5 years after Charleston massacre, killings of George Floyd, other black victims resound in churches’ multiracial book study

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 10, 2020
Liz Alston

Liz Alston, church historian of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sits in the front row of the sanctuary after a Sunday morning service in October 2018. Photo: Reuters

[Episcopal News Service] It’s been nearly four years since Grace Church Cathedral in Charleston, South Carolina, and its next-door neighbor, Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, first came together for a racial justice book study, but the chosen reading for the group’s June 2 meeting took a back seat to participants’ lived experiences.

It was the study group’s first meeting since vast protests erupted in Charleston and around the country following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by white police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Those events were still unfolding as the 60 or so participants joined the online meeting hosted by the two churches.

“It’s been an emotionally tough week. Living under the burden of racism is tough,” Tonnia Switzer told the group.

Grace, a mostly white Episcopal congregation, began the book study group in response to the June 17, 2015, massacre by a white supremacist of nine members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a Bible study at the Charleston church. Two months earlier, a North Charleston police officer had shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black motorist. The killings sent shockwaves through Charleston and ignited a national conversation about the legacy of slavery and the Confederacy and the systemic racism built into American institutions from the nation’s founding.

With the city approaching five years since the massacre, Charleston was among the locations where violent unrest marred otherwise peaceful protests the weekend after Floyd’s killing. Graphic cellphone video footage of the killing fueled national outrage. The video showed Minneapolis police pinning Floyd, an unarmed black man, to the ground for nearly nine minutes, with one officer’s knee pressed against Floyd’s neck as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe.”

The killing thrust discussions of race and policing to the forefront of America’s consciousness, though people of color have long been victims of police brutality and white vigilantism, even before Floyd’s death. “It certainly reminded me and haunted me afresh,” the Rev. Kylon Middleton, senior pastor of the historically black Mount Zion, told the book study group on June 2.

This meeting, like others in recent weeks, convened online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Middleton and the Ven. Callie Walpole, the cathedral’s vicar and subdean, allowed Episcopal News Service to observe the June 2 Zoom session.

Since forming in September 2016, as Charleston gunman Dylann Roof’s federal trial was about to get underway, the group has read and discussed together more than two dozen race-related books. After recent discussions of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” the group on June 2 broke from its normal format to allow participants to share their thoughts on systemic racism and recent events.

Abe Jenkins participates by cellphone video in the June 2 book study discussion on Zoom.

“I think this topic is something that all, throughout the world, people have on their minds,” said Abe Jenkins, grandson of civil rights activist Esau Jenkins. “Before we can ever reconcile racial relations, we’ve got to first acknowledge that the problem exists and have a conversation about it.”

After 400 years of oppression, those are difficult conversations for African Americans to initiate with their white neighbors, Middleton said. Some in the white community resist calls for change by saying instead the descendants of slaves should simply get over it, an attitude that Middleton suggested is driven by fear rather than facts.

Middleton was a close friend of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Mother Emanuel, who was gunned down by Roof along with the eight others from the congregation. In January 2017, a federal jury sentenced an unrepentant Roof to death for the rampage.

In May 2017, Michael Slager, the former North Charleston police officer, pleaded guilty to fatally shooting Scott in the back during a traffic stop for a broken taillight. A judge later sentenced Slager to 20 years in prison.

Three years later, a series of incidents in Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota have become flashpoints for a new wave of protests against racial injustice. In addition to Floyd’s killing, they include the February killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger by a white father and son in Georgia, and the March killing of Breonna Taylor, a black woman fatally shot by police during a raid of her home in Kentucky.

“Just being black, period – it’s almost like living while black – you have [white] individuals who are automatically afraid,” Middleton said. He told the story of visiting a parishioner in a hospital. While riding the elevator up, his mind was on finding the patient’s room, until he noticed a white woman next to him, cowering and clutching her purse.

“You never really forget it. You never really get over it,” he said.

Kylon Middleton

The Rev. Kylon Middleton, senior pastor of Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, speaks during the June 2 Zoom session of the book study he co-leads.

Switzer, echoing other black participants in the meeting, said white acquaintances in recent days had expressed sympathy to her, saying they’ve followed news of the protests after Floyd’s killing and didn’t realize how seriously black Americans still feel the sting of racism – “we didn’t know it was that bad.”

To that, Switzer didn’t hide her disbelief: “Are you living under a rock?”

Amid racial justice protests, reading group pauses to share reactions

In the days leading up to the June 2 book study, daily peaceful protests had given way overnight to rioting and looting in Charleston. “We had protests, we had curfews, we had riots, we had vandalism, and it was just awful,” Middleton told ENS. He and other faith leaders had been working long hours to promote peace and prayer during the protests and to help to clean up their neighborhoods afterward.

Since that first weekend, violence in Charleston has subsided, according to the Post and Courier, as demonstrators continue to call for criminal justice reforms and greater police accountability. That spirit of engagement enlivened the churches’ book study.

