In the two years since the Emanuel Nine shootings, there is much that has not changed. There has not been any legislation enacted to close the loophole which allowed Dylann Roof to purchase the weapon he used in the massacre. The same racial disparities which existed in criminal sentencing and within the prison population still exist today. And despite moments of unity, both our city and state remain highly segregated, particularly when it comes to public schools and places of worship. However, although many problems remain the same, some significant changes have taken place in direct response to the shootings that shouldn't be ignored.
Dylann Roof was tried in federal court and sentenced to death. The South Carolina Legislature, in a symbolic but important move, removed the Confederate flag from in front of the statehouse, and perhaps most importantly, several diverse groups at the grassroots level have come together to discuss racial reconciliation in a meaningful way. These groups include The Sophia Institute, The Illumination Project, and The Charleston Forum.
Comparing all of the missed opportunities for meaningful change which have not occurred over the past two years, in contrast to what has, requires a sobering dose of restraint and patience. The racial problems in the community which existed on the day Dylann Roof entered Emanuel A.M.E took generations to get that way. These issues were not going to suddenly resolve overnight, even in the aftermath of a horrific shooting. With regard to gun control, for instance, consider that the Sandy Hook shooting took the lives of 26 innocent children and teachers, without any significant, resulting legislation to address gun violence. And that was in Connecticut, a liberal state. What did we expect would happen in South Carolina?
While horrific and violent tragedies can often serve as catalysts for societal change, more often than not, significant progress in our country takes place over time. The profound changes of the Civil Rights movement were not the result of one tragedy, but collectively drew from outrage over the Medgar Evers shooting, the Emmett Till killing, the Birmingham church bombing, the Selma bridge beatings, and countless other lynchings over the years. With regard to gun violence, to the extent and change in gun control laws, the Emanuel Nine will serve as important martyrs in that struggle, along with those victims killed at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and recently in Orlando.
In the meantime, incremental change very much requires a realistic assessment of who the actors are and what needs to be done. Changes spurred on by the community should be distinguished from those conducted by our governmental institutions. It was the Legislature that voted to remove the flag. It was a federal jury that voted to convict Roof. While these were both important steps in the healing process, the type of systemic change that could plausibly help prevent such a shooting from occurring in the future is much more difficult to attain. Such change requires a groundswell at the community level, and the results of this may not be evident for years to come.
It was a group of community organizers that planned a unity march that helped bring the community together. This community action has, importantly, gained momentum, resulting in ongoing organized sessions bringing together disparate parts of the community which have never had the same impetus or motivation to meet and talk in this manner. Rather than each of us lamenting what has not happened in the past two years, the question should be, "What are we collectively doing to honor the Emanuel Nine and commemorate their legacy?" Meaningful dialogue with those of different racial backgrounds promotes meaningful societal change and mutual understanding — that is where all concerned citizens should begin.