Charleston is home.
I was raised in Ladson, S.C. It’s a suburb of Charleston, mostly a collection of homes, gas stations and fast-food restaurants at the doorstep of Charleston County.
When you live in South Carolina and somebody asks where you’re from, you simply say the town.
When you cross the border, Ladson doesn’t register. You say Charleston.
I’m from Charleston.
Charleston is Angel Oak trees casting shade amid the humid sun. Charleston is a cool breeze at the Battery. Charleston is pink azalea bushes, bursting with color and life.
Nobody can convince me there’s anything more beautiful than azaleas. Nobody ever will.
Charleston is dipping your toes in the sand on Folly Beach or sipping a Bloody Mary on Meeting Street. Charleston is sitting in traffic for an hour to cross a bridge to get on an island. You complain about it. But you do it again and again, because that’s Charleston.
Charleston is where my two adorable nieces play, my father beat cancer and 100 high school crushes now call home.
Charleston is Oprah Winfrey running the Cooper River Bridge Run, Bill Murray watching his minor league baseball Charleston RiverDogs and Citadel cadets wandering the streets in dress blues amid swooning College of Charleston co-eds in sun dresses.
When I tell people I’m from Charleston, the response – with slight variations – is the same. “Charleston is so beautiful.” “I love visiting Charleston.”
Those of us from Charleston, we swell with pride. Damn right, you love it.
Charleston is where I grew up. And in a challenging time in my life, it’s where I returned. I slept on a dear friend’s couch for a year, discovered adulthood (after a few false starts) and found my second wind.
Charleston cured me. Charleston saved me. Charleston made me.
Today, Charleston is battered. I promise you, she’s not broken.
A few months ago, a white police officer shot an unarmed, fleeing black man. A video of the shooting emerged, and shortly after the release, the police officer was arrested and charged with murder.
Charleston didn’t riot like Baltimore or Ferguson, Mo. We respond quickly. You can’t sully our reputation. We won’t stand for it.
And Charleston won’t stand for Wednesday night’s horror. A gunman walked into a historic black church and shot and killed nine people, including prominent state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a pastor at the church.
A manhunt immediately commenced. The next day, the accused killer was caught. He ran away. That’s what cowards do.
The church the gunman entered wasn’t just any church. It was Emanuel AME Church, one of the most historic black churches in the country. In the early 1800s, church members were frequently arrested – some were even killed – for illegal assembly.
Slaves and freedmen were prohibited from holding all-black services after a slave uprising plot was thwarted. The church met in secret anyway from 1834 to 1865. If the oppression of slave power pre-Civil War couldn’t stop this church, they certainly won’t be cowed by a boy with a gun.
On Wednesday night, congregants and their pastor assembled for a prayer meeting. Not even a church is safe from violence.
They call Charleston the “Holy City.” Historians say it earned that nickname because the city was tolerant of all religions. It still is.
What we won’t tolerate is a terrible human being wreaking havoc on our home, on our people. That’s not what Charleston does.
Pummel us with a hurricane. Smother us in humidity. Wreak havoc in a church.
Charleston always comes back. The site of Wednesday’s massacre is a perfect example. That church – Mother Emanuel it is called because of its long history and tradition – burned down in the 1700s.
Congregants rebuilt her.
Then, an earthquake destroyed the building in the 1800s.
Congregants rebuilt her.
And Wednesday, a despicable man opened fire.
Congregants will rebuild her spirit. And Charleston – white residents, black residents, all residents – will offer support, because that’s what Charleston does.
I once worked in Greenwood, S.C., at a newspaper about three hours from Charleston. Greenwood is the home of many things, but most prominently is the Benjamin E. Mays Historical Preservation Site.
Mays is the former president of Morehouse College, served as an adviser for multiple presidents and mentored a young Civil Rights pioneer. His name was Martin Luther King Jr.
While I was in Greenwood, the Mays site needed additional funding and it was added to South Carolina’s annual state budget. The governor, Nikki Haley, vetoed the spending. The only way to override the veto was to get the money approved through the Republican-led state Senate.
When time came for the state Senate to vote, the Mays supporters didn’t have the votes. Then, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney reached the podium. Pinckney preached the virtues of Mays, his ties to South Carolina and how we should honor and remember great historical figures who played such a prominent role in our country. Pinckney wasn’t from Greenwood. The money didn’t benefit his district. But he argued passionately for the necessary funds.
When he was done, the state Senate voted. The funds were allocated to the Mays site. And that site stands today, a testament to how far we’ve come even when Charleston’s massacre shows us how far we must go.
Without Pinckney, we might not still have the Mays site. And without Mays, we might not have King.
And without King, we might not have this:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
I hope so.
Scott J. Bryan is editor of the Palatka Daily News.