The church on Calhoun Street near downtown Charleston, South Carolina sits quietly, almost unassuming as worshippers walk in. Older ladies wearing colorful chapeaus walk arm in arm with younger women who might be wearing African-inspired garments. They smile, wishing “good morning” to one another while noting the nice weather as they look toward the steeple rising into the sky.
This is Sunday morning at almost every Black church in America. This one would be no different had it not made international news because one of the most horrific racist crimes in America so far this century took place here just five years ago.
But the spirit of the congregants at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church is strong and they know this city and this state is a focal point of the 2020 election cycle. It is not lost on Black church folks here that they represent such an important voting bloc to the Democratic candidates, who will begin to arrive in Charleston this week hoping to sway their votes.
Most people here are African American, but a few whites are here as well (Unsurprising, as this part of town, once heavily Black, is experiencing a change in its demographics). A men’s choir welcomes worshippers with a baritone-sung hymn, followed by a praise dance troupe of about 20 children.
But when talking about the upcoming primary election, less than a week away, people here say they have the same outlook as much of the rest of the town: they are undecided and, in many ways, unimpressed.
“There’s so much confusion I haven’t made up my mind,” said Sheila Mitchell who lives in Charleston and is a missionary at Mother Emanuel. ”The candidates are so confusing to people it’s at a standstill and there’s too much flip-flopping in the air.”
But Mitchell noted that the atmosphere isn’t unusual when it comes to politics around here. President Obama, she says, was someone everyone got behind. “With Obama, everyone got on board, we went door-to-door” in getting out support for him. Even Biden, who served under Obama as vice president, hasn’t inspired that type of enthusiasm, she says.
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About 150 people are here this morning to hear Senior Pastor Eric S.C. Manning preach his sermon. This is the same space in which Obama assumed his mantle as “healer-in-chief” in 2015, when he delivered the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pickney (one of nine killed when white supremacist Dylan Roof opened fire on a bible study here nine days before) to a packed house.
But almost five years later, the church seems to have moved past the tragedy inflicted upon it by the racial terrorism of a demented man. But the A.M.E.’s importance in the Black community, like other historic churches here, has not waned — and Manning is encouraging his congregants to vote. And, for obvious reasons, gun violence is an issue that he wants candidates to address.
“There’s education, gentrification, housing and gun violence,” said Manning, 52. “We continue to not deal with it and not deal with gun violence and creating sensible gun laws. It’s not just here, it’s Sandy Hook, Parklane and other places. It seems like no one has the courage to take a stand.
“Sure,” he continued. “People have opinions about all these things but what about protecting that worshipper who needs to be protected, so because we’re in this space, we need more discussion on gun laws.”
Joe Campbell, 62, also a trustee at Mother Emanuel said that the Nevada debates left him unimpressed and thus undecided as to who he will vote for.
“Looking at that last debate I was disappointed,” said Campbell. “They have not talked about how they will help us. I hope this coming debate will be more positive. Biden seems to have forgotten how to fight like when he was with Obama. Bernie has had a heart attack and won’t release his medical information. Warren really just needs to do more to reach Blacks.”
But Lee Bennett, 65, his co-trustee, echoed something commonly said around town: it’s about who can defeat Donald Trump and people are serious about vetting who that might be.
“I know a lot of people may not have made up their minds yet, but it becomes about who can win,” he said. “It makes it more complex from that standpoint. It’s problematic, but we are really, really wrestling and giving it thought. People have been doing intense studying to make sure we are choosing the right candidate. We’ll narrow that grop down, but there’s been a lot of involvement.”
Mother Emanuel will likely get major media focus this week. The staff expects more journalists to come here and satellite radio host Joe Madison from Sirius XM is scheduled to do a broadcast here. But things will also go on as usual. On Saturday, the day South Carolina votes, a health fair is scheduled here and a funeral will take place. The church has defeated Roof’s evil simply by achieving normalcy, by becoming itself again.
It was in that normalcy that Heather Graham, 38, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Charleston, found herself on Sunday morning. She is undecided, but hints that she may support Bernie Sanders.
“If it came down to him and Trump I’d vote for him,” she says, noting that she likes Sanders free tuition proposal. “But right now, I feel the same way as everyone else. I want to see one of them say something for us. I haven’t seen that. They are talking about a plan to deal with gun violence, but I need to see them put it to work.”
Madison J. Gray is BET.com’s senior editor reporting from the ground in South Carolina.