CHARLESTON, S.C. – Around 9 p.m. Wednesday at Emanuel AME Church in the heart of Charleston, a man shot and killed at least nine people who were attending a Bible study class, including Clementa Pinckney, an influential state senator and the pastor of Emanuel AME.
Wednesdays, in Charleston and across the South, are considered an unofficial holy day, with many churches offering midweek services or prayer gatherings for those of all denominations. “The Holy City,” Charleston’s nickname, is named for its great tolerance for all faiths and denominations. The site of Wednesday night’s shooting, Emanuel AME Church, makes this a tragedy of historic and national proportion.
Emanuel AME, often called “Mother Emanuel,” is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church south of Baltimore and one of the oldest in the country, founded in 1872. Church members congregate in a building that was completed in 1891.
With a history dating back to the late 1780s, the core of the congregation has a history rooted in equality and fighting racial prejudice throughout African-American history. Civil rights leaders during the mid-20th century, including Martin Luther King Jr., his wife Coretta Scott King, and NAACP leader Roy Wilkins held rallies in the church fighting desegregation in the 1960s.
Continuing in the tradition and legacy of the church, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the current pastor, helped lead the Charleston area during the unrest after the fatal shooting of Walter Scott on April 4 by a while police office; Scott was black. Pinckney, along with other ministers and the four bishops of the United Methodist Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, and African Methodist Episcopal Zion, held a community ceremony among all four affiliates that helped heal the Lowcountry community after the shooting.
The Charleston City Police were on the scene Wednesday night as soon as the call was made. The city police were coordinating with the county sheriff’s department, FBI, ATF, and other agencies in the search for the suspect, a white male.
In an area of the city that is used to large groups of tourists and late- night restaurant attendees, officers asked patrons to stay where they were while extra personnel started searching for the suspect.
Not too far into the investigation, police received a bomb threat that made the heart of the city come to a halt. Once the bomb threat was cleared, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and Police Chief Greg Mullen held a quick news conference.
“I do believe this was a hate crime,” Mullen said.
“The only reason someone would walk into a church and shoot people that were praying is hate,” said Riley, the mayor of Charleston for 40 years.
The Charleston area was already busy this week with events ranging from cultural to political. The campaign of Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush confirmed that he has canceled his announcement tour event in Charleston on Thursday, and he will ask for people to pray for the victims and their families. “Governor Bush’s thoughts and prayers are with the individuals and families affected by this tragedy.”
Hillary Clinton, a Democratic candidate for the presidency, tweeted: “Heartbreaking news from Charleston – my thoughts and prayers are with you all. – H.”
Clinton met earlier Wednesday with the mother of Walter Scott, the man shot by a North Charleston city policeman in April. Clinton was also in the Charleston area for a rally and fundraiser Wednesday afternoon not far from the location of the shooting.
Both Sen. Tim Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley issued statements early Thursday.
—Scott: “My heart is breaking for Charleston and South Carolina tonight. This senseless tragedy at a place of worship – where we come together to laugh, love and rejoice in God’s name – is absolutely despicable and can never be understood.”
—Haley: “Michael, Rena, Nalan and I are praying for the victims and families touched by tonight’s senseless tragedy at Emanuel AME Church. While we do not yet know all details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another. Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers.”
Police are continuing to search for the suspect.