Four years ago today, a white supremacist hoping to instigate a race war gunned down nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The group was in the middle of a Bible study meeting when the killer pulled a handgun from a fanny pack. Tywanza Sanders, one of the victims, attempted to talk him down, and asked why he wanted to shoot innocent people. After the gunman stated he intended to murder everyone in the Bible study, Sanders dove in front of the gunman, and was the first to be killed. Seven others died at the scene, and another victim died of gunshot wounds at a nearby hospital.
The gunman tried to kill himself, but his gun was out of rounds, so he walked out of the church. He was taken into custody alive and unharmed, and officers later purchased a Burger King meal for him. He was the first person to be given the death penalty for committing a hate crime, and is currently on death row in a federal penitentiary awaiting execution.
The gunman’s selection of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was intentional. The church is the oldest AME church in the South, having been built in 1816, and was known as Mother Emanuel. The first Emanuel AME congregation, led by local carpenter Denmark Vesey, sprung up in protest after white Methodists announced plans to build a garage on top of a black cemetery. According to The New Republic, Mother Emanuel was the spiritual anchor of the black community in a Southern state where anti-black laws were some of the most draconian.
The church quickly became the focal point for the city’s enslaved community, and, because of this, was routinely harassed by city officials. State and city ordinances allowed for black worship, but only between sunrise and sunset, and demanded that a majority of the congregants be white. The church’s ministers allowed Vesey to teach reading and writing, which violated of the state’s ban on black literacy, leading Charleston authorities to repeatedly shut the church down.
It is Grit Post‘s policy to not publish the names or likenesses of mass shooters in order to deny them the notoriety they often seek. Instead, we have decided to commemorate the anniversary of the Charleston massacre by telling readers about the nine victims.
Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney (Emanuel AME senior pastor)
In addition to leading the Emanuel AME congregation, Rev. Pinckney was widely viewed as one of the most prominent civil rights leaders in South Carolina. He began his career in public service at the age of 23, becoming the youngest African American to ever be elected to the South Carolina legislature when he was elected as a state representative in 1996. In 2000, he was elected to the state senate, and remained Charleston’s senator until he died.
In addition to his work leading 17 churches, Rev. Pinckney also led Black Lives Matter rallies in the wake of the shooting of Walter Scott, who was shot in the back multiple times by officer Michael Slager. As a state senator, Rev. Pinckney successfully pushed for legislation requiring police officers to wear body cameras. In 2017, Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing Scott.
Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor (Emanuel AME associate pastor)
Rev. Middleton-Doctor joined Emanuel AME in 2015 after retiring from a career in the public sector, and became a minister a few months later. She was known for singing in the church choir, and a friend of hers told the Charleston Post and Courier that she had a singing voice that was “so angelic it could move the very depth of your heart.” She is survived by her four daughters.
Rev. Daniel Simmons
While Simmons survived the initial shooting, he later passed away from his wounds at a Charleston hospital. “Super” Simmons, as he was known, was a veteran of the Vietnam War, and earned the Purple Heart medal for his service. As a pastor, he served congregations at eight different AME churches before retiring in 2013, according to The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. In addition to earning his undergraduate degree at Allen University in Columbia, Rev. Simmons earned a Master’s Degree in social work from the University of South Carolina, and a Master’s in divinity from Lutheran Seminary. He is survived by his wife and two children.
Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton was beloved by the Charleston community, particularly by the Goose Creek High School students and faculty, where she was a speech language pathologist as well as the head coach for the track team. The school’s principal, Jimmy Huskey, said she “cared about her students and was an advocate for them, always willing to listen to and talk with them.” She is survived by her two sons and one daughter.
Rev. Myra Thompson (Emanuel AME board of trustees chair)
Thompson led the Bible study the night of the shooting, after weeks of preparation. The 59-year-old had also just been re-licensed to preach hours before she was killed at the Bible study, according to the Post and Courier. Thompson — who earned a Bachelor’s degree as well as two Master’s degrees — led the Emanuel AME board of trustees, making her one of the most instrumental leaders at the church.
The Bible verse she taught the night she was killed was about the Parable of the Sower in the Gospel of Matthew, which Jesus used as a means to teach his disciples about the power of faith, as even one seed thrown in good soil will produce “a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.” Thompson’s husband, Anthony, who was rector of the Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church, said his wife was like one of those seeds of faith that bore fruit, yielding much more than was sown.
Tywanza Sanders died trying to save his aunt, 87-year-old Susie Jackson, from being killed. At age 26, he was the youngest of the Emanuel AME victims, and had earned a business degree from Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina. His last words were reportedly, “you don’t have to do this.” His cousin, Horace Taylor, told The Guardian that Sanders was “always speaking positive, he was always with a smile on his face. Though he was younger than me, I looked up at him as my big cousin.”
After killing her nephew, the gunman turned his handgun on Sanders’ aunt, 87-year-old Susie Jackson, who was shot 11 times — more than any of the other churchgoers that night. It was no surprise Jackson was at the Bible study the night of the shooting, as the mother of two and grandmother of eight dedicated most of her free time to church activities. In addition to the weekly Bible studies, Jackson sang in the choir, served on the church’s board of trustees, and was a member of the Women’s Missionary Society at Emanuel AME. Her favorite book of the Bible was Proverbs.
70-year-old Ethel Lance was one of Susie Jackson’s cousins, and she was known as “the heart of the family,” according to her granddaughter, Najee Washington. She worked for more than three decades as a member of the housekeeping staff for Charleston’s Gaillard Auditorium. Lance was also a sexton at the church, meaning she volunteered her time to help keep Emanuel AME clean. In addition to having five children and seven grandchildren, she also had four great-grandchildren.
54-year-old Cynthia Hurd had a passion for reading and education, and was a longtime librarian at the Charleston County Public Library after graduating from Clark Atlanta University in 1984. According to the South Carolina African American History calendar, Hurd was known for being able to find any book that was “just right” for any reader who asked, and helped countless students with their homework assignments. Hurd also spent 20 years as a member of the board for the Charleston County Housing Authority, which helps place low-income residents in affordable housing.