On Father’s Day this year, Constance Slaughter-Harvey—a black lawyer experienced in Mississippi politics—gave the keynote speech at the 51st commemoration of the murders of three civil rights workers at Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner were part of the 1964 Freedom Summer project, and they planned a Freedom School at the church to assist black residents to register to vote. Their presence and their intentions angered the local Ku Klan Klan, whose members kidnapped the men and shot them on a dusty road on June 21st before the school could even open.
Five days earlier a Klan mob had searched Mt. Zion in vain, looking for the three men. Before leaving, they beat five church members and burned the church to the ground. Years later, Bud Cole—a church member so badly beaten he would never again walk unaided—ran into former deputy sheriff Cecil Price, who asked Cole if he could “forgive and forget.” Cole’s simple answer, nurtured by years of worshipping at Mt. Zion, was “I forgave you long ago.” His response was consistent with the affirmation of most black churches that forgiveness is an integral part of faith.
For Slaughter-Harvey, toughened by years in politics, forgiveness does not come easy. When she spoke to honor the martyred men, it was only days after the racially-motivated shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Charleston had left nine people dead. With the latest massacre fresh in her mind, she acknowledged that forgiveness “is hard,” but then added, “I am working on it.” She told of reassuring her four-year-old grandchild that black people, especially young people, should not be “scared” to go to church; they needed the church just as the church needed them. She cautioned her audience not to be put off by “the baggy pants” of the young, but to listen to them, lest they be lost to the church and lured by the streets.
Both Mt. Zion Methodist Church and Emanuel AME, like many other black churches—particularly in the South—had their buildings burned and their members subjected to intimidation by the Jim Crow measures in place during the 1950s and 60s. There was also the lasting pain imposed by the degradation of slavery, which the churches worked hard to keep their members from internalizing. Here, black was somebody. So it is likely that Emanuel’s strong beliefs are just as President Obama suggested in his Charleston eulogy; they are very different “from those who have no faith,” a deft commentary on the distinction between traditional black religion and secular society. Theirs is not a faith indifferent to the dangers of daily life. Pickney, the President said, saw no separation between his faith witness in government and the one he observed in church.
Yet despite the work of men like Rev. Pinckney, and the passage of 150 years since emancipation, America’s “original sin” of prejudice remains, as revealed in Charleston, Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, and other cities around the country. While affirmative action has helped create a class of advantaged blacks, 99 percent still suffer from what Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called a “second generation of Jim Crow barriers.” These largely hidden barriers lead to overcrowded jails, underfunded schools, and unequal justice.
Historical amnesia obscures realities of the past, especially each other’s past. President Obama pointed to Confederate flag displays as one example; whites claim the battle flag is a symbol of ancestral pride, and blacks regard it is an emblem of slavery. The shooter at Emanuel Church, likely one of those out of touch with historical reality, reportedly said he believed “blacks were trying to control the world.” Yet the real world evidence is that black Americans, far from controlling, are controlled by poverty, violence, injustice, and white indifference. Much has changed in Charleston since 1818 when Emanuel Church was founded, yet for the killer and others at the margins, any change that allows African Americans to gain more control over their lives and their place in society, arouses fears that whites could lose their “control.”
For those who do know the history, the example of white violence at Emanuel Church is sadly familiar. In 1818 when its first congregation was gathered, the city of Charleston was the thriving center of the slave trade. About half the population was white, the other half black and enslaved, with the exception of a small community of free blacks. Through the combined protest efforts of slaves and free people, resentful of the segregated worship at the predominantly white Methodist church, black people in Charleston created a church of their own, associating it with the AME denomination. Among its founders were the distinguished-looking Morris Brown, and a man who gained his freedom by winning a lottery, Denmark Vesey. Vesey had been a sailor, and had learned of the successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1802. Soon he began to collect information by reading, and by holding secret meetings about the possibility of a slave uprising in the local community.
Vesey and Brown both preached at Emanuel, drawing crowds and making whites nervous. Word of Vesey’s sketchy plot leaked out, and while historians continue to debate the extent of a “conspiracy,” his assertiveness combined with his talents were enough to convince whites that he was guilty of something—of what, they didn’t explain. Nevertheless, Vesey and five others were hanged, and the militia rounded up scores of other blacks suspected of undermining slavery. Morris Brown sought safety in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where in 1832 he was named the second bishop of the AME denomination. In South Carolina, however, officials were fearful of further slave protests, and because they suspected that black religious gatherings were seditious, they banned all black churches. Black people had to worship in “underground” churches until after the Civil War. It is not lost on Emanuel’s members that in the nineteenth century their leaders were hanged by whites, and in the twenty-first they were shot by a vigilante.
Thus, it is difficult for some Americans—who are aware of this past—to understand how it is possible for Emanuel to forgive the killer of their pastor and eight other talented people. Centuries of suffering might be expected to cause anger and resentment, especially among the young. But the black church tradition evident in Emanuel’s actions, while not unmindful of the past, draws on a different faith, namely the belief that the Exodus promise of God to preserve the Israelites also applies to them. And as Christians they accept the example of Jesus as showing the true power of forgiveness. To confront injustice repeatedly makes forgiveness hard, as Constance Slaughter-Harvey said. But she “is working on it.”