The world knows my sister Cynthia Graham Hurd, as one of the Charleston nine, murdered by a white supremacist in Emanuel AME Church this summer. But she is more than just a victim or a name scrolling across the bottom of a TV screen.
She was a sister, the fourth of six kids. When my parents died 25 years ago, she became the family matriarch, taking charge and making sure that even my oldest brother, Robert, marched in line.
She was an aunt who spoiled my two daughters with books and trips to Charleston. She was involved – sometimes, as a father I have to say, too involved – in their lives. I called her every Sunday from Charlotte to keep up with the rest of the family in Charleston — she had the scoop on everyone.
She was a dedicated librarian for 31 years, helping kids solve their problems. Before the Internet, my big sister, the nerd, read every word of the World Book encyclopedia. When the traveling salesman finally delivered the last volume to our house, she was so excited. That was her first library, her escape. She served on the housing authority board in Charleston, and took seriously the important work of providing safe, affordable and decent shelter for all. She worried that gentrification was driving some African Americans out of the center city.
In the days after the shooting, South Carolina honored those killed by removing the Confederate flag from the state house. It’s a meaningful gesture. But we cannot stop there.
Ultimately, the flag is just a symbol. Its removal must be the beginning of bigger reforms that empower America’s African Americans. That might mean opposing restrictive laws that prevent minorities in America from voting or pushing states to expand Medicaid and embrace the Affordable Care Act or fighting bias in the courts, which place too many African Americans behind bars for long sentences for minor offenses or before their cases have been heard.
It must also mean addressing the disparity in education funding or the fact that in states such as North Carolina and South Carolina, historically black colleges and universities get funded disproportionately to white institutions. It has to be about confronting the unconscious bias that means that the white Sarah Johnson with a stellar résumé gets a job, while the black Shamika Johnson with the same accolades can’t even get an interview.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott provided comfort and condolences to the families of the nine who were murdered, and I appreciated that. But it’s their Republican Party that supports many of these policies that affect African Americans. What are they going to do about it? Are they willing to put their seats on the line to challenge members of their own party and lose standing with many conservative voters they once courted?
Anybody can be a popular politician. You just say nothing and do nothing. It’s when you speak truth to power — that’s when you rise above rhetoric and become a true leader.
In “The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours,” Marian Wright Edelman, founder and director of the Children’s Defense Fund, offers a lesson I often refer to in speeches and private conversations. “Remember and help America remember that the fellowship of human beings is more important than the fellowship of race and class and gender in a democratic society,” she writes.
We can’t simply look at the flag and think that we have accomplished anything. That would be too little value placed on the lives of those who died that night.
I’m not optimistic about what will happen next because public policy bodies — general assemblies and city councils and Congress — pay attention to the moment. As the days and weeks go by, people tend to say, “That happened; now let’s move on to something else.” My goal is to make sure that the lives that were lost that night in Charleston stay relevant.
I want to remind people that something terrible happened that was an assault on the conscience of the country. This ought to stay with us more than two or three weeks. Let’s face up to rather than ignore our growing racial problems, unless we want them to fester, grow and weaken our great country.
We can’t simply move on. We’ve got work to do.