Jennifer Pinckney remembers June 17, 2015.
That was the day White nationalist Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C. There was Bible study that evening. Roof sat with the members, prayed with them, then shot them — nine of them died.
It was a horrific tragedy that was a hauntingly painful reminder of America’s deep racial divide. To be clear, the mass shooting was a hate crime, domestic terrorism – the assassination of nine Black people in a church during Bible study.
Pinckney’s husband, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, senior pastor of Mother Emanuel and a South Carolina state senator, was killed during the mass shooting. The couple had two young daughters.
Pinckney was at the church but not in Bible study at the time of the shootings. She and one of her daughters hid under a desk in the church secretary’s office when they heard the gun shots.
Her husband’s last words to her, Pinckney recalls was “I love you.”
“He would enter a room and no one would know that he was a senator. He was so humble,” says Pinckney of her husband. “He loved helping people.”
President Barack Obama gave the eulogy at Rev. Pinckney’s funeral and famously sang the first stanza of the gospel hymn Amazing Grace. Pinckney remembers the president mentioning his own two girls after seeing the Pinckney children.
The new film, Emanuel, in theaters today and June 19 only, recalls the 2015 mass shooting at Mother Emanuel, Charleston’s racial past and the aftermath of the shootings. Emanuel, which was executive produced by NBA player Stephen Curry and actresses Viola Davis and Mariska Hargitay, features the relatives of those murdered and survivors of the shootings.
During a special screening of the film in Washington, D.C., last month, Nadine Collier remembered her mother, Ethel Lance, who was killed that day at Mother Emanuel. During their last conversation, Lance told her daughter that the church’s air conditioner was acting up and that she was boiling corn because it was her turn to cook.
“I [miss] her smile, conversation, phone calls, just holding her,” said Collier.
Rose Simmons lost her father, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.
“He was a giant in my eyes as a little girl,” said Simmons.
Felicia Sanders, whose son Tywanza Sanders is said to have tried to talk to Roof before being shot down, said her son was on his way to Full Sail University with hopes of one day being an entertainment lawyer.
“He was very vibrant. He was God-fearing,” said Sanders, who set up a foundation in her son’s name.
“I thought he was going to be a minister. He protected me, Ms. Polly [Sheppard] and my granddaughter [the night of the shooting]. That’s what he was supposed to do. He left a blueprint for me and my granddaughter.”
As the film notes, when police arrested 21-year-old Roof, who was a high school dropout from Columbia, S.C., they stopped at a Burger King and got him food before taking him in for questioning.
Some of the victims’ relatives have said that the officers’ actions were a disregard for Black lives, noting that if the shooter had been an African American, he would have been treated differently, harsher.
During a panel discussion after the screening in Washington, D.C., moderator Roland Martin pointed out that police did not see Roof as a threat even though he had assassinated nine African Americans in church during a Bible study, yet police have killed unarmed Black men and women, saying that they felt their lives were threatened.
After the mass shootings at Mother Emanuel, the confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina Capitol building to much fanfare.
But four years after nine Black people were brutally assassinated at a historic African American church by a White nationalist during Bible study, have things really changed? Have race relations improved in Charleston?
“In the beginning, right after the shootings there were a lot of forums and discussions on race, but after a while everything died down,” said Pinckney. “People went back to their normal lives.”
But Pinckney, who created a foundation in her husband’s honor, and the other survivors of the Mother Emanuel mass shooting, there was no going back to normal. They’ve had to create a new one.
– Lottie L. Joiner