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Massacre in Charleston: 9 Shot Dead at Historic Black Church, Police Search for White Gunman

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Police are searching for a white male gunman who opened fire inside a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people and wounding several others. The victims were attending Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church when the attack occurred, shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday. The known victims include the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator, and his sister. Police described the shooting as a “hate crime.” Known as “Mother Emanuel,” the Emanuel AME Church is home to the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore. It was burned in the 1820s during a slave rebellion and has stood at its present location since 1872. The church has its roots in the early 19th century and was founded in part by a freed slave named Denmark Vesey, who was later executed for organizing a slave revolt. We are joined by Dr. Lonnie Randolph Jr., state president of the South Carolina NAACP.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Police are searching for a white male gunman who opened fire inside a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people and wounding several others. The victims were attending Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church when the attack occurred, shortly after 9:00 p.m. Wednesday night. At a news conference early this morning, Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen said nine people had been confirmed killed.

POLICE CHIEF GREGORY MULLEN: Dispatch received a call for a shooting that occurred at the Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston. Charleston police units were immediately dispatched and arrived at that location. When we did, we initially identified eight victims inside of the church that had suffered gunshot wounds. Earlier, we told you that there were two victims that were transported to MUSC. There was actually one victim that was transported to MUSC, and that individual is deceased, as well. So we have a total of nine victims that were involved in this very tragic situation that occurred last night.

AMY GOODMAN: The Charleston church is one of the largest and oldest black congregations in the South. Killed in the attack was Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and a member of the South Carolina state Senate. A survivor told family members the gunman first sat in the church before rising and opening fire. The shooter told her he would let her live so she could tell others what had happened. Speaking this morning, Police Chief Greg Mullen warned people not to approach the suspect.

POLICE CHIEF GREGORY MULLEN: This is a very dangerous individual. He should not be approached by anyone. Call law enforcement if you recognize the individual or the car, so that we can take the appropriate action to address the situation. Again, this is a very dangerous individual, and we do not want more people harmed trying to approach him or trying to follow the vehicle if they see it. Notify law enforcement, and we will address that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has its roots in the early 19th century and was founded in part by a freed slave named Denmark Vesey, who was later executed for organizing a slave revolt. The shooting recalled the 1963 bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls and galvanized the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now directly to Columbia, South Carolina, where we’re joined by Dr. Lonnie Randolph Jr., the state president of the South Carolina NAACP.

Our condolences to you, Dr. Lonnie Randolph Jr., on this horrific crime that has taken place and the loss of so much life in nearby Charleston. Can you talk to us about who Reverend and state Senator Clementa Pinckney was?

DR. LONNIE RANDOLPH JR.: Senator Pinckney—first of all, good morning, and thank you for giving us this opportunity. And I, too, want to extend condolences from the NAACP to the family of Senator Clementa Pinckney. Senator Pinckney was a dynamic young man, very bright future, had made great strides in the faith community, as well as as a legislator and as a senator in the state of South Carolina, and had so much promise. And this is a regrettable situation. Nothing can be said to make this matter better, or consolation is very difficult at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk to us about what you understand took place—what was it, starting about, what, 8:00 last night—at this historic black church in Charleston?

DR. LONNIE RANDOLPH JR.: The program that they were having on Wednesday night was taking place, and this young man came in and—white male—and sat for a few minutes. I don’t know the exact time or the amount of time. And then, of course, we know what happened after that. Several shots were fired. And I think, thus far, there have been nine deaths and several people injured. And that’s about all we know. They do—law enforcement, statewide, has a bulletin out on this individual. And we do hope that persons will remain focused, peaceful, and assist in helping to capture this sick individual.

AMY GOODMAN: I believe it was something like—they’re saying now that this killer, this gunman, who may be 21 years old—they’re showing photographs of him from the church in a gray sweatshirt, jeans and Timberland boots. He may have actually participated in the Bible study. The images are clearly caught from some kind of video cam, and the police are saying this should be shown far and wide, that he has sandy blonde hair. They believe he’s 21 years old, that he may have actually participated in the Bible study for about an hour before he opened fire and then, horrifically, after killing nine people, kept one alive so that she would be able to tell what had taken place.

DR. LONNIE RANDOLPH JR.: Well, I’ve heard several stories about what happened, and I will wait until law enforcement gives us an official report from the videos, both in the church as well as those on the street. Charleston does have an extensive video system outside, and I do hope that that will assist in the capture of this individual.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Randolph, could you talk about this in the context of South Carolina? Has there been any precedent for this kind of violence there?

DR. LONNIE RANDOLPH JR.: Well, unfortunately, the answer is yes. And we don’t have a history of being a leader in this country of human rights. And unfortunately, it brings us to reality of the reality and a reminder of the way South Carolina got to be South Carolina, the things that South Carolina has done throughout history.

I’m very hopeful and always optimistic, and wish that things would change. And we often criticize young people for their conduct. And we, too, need to look in the mirror and tell folks, maybe the older folks, we aren’t setting the kind of example that we should set for individuals, regardless of who it is and regardless of what they do.