“I’m not surprised that we have a large group tonight,” Walpole said as she and Middleton welcomed participants.

White participants outnumbered black participants by about three to one, but at one point, Walpole, who also serves as archdeacon of the Diocese of South Carolina, urged those white participants to hold off speaking so they could listen to others’ perspectives on what had been happening in their community and around the country after Floyd’s killing.

“It reminded me so much of Emmett Till, whistling or whatever to a white woman,” Jenkins told the group. That was Mississippi in 1955, and the 14-year-old Till met the same fate. “They killed him.”

He added that this younger generation of black activists is different, not afraid of police, not afraid of talking back, not even afraid of dying while fighting for change. “People are just fed up,” Jenkins said. He doesn’t want rioting to distract from what the peaceful protests are really about. “The core problem is the injustice.”

What can white people of faith do to help? Get the facts about what is going on in the country, Switzer said. She usually tries not to make waves on Facebook, but she has begun posting links for white friends about how to become an anti-racist.

“I need you to do the work,” she said. “I need you to get up and speak.”

Defensive reactions like “I’m not a racist” aren’t helpful, said Gail DeCosta, a black Episcopalian who serves on the vestry at Grace. “That’s just too easy to say. People have got to be made to be aware they’re doing racist things, whether they think they’re racist or not.”

Liz Alston, a member of Mother Emanuel, suggested that white neighbors who aren’t sure how best to support racial healing shouldn’t feel discouraged from the work. “Start slow, but do something,” she said. Write a letter to the editor. Start a conversation in the neighborhood. Confront a relative who has expressed racist views.

“I’m not saying it’s easy,” she said, “but black life isn’t easy either and we have stood up.”

After massacre, growing momentum for reexamining America’s racial history

In 2015, Charleston was the flashpoint. The massacre at Mother Emanuel dominated national news. Walpole said some members of her congregation and other nearby Episcopal churches began opening their eyes to the prevalence and nature of racism that still existed in their community and the country.

“The way I describe it is, any veneer that might have existed was stripped away by the massacre, and we realized we had to be in relationship with one another and in conversation with one another,” Walpole said in an interview with ENS before the June 2 session.

But up to that point, there had been little relationship or conversation between Grace and Mount Zion, Middleton told ENS. With their churches separated only by a chest-high white wall and Grace’s parking lot, the congregations mostly kept to themselves. In the 1970s and 1980s, “I definitely couldn’t go into Grace Church when I was a boy growing up,” said Middleton, now 48. In the ensuing years, the congregations made occasional attempts to come together, such as at joint Pentecost services, but those efforts didn’t go much further.

Conditions slowly began to change in 2015. After Roof’s arrest, details of his fondness for the Confederate flag prompted some Southern leaders to order an end to displaying the flag at statehouses and other public places, a sudden and dramatic reversal after years of resistance to calls for the flag’s removal. Five years later, American institutions still face pressure to curtail public display of the flag and other Confederate symbols.

The massacre also inspired action by The Episcopal Church’s General Convention. Meeting a month after the attack, bishops and deputies passed a resolution condemning the Confederate battle flag as “at odds with a faithful witness to the reconciling love of Jesus Christ.” That month, General Convention also elected the church’s first black presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, and it established racial reconciliation as one of the church’s top priorities, along with evangelism and creation care. Two years later, the church would introduce its cornerstone initiative on race, Becoming Beloved Community.

At Grace, founded in 1846, work toward racial healing was just getting off the ground in September 2016. Walpole said some members of her congregation expressed interest in probing difficult issues of race and the history of slavery, by reading and discussing books on the topic. The aim wasn’t to guilt white members for the sins of their ancestors, “but simply to allow our eyes to be opened and see where we might have been blind before,” she said.

They started with Michelle Alexander’s influential “The New Jim Crow,” which makes the case that oppression of black Americans, far from ending with slavery and segregation, has evolved into a new racial caste system centered around mass incarceration. A 2015 General Convention resolution recommended the book by name.

Since then, the book study group has read and discussed Toni Morrison’s “The Origin of Others,” Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America,” Henry Louis Gates’ “Stony the Road” and C. Vann Woodward’s “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” among other books, as well as Paul’s letter to Philemon, for a biblical reading on slavery.

“We take our time with these books,” Walpole said, sometimes analyzing just a chapter at a time. Every Tuesday at 5 p.m. year-round, all are invited to the cathedral for the hourlong discussion, even if they haven’t read the week’s assignment.

Walpole, who grew up just outside Charleston on Johns Island, initially thought the book study would only draw five or six people, but it has grown to a regular turnout of 40 to 60 participants, with an even larger crowd when visited by a guest speaker, such as the mayor or police chief. On those occasions, the group often bonds over a dinner of okra soup, a Southern dish that Walpole says is “what you serve your family.”

Many of the participants are from Grace and Mount Zion, but it also draws people from other congregations, a mix of local Episcopal churches, as well as AME churches and other historically black congregations.

