Standing In The Gap Of The Real And Perceived
I listened yesterday, live, to the families of the slain in Charleston speaking in the arraignment hearing of the defendant being charged, and cried.
I grew up in the wake of suburban flight in the 1970s, in cities like Hanahan and Charleston Heights. My neighborhoods were a genuine mix of poor blacks and whites, the old and the young.
I learned to love and value all of them. Each culture, each generation brought something good to the table. Next door neighbor Eloise Jones, in her seventies, was raising an adopted brother and sister in her house and chickens in her backyard. Her husband Roy was congenial and quiet by external appearances, but an alcoholic nonetheless. Eloise ruled the roost. The sister, Angie, my former babysitter, became the first black woman officer ever in the Charleston Fire Department.
Mrs. Miller was curmudgeonly at first, retired with her husband, and was probably living there before the influx of blacks into the neighborhood. But she softened up when she found out we had a mutual friend, her Bassett Hound, Snoopy. Sometimes I’d sit on her porch and listen to her tell stories. She was very proud that her son, a military man, had once been in an episode of the television show “Hawaii Five-O.”
Bob the Fireman, as I called him, was a young man living in the smallest one room bachelor pad I have ever seen, behind an actual house on the street. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Bob had lost everything, including his children, in a nasty divorce back in Colorado, and started a new life in Charleston after a stint in the U.S. Navy. Bob introduced me to Mad magazine and the Beach Boys, and invited me over for dinner on occasion. He was a standup, All American kind of guy, and I kept in touch with him into my twenties.
It was not all chocolate and cream, though. I got mugged on Halloween. My bicycle was stolen from my front yard in broad daylight during school hours. It never occurred to me to consider race as a factor in those incidents, although looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have dressed up as a ghost in a white sheet with two holes for my eyes.
But being in those neighborhoods as a child was a blessing. We looked out for one another. We were a community.
There’s a long way to go, but I’m so proud of my childhood hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. Its citizens are pulling together, exercising faith, and acting professionally to move forward, begin to heal, avoid rash conclusions and assumptions, and focus on unity while due process, a right we should all cherish, takes its course.
And this wasn’t the first such display of Charleston’s character, even recently. A couple of months ago, a white cop shot and killed a black man, Walter Scott, in a public park in North Charleston. It was a bad situation, caught on video, and that, combined with some existing tensions between the black community and the North Charleston Police Department, created some very impassioned, but organized, civilized protests calling for justice. Even then, though, the streets remained peaceful, business owners stayed open, no curfew was necessary, and police had real conversations with individuals in the community they served. The police officer who fired the shots was charged with murder and is now sitting in a jail cell next to Dylann Roof, the young man who has confessed as the shooter in Wednesday’s massacre at Emanuel AME Church.
There are some big, so-called “sophisticated” cities around the country that could learn a few things about self-respect from this Deep Southern, modest little coastal town that fired the first shots of the Civil War.
Slavery was a blight upon our country, and racism still raises its ugly head, as it did last Wednesday night, among all regions and ethnicities, not just among whites, not just toward blacks, and not just in the South. Charleston’s character has, like our country’s, been challenged, but not defined by racism or slavery, and will not be today.
So stand firm, Charleston. The dividers will keep forcing your hand. But let no one, from within or without, divide you. Just because one of us decides to destroy himself and others does not mean that we have to follow. That’s what you are demonstrating to the world right now.
You have come a long way indeed, and are setting the example for the rest of our nation regarding how to love, even in the face of shameless, unbridled evil, and how not to allow the Adversary to turn us against one another, but to resist his call to hatred, and instead, diffuse hatred with love. He is defeated! So are you called. So may you be known. God be with you in continued overflowing grace, my beloved Charleston.