Charleston's Black Leaders Want To See Justice As Much As Forgiveness After the South Carolina church killings, victims' families offered the accused shooter forgiveness. While Charleston's leaders have followed suit, some say the compassionate response is premature.
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Charleston's Black Leaders Want To See Justice As Much As Forgiveness

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Charleston's Black Leaders Want To See Justice As Much As Forgiveness

Charleston's Black Leaders Want To See Justice As Much As Forgiveness

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The day after nine African-Americans were murdered during Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., family members of the victims confronted the alleged killer, Dylann Roof, at the court hearing.


NADINE COLLIER: I will never talk to her ever again. I will never even hold her again. But I forgive you.

WERTHEIMER: That was the daughter of 70-year-old victim Ethel Lance. In the days that followed, the mercy demonstrated by the families set the public tone for Charleston's leaders, both black and white. But as NPR's Wade Goodwyn discovered, not all leaders of the city's African-American community think forgiveness should come so easily.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: At the beginning of Charleston's existence, its economy depended on West African slaves called Gullah, not just because of their labor but because of their expertise in rice farming brought from Africa. Today, their descendants and other African-Americans are ensconced in every facet of Charleston life - government, the arts, the judicial system and academia. Dr. David Rivers, Charleston native and associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, says that's partly why the city didn't explode in anger after the murders.

DAVID RIVERS: Because of our leadership, plain and simple - leadership with the mayor, with the community, with the ministers, police chief and everybody. The relationship showed that everybody was working together; they cared.

GOODWYN: On a warm Wednesday evening, 41-year-old state Senator and Emanuel AME Pastor Clementa Pinckney was leading the Bible study when a young, white stranger walked in and sat down. At Pinckney's memorial, black Charleston demonstrated they stood for everything Dylann Roof didn't stand for. If Roof was about hate, they were about love. AME Bishop John Bryant.


JOHN BRYANT: Someone should have told the young man...


BRYANT: He wanted to start a race war, but he came to the wrong place.


GOODWYN: But if much of black Charleston's leadership on television reacted with mature rectitude, that approach was by no means uniform.

MILLICENT BROWN: We are the result of, and in some ways still operate like, a plantation. Anger at this kind of mayhem is a normal and natural reaction. I am extremely resentful of what is going on in our community.

GOODWYN: There are few if any in Charleston who can match the civil rights credentials of Millicent Brown. In 1963, at the age of 15, she was one of 10 students who desegregated Charleston's public schools. She's been fighting for the cause ever since. Brown, a retired history professor, is not thrilled with Charleston's response to the murders.

BROWN: Laying all these compliments on us because we have been so loving and embracing, I think it's disingenuous at its best. I understand the stages of grief, and you don't usually jump to forgiveness first.

GOODWYN: Brown believes the community's muted anger is a result of generations of Charleston's black leadership being overly concerned with what whites think of them.

BROWN: I think our reaction, whether we know it or not, is in many ways a reflection of our need to be accepted, to prove that we are better than y'all think we are and that we are not like Ferguson because we are more forgiving.


GOODWYN: On a Sunday afternoon at Mall Park on the east side of Charleston, Black Lives Matter organizer Muhiyidin d'Baha is organizing a protest march.


MUHIYIDIN D'BAHA: All right, if you hear the sound of my voice, try to pull up a little bit. This is a chance...

GOODWYN: D'Baha has organized this protest primarily through the Internet. Unlike most of Charleston's black leaders, d'Baha is under 40, and so are his followers.

D'BAHA: It's attracting individuals that are ready for something different, something that's a little bit more radical, a little bit more grassroots and less camera.

GOODWYN: But community organizing does not come easy. While everyone in the park is young, angry and motivated, there are just 80 of them, nothing like the thousands that would heed the call of Charleston's leading black pastors.

D'BAHA: The fact is that you're not a leader unless you have a following of people. And I think that we are going through some soul searching ourselves and understanding what leadership looks like within a crisis like this.


D'BAHA: So it starts off with, it is our duty to fight for our freedom. It's a call and response, so just say it right back. It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

D'BAHA: It is our duty to win.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: It is our duty to win.

GOODWYN: Last week, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley proposed moving the Confederate flag off the state Capitol grounds. It had been a bitter issue 15 years ago, when South Carolina's black community fought and lost. Then as now, conservatives fervently argued the flag represented white pride, not black oppression.

NELSON RIVERS: If they had done the right thing 15 years ago, in 2000, when we moved the flag from the top of the dome, we told you from the get-go it was offensive. It should not have taken my friend Clementa Pinckney to die, but it did. And it's an insult.

GOODWYN: If there is one African-American leader in Charleston that all sides appear to respect, it's Rev. Nelson Rivers, pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston. He rests comfortably in both camps.

N. RIVERS: You cannot be the thing you hate. You cannot become the evil that you seek to eradicate. Forgiveness is not the same as ignoring the fact we want justice.

GOODWYN: Rivers says moving the flag is not enough.

N. RIVERS: The Medicaid expansion has to happen. We cannot continue to have schemes and plans that diminish full participation in the democracy. We have to have this conversation about the economic achievement and empowerment of whole communities that are left out.

GOODWYN: The question is, have the murders at Emanuel AME Church created new political space for South Carolina's black leadership? Or, after the last shovel of dirt is thrown, would all quietly return to the way it's always been? Wade Goodwyn, NPR News. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio version of this story, as did a previous Web version, states that Dylann Roof's bond hearing occurred the day after the shooting. In fact, the hearing was held two days after the shooting.]

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