Guest commentary by Carolyn Click
On an ordinary day in South Carolina, this is what you hear: “Have a blessed day.” “Be blessed.” “Be blessed, be safe.”
At the bank, inside the grocery store, at the fast-food drive-thru window, it is a routine farewell, a cheerful benediction that signals the end of an ordinary human interaction and the beginning of the rest of your day.
Since June 17, there have been no ordinary days in South Carolina. Since the horrific massacre of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, there has been grief, unity marches, rallies, political gatherings, funerals – so many funerals – and not a little soul-searching in public and private places.
On an afternoon when the blistering heat and humidity should have been the main topic of conversation, South Carolinians watched a horse-drawn caisson draw up to the Statehouse with the body of state Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel AME who was gunned down with his eight parishioners in the midst of a Bible study. A 21-year-old white man apparently intent on launching his own race war is accused of the slayings.
President Obama arrived in Charleston to eulogize the 41-year-old Pinckney, reaching deep into the well of American contradictions – of racism and redemption, violence and forgiveness. Mourners gathered day after day to eulogize the other eight church members, recalling the beauty of their lives in emotional testimonies.
Still, I heard these kind, insistent words: “Have a blessed day.”
A potent phrase
It is people of color, African-Americans, who mainly conclude their conversations with this blessing, although I also hear white people of faith punctuate their farewells with the blessing.
I covered religion and civil rights in South Carolina for a number of years and confess it can be disconcerting for a journalist to be blessed so many times in a day’s work.
It is an especially potent phrase considering the history of African-Americans in South Carolina, a history shaped by slavery and then subservience to a white political and social system that for most of the 20th century relegated them to second-class citizenship.
“I hope the south will be able to block the passage of the so called civil rights program,” a Greenwood resident wrote to S.C. Congressman William Jennings Bryan Dorn in 1948. “I don’t care to live under negroe rules if they are not satisfacied (sic) to live under a white mans government[.] I say let him go, they have got all they were entitled to out of this country, they have abused our soil which is one of our valuable resourses (sic) and as you know it is impossible to get a fair deal out of them.”
Through his poor spelling, punctuation and run-on sentences, the letter writer encapsulated some of the bitterest Old South mythologies that shadowed the state’s African-American population – that they were takers, ungrateful and dissatisfied with their lot, not to be trusted.
The late Democratic congressman was inclined to agree with the letter writer during those early paroxysms over passage of even modest civil rights legislation, seeing the threat of communism behind calls for fair housing, equal employment opportunities and an expansion of voting rights.
“The least said about race consciousness and race prejudice, the better off our Nation will be,” Dorn wrote to the state NAACP secretary, the Rev. James Hinton, that same year.
Like so many white southerners, Dorn had been weaned on the heroics of the Confederacy and nostalgia for the Lost Cause. He relished the dominant narrative of white “redeemers” who had wrested the state from the grasp of federal Reconstruction. It took years, but Dorn eventually changed his views, embraced his fellow black South Carolinians as equals and refused to abandon the Democratic Party as it welcomed minorities.
Change came slowly and sporadically, with only occasional voices raised against Jim Crow and its debilitating machinations. Many who found their voices were people of faith. A Baptist minister from Rock Hill wrote this to Dorn in 1948: “I think there is no such thing as ‘States Rights’ to do wrong, Mr. Dorn, perhaps God has a hand in this matter. He has not always let the strong oppress the weak… .”
A spirit that needs to be changed
When I arrived in South Carolina from my native Virginia in 1994 to work for The State, the capital city daily in Columbia, the paper had just conducted a poll about reader interests. It found that Bible reading and gardening were the two most popular avocations. Often, when meeting someone on assignment, the question turned to this: “Do you have a church home?”
For many Southerners, church is home, and that is why I think so many people placed themselves in that Bible study room at Emanuel AME Church. No matter their skin color, they could not fathom the violation of that sacred space by the young white gunman with his twisted, racist agenda.
“Our beating heart,” President Obama called the black church. “The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate.”
To be black in 2015 and place oneself in that Bible study calls up centuries of anguish and pain, the detritus of slavery and lynching, black codes and segregation. To be white and seated metaphorically in that Bible study is to bear a burden of – what? – guilt, perhaps… or shame that we could not as a society have done more to avert that hate-filled invasion.
What could we have done? Furling the Confederate battle flag seems obvious now and it was obvious in 2000 when thousands, including people of faith, came together to demand its removal from the state capitol dome. Even then, the heritage folks knew it had been hijacked years earlier by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils and the folks who cursed and spit and threw rotten eggs on civil rights protesters. Dylann Roof, the accused killer of the Emanuel 9, photographed himself with the Confederate banner.
The 2000 flag compromise – to move it to the Confederate Soldier Monument in front of the stately old capitol – remained an affront to many and a silent scar to bear.
“It symbolizes a spirit in South Carolina that needs to be changed,” now retired AME Bishop John Hurst Adams said in 1998. “What you were under this flag is where you belong – that’s what it says.”
The thunderous Adams was then the presiding bishop of the South Carolina AME church and was a pivotal figure in calling for economic and social justice for those who had been shackled for so many decades by the twin whirlwinds of slavery and segregation.
Still, his people, those determined AMEs who were so often on the front lines in the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s to seek full integration into the social, economic and political life of the state, told those they met to “have a blessed day.”
With Charleston, there now seems a duty for all of South Carolina, and the country, to examine hearts and root out the old prejudices that have weighed us down for centuries. Furling the flag is a symbolic gesture but shouldn’t it be accompanied by an honest examination of societal issues that makes us all uncomfortable? Are we in a moment where we can truly examine the legacy of poor schools, the devastation of mass incarceration, and the breakdown of the family?
“God of our weary years”
The sermons I heard in the black church in South Carolina were often rooted in the Old Testament, in texts that focused on the plight of the enslaved Israelites struggling under the yoke of their Egyptian captors. The image of God leading the Jews out of bondage figured mightily in the lives of those whose own family trees were peopled by enslaved ancestors.
“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” The words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the black national anthem penned by James Weldon Johnson, would ring out at those church services and conferences that I covered.
I always marveled at the tenacious Christian faith of those who sang of their “weary years” and “silent tears.” They seemed always to believe the better angels of heaven would walk among us, shake off the old racial animosities and biases, and “let justice roll down like water.”
I recall a long-ago conversation with a parishioner at an AME church in Eastover. My family had been invited by the church’s then-pastor, Joseph Darby, now a presiding elder in the AME church and the pastor who gave the benediction at Clementa Pinckney’s funeral, to come to church and eat lunch afterward.
As we shared a sumptuous lunch, I noted that there didn’t seem to be much worry to exit church at noon, a tradition in so many white churches, including my own Presbyterian congregation.
No, she said, smiling, “we are on God’s time.”
I’ve thought about her and others like her in the wake of the Charleston killings, considering what reservoirs of goodness, what unshakeable belief in God, it must take to choose love and forgiveness over hatred. To be on “God’s time.”
Did she tell me to have a blessed day? I can’t remember, but I hope she did. That’s the benediction we all need these days.
CAROLYN CLICK is a journalist and former reporter for United Press International, the Roanoke Time & World-News and The State in Columbia, South Carolina. She recently joined the adjunct journalism faculty at the University of South Carolina.