But I don’t see the human aspect of life the way that I would like to see it, that all people are treated in a fair, just and equitable manner. This morning, one of our senators, a senator from Clarendon County, was on one of the earlier programs here, and he talked about just the climate in government in South Carolina. And while we may think that what we do only lasts Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and six months out of the year, the disrespectful things that we see that comes from government are things that we should work on, and the reason that we should work on them is that the people who are voters in the state should be the ones that decide that we will send people to our state House who will do the job of protecting all citizens and treating people fairly and equitably in the state.

I don’t know whether this individual will be diagnosed or if he has some type of mental illness. But our mental institutions are no longer assigned to taking care of those persons who have mental illness. We have some problems here. And I hope during my lifetime that I can see South Carolina taking a real serious step to improving the conditions of not just some people, but of all people in this state.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of Mother Emanuel, the Emanuel AME Church, from Booker T. Washington to Dr. Martin Luther King?

DR. LONNIE RANDOLPH JR.: In the history of South Carolina, as well as the history of the AME Church, that church has always been on the forefront of advocacy in human rights and in civil rights, much like its very beginning, the persons who founded the church. And it has a very rich history. I think it is the oldest AME church in South Carolina. And it’s unfortunate, and I think the bigger picture is still the fact that this [inhumane] act took place in a community and in a state that should do everything it can to promote good and decency, as opposed to some of the things that we see daily in this state.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Dr. Randolph, could you give us some instances of this? You alluded to disrespectful things that the government, the state government in South Carolina, has done. Could you give specific examples of that?

DR. LONNIE RANDOLPH JR.: Well, again, South Carolina has a rich history of not being humane. If you go back in history and look at the real first major confrontation on the floor of the United States Senate, a young man was almost beaten to death from South—by a person from South Carolina, for the purpose—he was an abolitionist and speaking against the evils and the perils of slavery, and almost lost his life, missed some three years from the Senate, did suffer a brain injury after the beating with a gold cane, a human rights activist from the Northeast who was an abolitionist. And that was South Carolina. Of course, we know that in the area of civil rights, we’ve had persons speak out vehemently against the civil rights of all people. We were the first state in the country to secede from the Union, to declare that slavery would not end in America, that we will continue to fight this country, kill 620,000 people, spend over $8 billion for the sake of promoting an agenda that was inhumane. And then, of course, we’ve had members—other members of our delegation in our Congress—and I only mention them because these are supposed to be the leaders. And unfortunately, in too many instances, South Carolina has led in the wrong thing. And, of course, we still fly the symbol of—the symbol of the Confederacy flies on our state House grounds. And what that does is that it tells people around the world that South Carolina does not care about everybody, that it is not humane in the way that it deals with its people.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, in Charleston, in this very place where the Emanuel AME Church massacre has just taken place, North Charleston is where Walter Scott was killed, an African-American man killed by a white police officer who has now been charged with murder.

DR. LONNIE RANDOLPH JR.: You’re absolutely correct. And again, all of those situations that you mentioned, you add them to the things that happen here every day, and it does make you wonder and wish. And I think I did hear one person on your program earlier say—one of your programs, say that this should be a time that we should come together. Well, I disagree with that. We should come together all the time. Don’t wait until tragedies and hostilities and the death of someone or persons take place. I can’t imagine a time where it’s appropriate to be—for an individual to be inhumane, any person.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to go to the late Reverend Clementa Pinckney in his own words. This is a clip of him speaking at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2013.

REV. CLEMENTA PINCKNEY: Where you are is a very special place in Charleston. And it’s a very special place because this church and the site, this area, has been tied to the history and life of African Americans since about the early 1800s. This church was built in 1891. The congregation was formed in 1818 by the Reverend Morris Brown, who later became the second bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And for those of you who may know a little something about our denomination, we started in 1787 through our founder, Richard Allen, who left then St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church because they were telling him he needed to pray after the regular members prayed. And so, that’s how our denomination began—in a fit of civil disobedience and a little issue with theological fairness, if you will.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Reverend Clementa Pinckney went on to talk more about the history of the church.

REV. CLEMENTA PINCKNEY: Well, again, let me welcome you to Mother Emanuel. Just a little story about our church and how it really ties into the life of African Americans in South Carolina and also a little bit in the nation. I mentioned to you earlier that the founder of our church—his name was Morris Brown, who later became the second leader of our denomination—founded this church in what was actually a three-part circuit in the African-American community outside of the city of Charleston. The street right in front of the church is called Calhoun Street, but several hundred years ago, it wasn’t Calhoun Street. It was called Boundary Street, which meant that’s where the city boundaries were. And outside of the city boundaries, out in the country or the suburbs, is where most of the African Americans in the greater Charleston area resided, in particular those who were free, those who had gained their freedom. The majority of them stayed outside of the Charleston area. And so, there were churches in and around the area, and in particular three, and then later became one church.

