desire to start a race war.

Racism is nothing new in Charleston, nor are crimes born from that root. The book's authors go back to the city's beginnings as a port that was one of the hubs of the slave trade from the earliest days of the nation's history. They recount the story of the quashed slave revolt led in 1822 by Denmark Vesey, a freed slave who was an avid member of Charleston's African Church, which is the spiritual ancestor of Mother Emanuel, built in 1891. The history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is recounted as well, with its roots in abolitionism and its long tradition of ordaining women as ministers. The roles of the AME Church and of Mother Emanuel in particular in the civil rights movement and the continuing fight against racism bring the story into the 21st century.

The authors cover Charleston's immediate response to the murders — not just the black community but the entire city and state came together to honor the dead, culminating in President Barack Obama's moving speech at Pinckney's funeral service. They also look at the ongoing effects of the crime, on the victims' families, on the city and on the larger canvas of the nation's racial divide.

We Are Charleston brings readers inside a remarkable community that met tragedy with resilience and grace, hatred with forgiveness. It's a lesson for every American.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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