“What has occurred is more than we ever imagined,” Walpole said, and even more important now, with the country intensely focused on racial justice issues. “I feel there are people across the church and the country that are maybe ready to have these conversations.”

The Ven. Callie Walpole, vicar and subdean of Grace Church Cathedral in Charleston, South Carolina, is a co-leader of the book study group that meets Tuesday evenings at the cathedral. Its gatherings have been held online during the coronavirus pandemic.

Middleton, a Charleston native, has been senior pastor at Mount Zion since November 2015. He wasn’t involved in the book study from the start, but a white member of Mount Zion who had begun attending asked Middleton to come along in fall 2016. At the time, he felt exhausted after long days at the federal court with relatives of Roof’s victims observing his monthslong jury selection, trial and sentencing. “The last thing I wanted to do was come to a book study talking about race relations,” he said.

But one Tuesday evening, he dropped by Grace Church Cathedral. The group was still discussing “The New Jim Crow.” Middleton came and sat in a seat along the wall. He kept silent.

“They’re reading this book, but they don’t really have the context,” Middleton recalled thinking. The black perspective was missing, he said, and the difference between white and black experiences left him bewildered.

After the hour, he went home. “And I never intended to come back,” he said.

Middleton returned anyway and now leads the group with Walpole. He told ENS that he was compelled by a desire to help the group of white Christians expand its perspective, to think differently about the black experience and “the stain that continues to penetrate every area and facet of society because we have never fully dealt with the institution of slavery and the aftermath thereof.”

He had read “The New Jim Crow” but had not studied it in an academic way, like the group was. He went back and read the book again so he would be prepared to discuss it with them.

“I have lived this,” he said. “I didn’t need to study it. But I do need to study your perspective.”

Difficult conversations, but ‘we have to keep talking about it’

In June 2015, Middleton was serving as pastor of a different AME congregation about 60 miles away in Georgetown when he got word of the massacre in Charleston. The call came from the wife of Pinckney, the Mother Emanuel pastor. She told Middleton he should come to Charleston immediately. He arrived that evening.

Pinckney and Middleton grew up together. They didn’t live in the same community – Pinckney was originally from Ridgeland – but they became close while attending AME youth group events together. As adults, each served as godfather to the other’s children. Pinckney “was like a brother to me,” Middleton said.

The killings left a wound of grief that has yet to heal fully, and Middleton is surrounded by reminders. “It never goes away,” Middleton said. “There’s always a story that comes back up. … It’s more than just a story in the news. It’s personal.”

Middleton said he and other black participants also sometimes feel ambivalence and weariness toward talking about racism with their white counterparts.

“It’s a hard thing to keep talking about,” Middleton told ENS. “Sometimes, my members become extremely exhausted because you’re living this every day, so you don’t want to keep talking about it every day.”

But Middleton, who initially thought he’d never return, now has the 5 p.m. hour on Tuesdays blocked off every week in his calendar. He’s always there, even though the discussion may prove frustrating or bring up painful memories.

“We have to keep talking about it,” he said, particularly with white listeners “who are willing to talk about it and be moved into a position of empathy and understanding and awareness.” Even when someone in the book study mentions the nine people killed at Mother Emanuel, “I don’t like hearing about it, but every time I hear about it, it makes me want to do something else to make sure their lives were not lost in vain.”

Like Grace Church Cathedral, The Episcopal Church’s membership is overwhelmingly white – 90 percent white, according to the Pew Research Center. But among the subset of cathedral parishioners and other white participants who choose to attend the book study, Middleton and Walpole can challenge them to reconsider their assumptions on matters of race.

The sessions can be “grueling” but still worthwhile, Walpole said. Middleton, too, is dedicated to this work, even when he doesn’t enjoy it.

A few months ago, a white member of the group stood up and declared herself to be a racist, a moment of public confession and self-examination that Middleton likened to a scene from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The woman later asked Middleton how he felt attending the book study.

“It feels like, when I come here for one hour, it’s almost like being waterboarded,” Middleton said. “For me, it’s torture.”

It was not until Floyd’s killing that he fully understood why. His epiphany, he said, was embedded in a metaphor used by the Rev. Al Sharpton in his June 4 eulogy for Floyd to describe black Americans’ centuries of struggle within a dominant white culture.

It can feel like you’re drowning, Middleton told ENS. It can feel like you’re trying to come up for air, trying to affirm your own experience, to explain so others will understand. The body is present, but it can feel like the emotional dynamic is somehow divorced from the physical. It can feel like to survive each moment requires compartmentalizing thoughts and feelings, constantly attentive to what is said and left unsaid.

And it can feel like someone is pressing his knee into your neck.

“When George Floyd was on the ground … that’s exactly the black experience,” Middleton said, echoing Sharpton. “The proverbial knee has been on our neck in so many ways, to oppress, repress, restrict and just marginalize us forever in this country.

“So, I get it. I cannot breathe.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.