By Marc H. Morial
“They were still living by faith when they died, Scripture tells us. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on Earth.” – President Barack Obama, Eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney
The lives of six women and three men were cut short under a hail of bullets from the gun of a self-professed White supremacist. They ranged in age from 26 to 87. Some were grandparents; others were only beginning to recognize and realize their potential in this world.
They represented the diversity of life in Charleston, S.C. Some were teachers; some were lawmakers; others were the glue that bonded their families. While they hailed from all walks and stages of life, the nine innocents slaughtered in the racist-fueled shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shared a common faith. Their devotion to cultivating that faith gathered them together in the unquestioned safety of that church basement. In the end, it would be in the unquestionable embrace of the grace of their faith that their weeping families, mournful church family and our grieving nation bid them eternal rest.
Rev. Pinckney was a long-serving Democratic state senator and the senior pastor of Emanuel A.M.E. Church. He fought as hard for constituents as he did love and serve his congregation. In his eulogy for Rev. Pinckney, President Obama remembered him as a “good man.” He shared that, “he was in the pulpit by 13, pastor by 18, public servant by 23. He did not exhibit any of the cockiness of youth, nor youth’s insecurities; instead, he set an example worthy of his position, wise beyond his years, in his speech, in his conduct, in his love, faith, and purity.”
The married, 41-year-old father of two daughters leaves behind an impressive record of activism, including his recent push to equip South Carolina’s police officers with body cameras after the videotaped fatal shooting of a Black man in North Charleston at the hands of a White police officer.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton was as widely known for her smile as she was for her dedication to her family, her church and her community. The 45-year-old mother of three was a minister at Emanuel A.M.E. Church; the celebrated girls team track coach at Goose Creek High School; and a highly respected high school speech therapist. After her death, her oldest son, Chris Singleton, a baseball player at Charleston Southern University, recalled on social media that he would often tease his mother about going to church so much. He remembered that she would always laugh him off and say, “Boy you can never have too much of the Lord.”
It has been reported that 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders died trying to protect his 87-year-old aunt, Susie Jackson. Sanders jumped between the shooter and his aunt, begging him to take his life instead of hers. The shooter is alleged to have said it didn’t matter because, “I’m going to shoot all of you,” before he opened fire.
Sanders was a recent graduate of Allen University in Columbia, S.C. He received a degree in business administration in 2014. Recently, he worked at Against Da Grain Barbershop along with his brother. Despite his bravery and heroism, Sanders could not save his aunt’s life. Susie Jackson, a grandmother and longtime church member, became another of the shooter’s victims, along with her cousin, 70-year-old Ethel Lance. Like the others, Lance was a devoted member of Emanuel. She worked at the church for more than 30 years.
Depayne Middletown Doctor was the mother of four daughters. She was a minister and sang in the church’s choir. The 49-year-old devoted her entire career to public service. She had just started a job as an enrollment counselor at Southern Wesleyan University’s campus in Charleston, her alma mater. Before that, she was a Charleston County community development director, helping the county’s poorest residents receive grants.
Equally dedicated to serving her community, 54-year-old Cynthia Hurd, who was lovingly described by her brother as “a woman of faith,” worked for 31 years at the Charleston County Public Library as a librarian. Recently, Hurd was the regional library manager at St. Andrews Regional Library. County officials have confirmed that the library will be renamed in her honor.
On the path to becoming an ordained minister, 59-year-old Myra Thompson was the wife of Rev. Anthony Thompson, who is a vicar at Holy Trinity REC Church in Charleston. Daniel Simmons initially survived the attack, but died in a hospital operating room. The 45-year-old was a fourth-generation preacher who fought in Vietnam, and during his time with us on earth also worked as a teacher and a counselor. This week, Simmons became the last of the Mother Emanuel Nine to be laid to rest.
Today, we should all be asking ourselves what happens now? What comes next? Do we, as a nation, take up the charge to tackle the ills of racism and gun violence, or will we cast these issues aside once again and wait until the next tragedy jolts us from our complacency? Will you join in the struggle and sign a petition to rid our public spaces of the Confederate flag, the flag of hate and violence to which the shooter pledged his allegiance? Will you make the lives of those we lost matter by not allowing hate to be the final word in our nation’s struggle to form a more perfect union?
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.