WASHINGTON - It was supposed to be a wake-up call. A sign of how far the U.S. had to go to heal its racial divide. A chance to reflect on the ugliness of the past and move forward together.
That was the silver lining many hoped could result from the brutal murder of nine members of one of the nation's oldest African-American congregations, as they met for prayer and reflection in the Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, South Carolina.
Recalling the church massacre, which took place one year ago on Friday, many in Charleston wonder: Have race relations really gotten any better?
"It sure does appear that things are getting worse," laments Dot Scott, head of the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
For Scott, who knew all nine victims, the shooting is "as painful now as it was then." And it's even worse given the backdrop of this week's mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
"It refreshes your mind that these things are still happening. Whether it's in the church or a social gathering, it reminds us how vulnerable we are in any place we consider our sanctuary," she says.
Display of unity
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, there were a few tangible signs of progress, even if they were symbolic.
Photographs of the accused gunman, white supremacist Dylann Roof, posing next to the Confederate battle flag aroused a national controversy and a sharp debate over that flag as a symbol of racism and slavery. The uproar resulted in the Confederate flag's removal from the South Carolina state capitol grounds, and eventually from some other public areas across the south.
During a eulogy for one of the victims last year, President Barack Obama was confident enough to declare Roof had failed in his stated goal of inciting a race war, and instead had generated an unprecedented show of unity.
“Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it,” Obama said, before leading the congregation in a moving rendition of the hymn Amazing Grace.
It was one of the most emotional public displays of Obama’s presidency, but any post-Charleston show of unity seems to have been short-lived.
Since the shooting last June, much of the American news cycle has been dominated by controversies surrounding Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has regularly employed racially tinged language.
As he steamrolled his way toward the nomination, Trump denigrated Mexican immigrants, threatened collective punishment against Muslim-Americans, mocked people with disabilities, and even hesitated when asked to disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
More recently, Trump suggested that a U.S.-born judge of Mexican descent was unable to do his job, because he was “Mexican.” He also used the example of the Orlando gunman, who was born in New York, to justify his unprecedented proposal to ban Muslim immigrants.
But while voices of intolerance may have been emboldened since Charleston, it’s all a matter of perspective, says Alana Simmons, whose grandfather, the Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., was killed in the attack.
“Sure, we’ve seen an increase in people being divisive, but we’ve also seen an increase in people calling for unity,” she says. “It’s just that the people who call for unity aren’t getting the headlines.”
Simmons, who has founded the organization Hate Won’t Win, says focusing on the positive is the only way she’s gotten through. “I can’t go out and preach love when I have hate all on my mind and in my heart,” she says.
“We want to send a clear message to Dylann Roof and the people who think like him: Good men will not stand by and let evil prevail. No matter what they do, they won’t divide our communities,” Simmons says.
Simmons isn’t the only one in Charleston who remains optimistic.
Kylon Middleton, pastor of Mount Zion AME Church, says the American public has “taken a step in the right direction” over the past year, at least in terms of recognizing that there is still a racial divide.
“I grew up here in Charleston,” says Middleton, the childhood friend of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of those slain in the massacre. “[The racial divide] was never acknowledged. Persons who would raise the banner of racial inequality were seen as angry black people.”
At least that has now changed, according to Middleton.
“I’m definitely optimistic,” he says. “I don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime, but I’m always optimistic.”
Charleston has planned a weekend of events to commemorate the anniversary of the church shooting, including several events to celebrate the victims and honor the survivors. But not everyone in Charleston can bring themselves to participate fully.
For Scott, there’s “no reason for celebration and memorializing in my heart.” Instead it’s a time of introspection, she says. “It’s a really sad time to be reminded that not much has changed."