June 17, 2016
Statement from Elliott Summey
Chairman, Charleston County Council
Re: Emanuel Nine One Year Later
June 17, 2015 was a night that changed Charleston’s history and landscape forever. Although it started as a normal weekday for most of us as we tended to our families, late meetings and dinner, it became anything but normal.
While at a local hospital visiting a family member who had a stroke less than 24 hours before, I received a phone call about the events that had just unfolded at the Mother Emanuel AME Church. What was said on that phone call would never explain the sights and sounds that our first responders and those on the scene heard and saw firsthand.
The scene was chaotic, we located all the African American senators and state representatives and began to make sure that all were in a secure location for their safety. We didn’t know if there were other gunmen, more targeted locations and people. As the local news reports started to be released, we received phone calls from national networks. And that’s when more craziness began. We were operating out of our dispatch center, where there are eyes and ears on every jurisdiction. Our dispatchers and employees worked tirelessly to get out the information to all police agencies and the FBI. This was the first time we utilized our new consolidated dispatch center in an emergency and it worked. It was not the emergency we wanted or expected to learn from, but our dispatchers and emergency personnel kept their composure during it all.
Then bomb threats started, threatening our first responders, leaders, other places of worship and numerous locations in Charleston. It was a time where the world felt like it was upside down. I questioned my faith and asked “Why God would do that to people in a church?”.
I asked Senator Marlon Kimpson to come back to Charleston from Columbia – I wanted him safe at the dispatch center. He wanted to go directly to the church to be on the scene as he didn’t know all the details. Reverend Pinckney was one of his close friends. When Senator Kimpson walked in the center, I told him that his friend was gone. I still can remember his face, pained with sadness. Neither one of us will ever forget that moment. It changed us – as civil servants, fathers and friends.
What happened in the days and hours later could fill pages and pages detailing the horror and absolute devastation felt by our community. Even with the eventual apprehension of the suspect, it did not take away the pain.
However, the way in which our community and the families of the Emanuel Nine and Twelve reacted were astounding. They embraced love instead of hate. There were no riots, there was a strength that blossomed to show the world that Charleston would never let hate win. People from around the country came to show their solidarity and join in the message that love would always win.
In my personal belief, I believe that through God, the nine who died that night and their families’ reactions led us to a different place with an eye-opening experience. Their deaths were not in vain. The deaths of those nine amazing people, and the lives of the three people who lived through this horror, ignited a cosmic shift in our state’s thinking.
Less than one month later, officials worked together to remove the Confederate Flag from the statehouse. A symbol that the gunman revered as a symbol of white supremacy. A racist symbol that to African Americans and many others represents a war to uphold slavery and a decades long battle to oppose civil rights advances.
What came out of this tragedy was proof to our nation and our international community that you can try to break Charleston by hate and evil, but you will not win. Out of all of it, we’ve gotten closer as community.
I don’t know if personally, I will ever be the same. I don’t look at the world the same anymore.
Maybe through all of this I have become a better dad, and will make sure not grow monsters with hate in their hearts.
As a parent, you never expect your child to die before you. As a friend or spouse, you never expect your loved ones to be gone in an instant. As a co-worker, you don’t expect to look down at an empty desk that will no longer be occupied by a person with a smile you have memorized.
These were people we all knew. These were individuals who served our state, Charleston County and our communities for decades. And served with their strong faith. They will not be forgotten. Ever.
The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who by age 23, was elected to the SC House of Representatives and by 27, became our youngest state senator. One of Charleston’s favorite librarians, Cynthia Hurd, worked at the county’s libraries for more than 30 years. Ethel Lance worked at Mother Emanuel AME for more than 30 years and also worked as a custodian at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium and her cousin, Susie Jackson, was so giving that when her son moved out of her house, she gave his room to two young people who needed shelter in their neighborhood. Susie’s nephew, Tywanza (Ty) Sanders courageously stood in front of his aunt and died trying to save her. He was always smiling and the youngest of the victims.
Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a single mother of three, speech therapist and Goose Creek High School track coach, loved her church so. Her son, Chris, has become one of the symbols of forgiveness in our city. Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor, who not only directed a community development program in Charleston County, she was a mother of four daughters and sang in the church’s choir. Reverend Daniel Simmons, a veteran, was the former pastor of several AME churches. Myra Thompson was a retired Charleston County schoolteacher who was utterly devoted to her church and received her license to preach earlier that night. Although they died at the hands of hate, they lived in the hands of love and true faith.
As the upcoming trial for the alleged gunman creeps up, the wounds will become raw again. But as a community, I know what kept us together on June 17, 2015 will concrete the fact that hate and evil will never win. Ever.
J. Elliott Summey