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Author of 'Emanuel Nine' church massacre book to speak at Civil Rights Memorial Center

As the prosecution made its closing argument, photos of the nine people that Dylann Roof had shot to death in a Charleston, South Carolina, church appeared on the screen in bloody, gruesome detail. 

Next to each dead body, another photo appeared of each victim smiling while they were still alive, in “wrenching juxtaposition,” Jennifer Berry Hawes wrote in her book about the massacre.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, Hawes has covered many tragic events throughout her distinguished career. But nothing had prepared her for what she saw in that federal courtroom in 2017.

Hawes – who was covering Roof’s trial for The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston – felt her eyes welling up. As the prosecutor finished his closing argument, emotions were running high in the courtroom, and the judge called for a break. Hawes hurried to the restroom, where she could let her tears flow in private.

“That moment was really powerful for me,” Hawes said. “That one was one where I felt the most heavy and most sad at the loss of all of these people.”

In Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness, Hawes writes about the aftermath of the shooting at the historic “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. She examines the massacre’s impact on race relations across the U.S. and how the survivors – who famously offered their forgiveness to Roof throughout his trial – still struggle to cope with their losses.

Hawes, who has won many honors including a Pulitzer Prize, a George Polk Award, a National Headliner Award, and a Dart Award for Journalism & Trauma, will discuss her book at the Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC) in Montgomery on July 22.

Proceeds from sales of the book, which was released last month, will fund a minority reporting internship program at The Post and Courier.

“We are pleased to host a discussion from such a distinguished journalist and author who has explored the murders of the ‘Emanuel Nine’ and placed their deaths in their proper historical context alongside the martyrs we recognize at the Civil Rights Memorial,” said Tafeni English, director of the CRMC, an interpretive center that provides visitors with a deeper understanding of the movement.

The CRMC includes the Civil Rights Memorial, which honors 40 men, women and children who were killed during the movement.

“Hawes’ examination of the hate-inspired violence that continues to plague our nation underscores our mission at the CRMC to ensure that the lessons of history are never forgotten, lest they be repeated,” English said.

‘Amazing Grace’

The shooting at the historic church on June 17, 2015 – and the mourning for the victims, which was marked by former President Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for the church’s pastor – was a flash point in the nation’s ongoing dialogue around the prevalence of Confederate symbols on public land. It also led to the publication of the SPLC’s “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” which in the latest edition notes that more than 1,700 such monuments dot the American landscape.

Hawes cites SPLC reports about the hate crime and describes how the shooter, Dylann Roof, posted pictures of himself on his website, waving a Confederate flag. His car also bore a license plate bearing the name “Confederate States of America” with three different Confederate flags, and he kept a rolled-up Confederate flag in his car next to boxes of bullets after the shooting.

The tragedy – and Roof’s wholehearted embrace of the flag – inspired then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to call for the flag’s removal from the state capitol grounds – a move the state Legislature approved.

“It suddenly became much harder to argue that the flag represented Southern heritage when a white supremacist who killed nine black people clearly thought it represented something else,” Hawes wrote.

The book describes how Roof became radicalized on the web, and how a new generation of radical-right terrorists has been spawned online.

As Roof wrote in an online manifesto, his radicalization began when he typed the words “black on White crime” into Google. He came across the website of a crudely racist group called the Council of Conservative Citizens. There, he found what he described as “pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders.”

It was a blatant lie.

As Jon Greenberg has reported for PolitiFact, “The exact opposite is true.” FBI data shows that just 15 percent of white people were killed by black people; 82 percent were killed by other whites.

“The old days of Klan rallies had faded, replaced by a new kind of meet-up,” Hawes wrote in her book. “Instead of hiding behind white sheets, racists now hid behind user names on a host of flourishing websites that Roof soon discovered, including the Daily Stormer.”

Hate crimes on the rise

As the SPLC’s Lecia Brooks testified last month before a congressional subcommittee, the myth of white genocide is driving white nationalist terror attacks like Roof’s, and the federal government must confront this reality. Brooks’ written testimony noted that hate crimes increased by 30 percent in the three-year period ending in 2017. This increase followed a three-year period in which hate crime incidents fell by about 12 percent.

Since the Charleston shooting, there have been several hate-related killings in the U.S., Hawes said. In April, a 19-year-old nursing student in San Diego murdered Lori Kaye inside Chabad of Poway on the last day of Passover, while injuring three others. In a manifesto posted online, the killer cited as his role models Adolf Hitler and two other men – one in Pittsburgh and one in Christchurch, New Zealand. In March, two mosques in Christchurch were attacked by one of these men, killing 51 people with another 50 injured. Five months before the Poway killing, the other man cited in the manifesto murdered 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Citing an SPLC report documenting almost 100 murders committed by members of the longtime hate website Stormfront – a site Roof visited – Hawes’ book describes the archetype of hate-inspired shooters like Roof.

“Instead of building his resume, seeking employment or further education, he projects his grievances on society and searches the Internet for an excuse or an explanation unrelated to his behavior or the choices he has made in life,” the book says, quoting the SPLC’s report.

Hawes also talked about the “racial silos” that many Americans live in, and encourages people of different races to talk to each other so they can better understand one another.

“Charleston is a pretty diverse city, at least as far as black and white residents. But what you see is people go to church separately, they socialize separately,” she notes. “When I hear white people talk about feeling disadvantaged, I wonder how many of them have personal connections to anybody who doesn’t look like them.”

‘Teaching Hard History’

“One way out of the silos is by confronting the nation’s legacy of slavery and its ongoing repercussions,” Hawes adds, echoing the Teaching Hard History: American Slavery report from the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program. The report argues that the failure to teach a truthful history of slavery allows us as a nation to avoid facing the full impact, which is continuing racial inequality.

Slavery is particularly relevant to Mother Emanuel and the massacre. Soon after the shooting, police told survivors and their loved ones to leave the active crime scene and walk across the street to the Embassy Suites hotel. It once served as an arsenal that protected the city’s minority white population after a foiled slave rebellion in 1822.

The would-be uprising was led by Denmark Vesey, who had purchased his freedom, and who was a founder of the church that would become Mother Emanuel. He was executed after authorities learned of the plot. The planned slave revolt would have taken place at midnight on June 16, 1822 – almost exactly two centuries before the massacre, as detailed in her book.

As the survivors of the massacre and their loved ones walked to the hotel, they passed by a towering statue of former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun – who described slavery as “a positive good.” Calhoun’s statue stood with a hand on one hip, appearing to scowl down at the survivors. They did not appreciate seeing images and symbols of slavery prominently displayed around the city, Hawes said.

“While the flag seems to be less of an issue because it’s not at the state house, you still have these monuments,” she said. “Which African Americans perceive as very insulting.”

Photo courtesy of St. Martin’s Press