It was 8:16 p.m., five years ago today when 21-year-old Dylann Roof, a white supremacist trying to start a race war, stepped off Calhoun Street and walked into Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
There was a small group of men and women there for Wednesday evening Bible study. They didn’t know Roof. He didn’t look like them. On top of that, racial tensions were running high with recent uprisings over police brutality in Furgeson, Missouri over the death of Michael Brown and in Baltimore, Maryland over the death of Freddie Gray. Local tempers were also frayed ever since 50-year-old Walter Scott had been shot and killed in the street by a North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager just a few weeks earlier.
The parishioners that night had no reason to invite him into their circle, but they did.
They took him in. They welcomed him. They spoke with him, laughed with him and prayed with him.
In the best traditions of a church built on the belief that we are all our brothers’ keepers, they treated him like any member of their church family.
Except Roof was the epitome of a wolf in sheep’s clothing as he stepped back, pulled out a .45-caliber Glock (that he owned thanks to the “Charleston Loophole,” which allowed even those with a criminal record or mental illness to buy a weapon) and opened fire. Then he reloaded and did it again...and again...and again...and again...and again...and he nearly killed them all.
Those who died that day include Bible study teacher Myra Thompson, choir member Susie Jackson and her grandnephew Tywanza Sanders, pastor and school administrator Depayne Middleton-Doctor, library manager Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Greater Zion AME Church pastor Daniel L. Simmons, speech therapist and Goose Creek High School track coach Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, the church sexton Ethel Lee Lance and my friend, Mother Emanuel pastor and SC State Senator Clementa Pinckney.
They prayed with him and he killed them.
Legislation to close the “Charleston Loophole” passed the U.S House and still sits in the GOP-controlled Senate thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies. But we’ll save that conversation for another day.
In the investigation that followed, details emerged about this young terrorist and his intention to kill these innocent, faithful servants in order to help start a race war. We’d learn about White supremacists Earl Holt, Jared Taylor and the Council of Conservative Citizens how their 21st Century version of white supremacy helped radicalize Roof’s own hate into violence.
We’d see Roof’s Confederate Flag selfies. We’d read excerpts of his manifesto. We’d argue about whether or not he was a cold calculating terrorist or a troubled young man struggling with mental illness as if, somehow, you can’t be both.
We’d mourn. We’d pray. We’d cry together, sing Amazing Grace together and pledge to never forget these nine martyrs...and five years later, on the anniversary of their deaths, nothing has changed.
If there are moments that have defined me as an individual and my experience in this American experiment, the night of June 15, 2015 is mine. If there are people who shape our lives in guidance and representation, Rev. Senator Clementa Pinckney is mine.
I was blessed not only because I got to work with him as a State Senator and to see his work in the AME church, but to know him as a man. I got to see him when he thought no one was looking, and see his kindness and quality up close and personal.
He was a good man. He was my friend. I can hardly think of him without crying.
The book of Micah teaches us that in order to be a good man, the Lord only requires you “to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
That was Sen. Pinckney, a man who always saw not just who we are, but who we could be. He was a man whose quiet determination drove us to be a better people. A man who not only knew, but exemplified the latin phrase, “Quam bene vivas, refert, non quam diu” or the most important thing isn't the length of your life, but the quality.
In a nutshell, that was the late Senator from Jasper County, S.C. and Dylann Roof is the person responsible for taking him from us.
It is with that crime and capacity for violence in mind that I think about Ahmaud Aubrey, gunned down in the middle of the day by white men for committing no crime. I think about George Floyd, strangled by a police officer in the street, begging for his life while three other officers, public servants who have sworn to protect and serve, did nothing. I think about Breonna Taylor, shot and killed in her home by officers executing a no-knock search warrant. I think about Rayshard Brooks, unarmed and asleep in his car, eventually shot in the back by Atlanta police and Walter Scott whose non-functioning brake light and black skin sentenced him to death.
I think of all of them because, after 13 hours of a multi-jurisdictional manhunt, Roof, the armed terrorist who gunned down nine people in cold blood, was pulled over by police in Shelby, North Carolina and given the courtesy of going to Burger King for a bite to eat.
And, in the end, they took him alive…They took him alive…THEY TOOK HIM ALIVE!
Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images