Jennifer Pinckney is just beginning to grieve.
It's been five years since white supremacist, Dylann Roof brutally murdered nine Black people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on the evening of June 17, 2015, during Bible study. Pinckney’s husband, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor, and a South Carolina State senator were one of the nine killed.
The coronavirus shelter-in-place order has given Pinckney time to think and reflect.
“Everything just kind of hit me,” says Pinckney, a librarian at a middle school in Columbia, S.C. “It just had time to all catch-up.”
Pinckney remembers how the day started off so ordinary, just “a regular day” — until it wasn’t.
Members at Emanuel were holding their weekly Bible study when 21-year-old Roof entered the church and sat among them. He prayed with them before taking out his gun and shooting them. Roof shot 12 people, killing nine. They were:
Clementa C. Pinckney (41)
Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (54)
Susie Jackson (87)
Ethel Lee Lance (70)
Depayne Middleton-Doctor (49)
Tywanza Sanders (26)
Daniel L. Simmons (74)
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (45)
Myra Thompson (59)
Pinckney was at the church in another room and hid under a desk with her youngest daughter, Malana, then 6, when she heard the shots fired.
The day that started off so ordinary became her worst nightmare.
Roof fled and was caught the next day by police in North Carolina. The white supremacist who had posed with Confederate flags said he wanted to start a race war. When police apprehended Roof, he was armed. A .45-caliber pistol was found in his car. Though Roof had just brutally massacred nine Black people holding Bible study inside a historic church, police treated him with kindness.
Roof was not shot like so many unarmed Black men and women. When he was arrested, a knee was not put on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Instead, Roof was taken to Burger King for a meal. That fact is not lost at this moment when people worldwide are protesting against the unjustified deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
Did Black lives matter when a young white supremacist slaughtered nine Black people praying in a church?
The national response after the tragic death of the Charleston Nine was typical – marches, speeches on racism and talks about how to improve race relations. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley ordered the Confederate flag removed from the Statehouse, but that was days after civil rights activist Bree Newsome climbed the Statehouse flag pole and removed the flag herself.
Roof was sentenced to death on Jan. 10, 2017, and to life in prison without parole on April 10, 2017. During sentencing, he never apologized or showed any remorse for brutally murdering nine Black people praying in church. During a five-minute statement in court, Roof said, “I still feel like I had to do it.”
Despite the senseless killings of the Charleston 9 by a white supremacist, the outrage over their deaths was short-lived and few things changed in terms of race relations in South Carolina and America. The tragedy eventually disappeared from the news cycle.
There were no more television interviews, media appearances or speeches. People stopped calling. The relatives of the Charleston 9 were left with memories and pain. Rose Simmons’ father, the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., was one of the nine brutally killed by Roof. He was 74, only a month away from his 75th birthday.
“Nine people were brutally murdered in the basement of a church doing Bible study,” says Simmons, 56. “It wasn't police brutality, but it's still from the same ideas, comes from the same root. I don't want them to be forgotten.”
Simmons misses her father.
“The last year of his life, there was so much love and healing that took place between us,” says Simmons. “We didn't get a chance to really live that part out. I think that's what I miss more than anything. We were at the dawn of reconciliation and now we cannot live it out because someone thought that your life was not worth living because you were a Black man.” The fact that cities are taking down Confederate statues is a signal of change, says Simmons, a retired cosmetologist and beauty and barber school owner.
The recent worldwide protests give her hope.
“I think we’re at the beginning of change,” says Simmons. “I am proud of the young people who are standing up for not accepting the America that was forced upon my father, forced upon my grandparents. It's the idea of superiority. I am proud that the young people are not allowing this idea to become their reality. They are saying, ‘No, we are not going to live in this America that you are trying to force us to believe in.’”
Eliana Pinckney, 16, Pinckney’s oldest daughter is one of the young folks fighting for change. She’s not protesting in the streets, but she’s signed the petitions and participates in ZOOM calls about race relations with her peers. She remembers bonding with her father during their long rides to church.
“The entire two-hour ride down to Charleston and the whole way back, my dad and I would just talk about politics or whatever book I was reading. That was our special time,” says Eliana.
And though the nation didn’t see much change after the deaths of the Charleston 9, Eliana sees a new day ahead for her generation. George Floyd’s death has sparked a movement. Legislation is being drafted. Confederate statues and flags are being removed. CEOs are stepping down and some are stepping up. And we are seeing a change in policing throughout the country as well.
But true change, notes Pinckney, is when there is equal housing, equal pay, “when health care can be given to all and equal education for all kids. When you can see equality across the different areas like that, is when change has happened for the good.”