Mother Emanuel, where nine black churchgoers were shot and killed on Wednesday by 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, looks like a lot of the churches in Charleston. It’s big, white, and towers over you mightily.
The scene at the church on Friday early afternoon, less than 48 hours after the massacre, was eerie. Rows and rows of flowers lined the ground outside its front door. Two white policemen stood guard. At least a dozen media cameras huddled in the heat. There weren’t many mourners.
Hours later, I’d return to the church. But not before I stopped off at a rally down the street in a square with a giant memorial dedicated to the famous slavery advocate and secessionist John C. Calhoun.
More than 100 people were gathered there, buzzing about, waiting for something—or someone—important.
Who? I asked the man handing out waters.
The people, the overwhelming majority of whom were white, were waiting for conservative personality Glenn Beck.
Beck walked into the thick crowd that had coalesced around him like a presidential candidate, shaking hands, waving, smiling for all the cameras.
He hopped up onto the memorial, right next to me.
He led a prayer. He spoke of unity, obliquely, generally. He introduced a rabbi from New York and a black pastor. They also spoke of unity.
I stood at the rally, next to Beck for ten minutes at least. The word “racism” or “hate crime” never passed his lips.
I left and walked the short distance back to Emanuel. A small and diverse group gathered led by Minister Jacqueline Lewis from New York began to sing.
“Ain’t gon’ let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around,” the group of about five women began. “I’m gonna keep on walkin, keep on talkin, marchin up to freedomland.”
A familiar mood fell over the crowd, like we’d been here before. And in a way, we had. Maybe not in our bodies, but in our parents’ bodies, in our grandparents’ bodies.
The songs transported us to earlier times, fighting for civil rights. The church transported us to even earlier times where organizing efforts occurred for a slave rebellion led by Denmark Vesey.
“We shall overcome,” the group began. This time the singing was louder and the group swelled. “We shall overcome today, not someday!” shouted one woman from the sidelines.
I turned around and walked away and behind me were some people from the Beck rally.
Jack Powell, a Charleston resident, told me he went to the Beck rally to hear what he had to say. “He was talking about unity and pulling people together,” said Powell.
“Bottom line is, most people get along in Charleston,” he said. “That little candy ass doesn’t represent me. That’s just one white person,” he told me. “It’s a horrible thing.”
When I asked Reverend Lewis why she came down, she told me, “To give 5,000 prayers.” Later, with little black children tucked underneath her, she yelled out in anguish “This is for them!”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.