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Op-Ed

Lessons from Charleston attack

Steven L. Belton, Interim President and CEO
Minneapolis Urban League

On June 17, a 21 year old man walked into a 124 year old church in Charleston, South Carolina on a mission of destruction. Consumed with hatred, he was welcomed with love. Puffed up with prejudice, he was patiently pastored. Grounded in violence, he was greeted in peace. Angry, deceitful and desperate, the young man witnessed joy, transparency and hope among the small group who welcomed him into their Bible study.

The record is the young man, Dylann Roof, sat with his hosts for about an hour and then, hesitated briefly before erupting in a violent and racist outburst that left six women and three men dead.

Inevitably, the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls comes to mind. But, such comparisons are, in my opinion, misleading. True, both tragedies were acts of terror in the U.S. south and both were racially motivated and came at a time of heightened national scrutiny of injustice and violence against African Americans.

But what happened in Charleston was different from Birmingham in key respects. The Birmingham bomber didn't know who would fall victim to his plot. Dylann Roof apparently wanted to look his victims in the eyes and witness their suffering.

The Birmingham bombing was anonymous and impersonal. The Charleston killings were intimate; the killer reportedly spared one victim specifically so she could tell the world what he had done.

As a nation, we are left to wonder when, if ever, we shall overcome? And yet, even as we mourn the victims of this tragedy who still are being laid to rest, and grieve the violation of a sacred space and the erosion of our collective sense of security, there is hope.

• Hope in the forgiveness extended to Dylann Roof by the families of the victims.

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• Hope in the outpouring of love and support from people across the country and especially in Charleston: Black, White, Latino, Asian, Native American, Christians of every denomination and people of all faiths.

• Hope in the overdue removal of confederate flags from southern state capitols and the renewed criticism of the historic offense of that symbol.

• And, there is hope in the unmasking of yet another violent vein of racial hatred that belies the self-congratulatory claim of a post-racial America.

Still, I can't help wonder how differently things might have been if the neighborly love and hospitality Dylann Roof received from the pastors and people of Emmanuel AME Church on that fatal night had been a recurring and consistent part of his life?

I'm not blaming the victims, I'm making the observation that one hour of love caused a hate-filled man to pause for a moment. A lifetime of love and he might never have conceived his murderous mission.

For every friend, relative, website, blog, video and symbol that espoused hatred and violence, there ought to have been a contrary voice of love, reconciliation, peace and acceptance. Rather than turning to bullets, Roof himself might have been "killed" by kindness.

Sadly, we can't change what happened in Charleston. But we can change what happens next and what happens here.

This is a watershed moment, a defining point when we must engage, all of us, in the ongoing work of racial justice, equity and reconciliation. We must pledge to ourselves and each other to shed water on the arid, dry, parched people we encounter that espouse hatred and violence.

Let's take personal responsibility for speaking truth in our circles of influence. Whether in your country club or community center, on the polo ground or playground, in the board room or the back room—speak enlightenment in the face of ignorance, tout inclusion to counter intolerance, and sabotage stereotypes with facts and personal anecdotes.

Racism, prejudice and hatred cannot go unchecked if we make it our personal responsibility to stand up for the higher good and what is just and right.

We must be cross-culturally proactive, all of us, rather than waiting for racism to rear its ugly head. Volunteer, serve, engage and find a place and way to get personally involved with people from a culture and context that is different from your own.

Dylann Roof destroyed African American lives, as he intended. It appears he proceeded alone, but his actions nonetheless are part of this country's sordid serial history of white violence against blacks.

We must commit ourselves to building and enriching African American lives, not because black lives matter, although they surely do. But because all lives have equal value and we should all matter to each other.

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Mourners gather at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

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