The names of nine African-Americans who were gunned down by a white man during a Bible study session at a historical Black church in Charleston, S.C., have been echoing across New York City since last week, as faith leaders, elected officials and hundreds memorialize the victims.
As they stood shoulder to shoulder, the diversity of the mourners at a series of ongoing vigils across the city showed that outrage over the bloody attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church resonated across racial lines.
“Yes, it was terrorism,” Mayor Bill de Blasio declared at the rally last weekend held by Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral, the largest Black church in the city. “This was an act of racist terrorism. It is abundantly clear, and it pains us deeply that the pain of racism is alive in our country still.”
The mayor, who was joined by hundreds of mourners, including elected officials, added, “This is a moment of reckoning … [it’s] our time to say this is that ‘never-again’ moment.”
The massacre at the almost 200-year-old Emanuel AME Church, which occurred last week Wednesday night, comes after a year of turmoil and protests over criminal justice reform and police killings of unarmed African-Americans. The victims, six women and three men, were gunned down by 21-year-old Dylann Roof. The oldest victim was 87, the youngest 26. Four of them were reverends, including Clementa Pinckney, pastor of the landmark Black church.
Police said Roof entered the church and sat with the group during the church session for an hour before he opened fire. His manhunt spanned two states. He was arrested approximately 245 miles north in Shelby, N.C., Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen said at a news conference last week. Officials also said after the arrest, Roof told investigators he had just done something big in Charleston.
Federal law enforcement officials also stated that Roof, who was charged with nine counts of murder, punishable by death, and one count of criminal possession of a firearm, had declared his hatred of Black people. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who called the shooting “barbaric,” said the Justice Department has opened a hate crime investigation into the case.
“It’s horrific and unbelievable that people were praying and learning about God and someone was there planning to kill them,” the Rev. Henry Belin III, pastor of the church, told the AmNews after a packed prayer vigil at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem last week. “When I heard about it, I said something has to be done to honor and memorialize the victims.”
Belin, who’s been pastoring the church for 13 years, said he personally knew three of the victims, including Pinckney, whom he described as a “first-class guy.”
“A straight shooter, well respected and a class of a gentleman. An excellent pastor he was, and he loves people,” he added.
Like many others at the vigil, Carmen Perez, a prominent “Black Lives Matter” activist, said the hate crime, which was racially motivated, “awakens us as a community.”
“There are some people who are not ready to accept the liberation of Black people,” Perez said. “This awakens us as a community, and there are so many things that are happening right now. I hope this brings us together to work for the liberation of our people, and for it to happen in a place of worship, it’s heartbreaking.”
As AME churches nationwide mourn the loss of their very own, Belin said, “The issue we need to address is how people are able to get guns freely.”
The pastor is among dozens of other faith leaders who echoed President Barack Obama’s call for Congress to pass comprehensive gun control reform. However, they all maintained that race is the root cause of why Roof decided to carry out a deadly rampage.
“I have a heavy heart,” said Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York Conference. “A man sat in the church for an hour before he took nine of our people. I hope people will not retaliate, but stay vigilant.”
In wake of the massacre, de Blasio said there will be a police presence at many Black churches across the city.