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For Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, shooting is another painful chapter in rich history

In this clip from an unreleased documentary about African Methodism in South Carolina, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and others discuss the role of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. (Video: Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler)

When a gunman opened fire inside Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church Wednesday, shooting worshipers gathered for a mid-week prayer meeting, it was as though history repeated itself.

This historic congregation, the oldest of its kind in the South, had already seen more than its fair share of tumult and hate. It was founded by worshipers fleeing racism and burned to the ground for its connection with a thwarted slave revolt. For years, its meetings were conducted in secret to evade laws that banned all-black services. It was jolted by an earthquake in 1886. Civil rights luminaries spoke from its pulpit and led marches from its steps. For nearly 200 years it had been the site of struggle, resistance and change.

On Wednesday, the church was a crime scene — the street outside aglow with the flashing red lights of police cars and echoing with the screech of sirens. Nine people had been killed there, including the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

[9 dead in ‘hate crime’ shooting at prayer meeting at historic Charleston African American church

“I do believe this was a hate crime,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said at a news conference early Thursday.

To those watching in Charleston and from afar, it was devastating.

“It’s not just a church. It’s also a symbol … of black freedom,” said Robert Greene, who studies the 20th century South at the University of South Carolina. “That’s why so many folks are so upset tonight, because it’s a church that represents so much about the rich history and tradition of African Americans in Charleston.”

In Charleston, the church is affectionately known as “Mother Emanuel,” a nod to its age and its eminence in the community. It is a place people take pride in, said the Rev. Stephen Singleton, who was pastor there from 2006 to 2010 — all soaring ceilings and fine pinewood floors, with an antique pipe organ that had been shipped from Europe more than a century ago.

“They’re just God-fearing people,” Singleton said of his former congregation. “People who lived in modesty in light of the history of the congregation they called home.”

“Where you are is a very special place in Charleston,” the most recent pastor, Clementa Pinckney, told a group of visitors two years ago. “It’s a very special place because this site, this area, has been tied to the history and life of African Americans since about the early 1800s.”

That history is a long and storied one. The congregation was founded in the era of slavery by Morris Brown, a founding pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1816, frustrated with the racism he encountered in Charleston’s segregated churches, Brown decided to form a church of his own. About 4,000 parishioners followed him — more than 75 percent of the city’s black community, according to a history published by the College of Charleston.

From the beginning, the congregation was a focal point of community organizing and anti-slavery activism — provoking fears and intense distrust among the city’s white population. According to a PBS documentary, white Charlestonians constantly monitored the church, sometimes disrupting services and arresting worshipers.

They had some reason for alarm: Denmark Vesey, the organizer of one of the nation’s most notable failed slave uprisings, was a leader in the church. He fiercely and insistently preached that African Americans were the new Israelites, that their enslavement would be punished with death, and in 1822 he and other leaders began plotting a rebellion.

A prayer circle formed following a shooting that left 9 dead at an historic African American church in Charleston, S.C. (Video: Robert Costa and Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)

The revolt was planned for June 16 — 193 years and one day before the shooting Wednesday night. But another member of the church, a slave named George Wilson, told his master about the plot. Nearly three dozen organizers — including Vesey — were put on trial and executed, while another 60 were banished from the city. Believing that “black religion” had caused the uprising, South Carolina instituted a series of draconian measures against African American churches and communities, including a ban on services conducted without a white person present. The Charleston AME congregation was dispersed and their building set ablaze.

After the end of the Civil War, the AME congregation — which had been conducting services in secret for decades and worked as part of the Underground Railroad — was formally reestablished and adopted the name Emanuel. Parishioners rebuilt their church on Calhoun Street, a half mile away from Fort Sumter, where the Civil War’s first shots were fired and, a block from the square that had been a military marching ground during the Civil War and the site of a celebratory parade of African American residents once the conflict ended.

When that wooden building was destroyed in a 1886 earthquake, the congregation replaced it with the stately Gothic revival structure seen today.

The church’s activism resumed along with services, and by the 20th century it had become a focal point of South Carolina’s civil rights movement.

Booker T. Washington spoke there in 1909 to a large audience of both white and black admirers. In 1962, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech about voting rights and making the “American dream a reality.” So did Roy Wilkins, as executive secretary of the NAACP. In 1969, as Charleston was in the midst of a massive strike aimed at creating a union for the state’s mostly black hospital workers, Coretta Scott King led a march from Emanuel AME’s steps while 1,000 state troopers and national guardsmen looked on.

“If there was any sort of civil rights protest or activity in Charleston it was almost always centered around that church,” Greene said.

Singleton, the former pastor of Emanuel AME, said the church was still a place for political organizing when he was there. Politicians often dropped in, he recalled. Parishioners organized for community issues.

Pinckney, 41, the pastor who was killed in the church when the gunman opened fire, was even more active. For more than a decade he’d served as a member of the South Carolina State Senate. He was an advocate for a bill in the state legislature that would require police officers to wear body cameras, calling it “our No. 1 priority,” according to the Charleston Post and Courier.

For many, the initial response was one of shock.

“If we’re not safe in the church, God, you tell us where we are safe,” a mourner at a prayer circle told a reporter for MSNBC.

But Robert Mickey, a University of Michigan political scientist who studies race and politics in the post-War South, noted that activist African American churches have been targeted before.

“They’ve been sites of black protest and community organizing, and they have long been targets as well,” he said, noting the long list of racist attacks on black churches, particularly the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

The gunman on Wednesday, who police said was about 21 years old, may not have been aware of that history, Mickey added. But the congregation at Emanuel AME, as well as the thousands of people who watched the news of the killings there in horror, certainly did.

“When you’re on the receiving end of the violence it’s pretty hard not to put it in that context,” Mickey said. “You can’t help but notice the continuities, the violence and fear that constantly these revisit these same communities.”

Others agreed:

But Singleton said that the attack on his old church “should be dealt with as an individual,” not as part of some broader trend.

“I think the comparison that you can draw from it is, evil is real and it’s prevalent all over the place,” he said, adding, “I want to encourage people of faith to be prayerful. Embrace our faith and embrace each other.”

Singleton, who preaches in Columbia, S.C., now, said he’ll heading back to Charleston in the next few days. He wants to visit his old congregation, he said, to pay his respects to those who were killed and the church that has had another painful chapter added to its history.

“That church has a legacy, and it won‘t be destroyed because of this,” he said, firmly. “Chances are it’ll probably come out stronger.”