In about 1822, there was an interesting minister here in the church whose name was Denmark Vesey. And Denmark Vesey led a—or should I say, planned; not led, but planned—an insurrection. And it was planned—the rebellion was planned so well that once the authorities found out about it, they had a little Guantánamo experiment. They basically took Denmark Vesey and all of the co-conspirators that they could find, and they interrogated them. And they, for years, did not really reveal the plan, because they were afraid that someone else would pick it up and actually put it into practice. And that was from a minister who was here at the church.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Reverend Clementa Pinckney, pastor of the Emanuel AME Church. He was killed last night. He was 41 years old. He was also a state senator. He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1996 at the age of 23. Four years later, he was elected to the state Senate. Dr. Lonnie Randolph, your thoughts?

DR. LONNIE RANDOLPH JR.: I couldn’t have said it any better. Your words and the section of the tape that you gave on Senator Pinckney spells out the history of the AME Church—has always been a promoter and a fighter for justice and equality for all citizens, for all people of this state. And that church, throughout its history, has done an excellent job in this ongoing fight for democracy in America.

What this does do, as I end my comments on this, unless you have additional questions, it shows us that—and I think we, as South Carolinians and as Americans—all of the hoopla and falsification that we have regarding improvements or the improvement of race relations in America, I think we at some point—I’ve heard several persons over the last particular two years speak about the need for us to have a serious discussion about race in this country. We can put a Band-Aid on it. We can continue to put a Band-Aid on it as we continue to hemorrhage. We can continue to act like it doesn’t exist. And we shouldn’t allow—those of us who are for democracy and freedom for all people, we should not allow what we see on the TV on weekends, with our football games and our basketball games, showing the great sports and entertainment talent and exploits of African Americans—we should make America sit back, and before they reach our young men as college players, we need to educate our young people as to the history and what they can do to better come into the system that we have here in place and make it better.

And I’m disappointed that when you talk about race relations in America, and especially in South Carolina, we talk about sporting events. And there are other events that we should—we should be able to talk about race relations as far as education is concerned. We’re in the 21st—22nd year, or approaching the 22nd year of an education equity lawsuit, where this state has refused to pay and to fund, in an adequate way, the education of our children here in South Carolina in 38 school districts. Twenty-two years. And, of course, the 1954 Supreme Court decision didn’t start in Topeka, Kansas; it started right here in South Carolina.

So the basic issues of life and the fundamental issues of life, it appears—when we sit and analyze and talk about the problems that we have in this state, it appears that we are not really making the progress. And not just doesn’t appear, it is true we haven’t made the progress that people want you to think that we have. We still have a lot of work to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Randolph, South Carolina becomes a major focus in a presidential election year. In fact, Hillary Clinton was with Reverend and state Senator Clementa Pinckney yesterday as she was campaigning. And Jeb Bush was supposed to come in today, but he has canceled his trip because of the massacre at Mother Emanuel. When state Senator Clementa Pinckney was on the floor of the state Senate, among the issues he has been pushing for are the video cams on the uniforms of police officers, and was seen as a moral center of the state Senate. As we wrap up, you’re talking about the issues that need to be addressed. Can you talk about what state Senator Pinckney stood for—Pinckney stood for, when he was there, outside of the church, what he has been fighting for, and what you think has to be the focus of national attention, when all the country’s media comes to South Carolina? The issues you’re talking about are not very much focused on.

DR. LONNIE RANDOLPH JR.: Well, the issue is one of race. Again, we try to disguise it. We try to dress it up as football players, as basketball players, as track stars. And we don’t touch the issue of human rights. And Senator Clementa Pinckney—I also attended the press conference on last week where the governor signed the bill dealing with the body cameras. I celebrate that; I’m happy that it’s been signed. But it’s going to—if we continue on the pace where we are, when you talk about legislation and things of that nature, we should not have to wait seven or eight years before we receive adequate funding for cameras. Cameras really aren’t going to solve our problem, other than make people tell the truth. We’ve had persons in America who had body cameras and still killed persons of color with a body camera on.

What we need to do is start talking about those persons who wear the uniform, those persons who take the oath of office to be in law enforcement. We need to talk about ways to get better individuals into those professions, individuals that are not connected with groups that are subversive and are anti-American and anti-human, because we still, unfortunately, have too many law enforcement departments across the state of South Carolina and across the country where we hire people because someone recommends them or because someone knows them, and not because they have the skills and the qualifications to be on the force of law enforcement agencies.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Dr. Lonnie Randolph Jr., for joining us today from Columbia, South Carolina, state president of the South Carolina NAACP.

Again, what we know at this point is, in nearby Charleston, at the historic black church, the Mother Emanuel, the Emanuel AME Church, last night about 9:00, a white male gunman, believed to be about 21 years old, with sandy blonde hair, standing about 5’9”, opened fire in the church, killing nine people, wounding several others. The victims were attending Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church when he opened fire shortly after 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday. The police, the mayor are calling this a hate crime. They are saying whoever he is—they’re districting his picture widely—is extremely dangerous. This is Democracy Now! We will of course continue to follow this story, this tragedy, this horrific crime.

I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. When we come back, we look at the “Canticle of the Sun,” Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, on climate change. Stay with us.

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