Charleston writer Toby Smith tells VOA that marking the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is “a little tougher than I thought it would be.”
Smith has attended the church many times and has friends who are members there. She even has one close friend who intended to go to the Bible study there on June 17, 2015, but decided not to at the last minute because she was tired.
At that Bible study, the 12 African-American members present warmly welcomed a young white guest, Dylann Roof, who joined them for an hour and then opened fire on them during prayer, killing nine of the 12. Roof is a self-proclaimed white supremacist who says he killed the "Mother Emanuel" members because of their skin color.
Toby Smith says she still ponders how Roof, then 21, could have shot the worshippers after having just spent an hour talking and praying with them. She says for most Charleston residents, Friday is simply an anniversary. But the victims’ families, she says “have to walk this thing for the rest of their lives.”
Smith says Roof is now at a detention facility awaiting trial, just five kilometers away from her. She says it is sobering that he is so young, and she sometimes wonders whether he has any idea of the consequences of his actions and all that has happened over the past year.
Emanuel AME held several services and events Friday in memory of the nine victims, including an ecumenical service at the TD Arena in downtown Charleston. Several speakers at the service mentioned last Sunday’s massacre of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub, with some calling for a ban on assault weapons.
Melissa Rogers, special assistant to President Barack Obama, delivered a message from the president and the first lady: “We are deeply moved by your boundless love and unshakable resilience. We look to Mother Emanuel for inspiration in the wake of the terrible tragedy in Orlando.”
Smith says she was one of the 5,000 people in the arena at the funeral for the nine parishioners last June, where Obama delivered a eulogy and broke into song, singing the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace.”
Smith says the song capped a “magical moment,” but some powerful words the president spoke on race relations made an even greater impression. She says she still remembers Obama asking Americans not to dismiss one another because of appearance or an “ethnic-sounding” name.
Smith says she is teaching her two nieces, ages 4 and 7, about what happened at Mother Emanuel last June. She says she is teaching them to always treat others with respect and kindness, and that “it is not about race.”