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Massacre at South Carolina’s Emanuel AME an Attack on Historic Landmark of African-American Freedom

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The church attacked in the Charleston, South Carolina, massacre that left nine people dead is home to the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore. Known as “Mother Emanuel,” the Emanuel AME Church was burned in the 1820s during a slave rebellion and has stood at its present location since 1872. We discuss Emanuel AME and the African-American church with leaders of two of the most prominent black churches in the country: the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, which was the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of the Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, founded in 1787 and the mother church of the nation’s first black denomination. Reverend Tyler recently interviewed Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the Charleston shooting, as part of a documentary on the AME movement in South Carolina.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As we continue to talk about the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, we’re joined now by the leaders of two of the most prominent black churches in the country. In Philadelphia, Reverend Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of the Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia—it was founded in 1787 and is the mother church of the nation’s first black denomination. He recently interviewed Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the Charleston shooting, as part of a documentary on the AME movement in South Carolina. And in Atlanta, Georgia, is the Reverend Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, which was the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is the author of The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness.

I want to welcome you both to Democracy Now! Reverend Mark Kelly Tyler, talk about the Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia and its relationship to the church in South Carolina.

REV. MARK KELLY TYLER: Well, thank you, Juan, and thank you, Amy, for having us, and glad to be on with my old friend Raphael Warnock. We were in college next door to each other at Clark and Morehouse.

And this is just such a tragic experience. I think what hurts the most is that the AME Church is really a very close-knit family. You know, many denominations are kind of loosely associated, but we are extremely tight. I would see Reverend Pinckney and Reverend Simmons, who was also killed—we called him “Super Simmons”—for many years. We would see them at least five or six times a year, just because the church meets in so many different locations around the country and around the world.

The AME Church began at Mother Bethel, as you said, but we’re now on five continents in 39 countries. And I have to tell you that because of the feedback that I’ve received from all over the world from other AMEs, that it is as though we have lost members of our very own congregation. Many people didn’t know Reverend Pinckney like I did, but, I mean, they feel the pain as though, again, people in your own congregation were killed, as though this was your congregation’s Bible study. So many of our members can visualize that evening. We were in our church late that night, not for Bible study, but for a meeting, wrapping up at the same time that tragedy was happening, just a small group. And so, I mean, this is just so deeply personal. And before we can even get down to all the other issues, this is really a time of extreme grief for AMEs.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from your upcoming documentary, The AME Movement in South Carolina, where you feature the late Reverend Clementa Pinckney.

REV. CLEMENTA PINCKNEY: It’s a great honor. The church has a very proud history and has really stood for the spirit of African Americans, and I would even say the spirit of America, in Charleston since 1818, a spirit of defiance and standing up for what is right and what is true. And when I say that, I mean that Morris Brown, the founder, believed that African Americans ought to be able to assemble and worship freely, as Richard Allen thought in Philadelphia. It’s interesting that they were not aware of each other, but the same sort of fervor and spirit that Richard Allen had in Philadelphia was the same kind of spirit and fervor of Morris Brown. And maybe that’s why they became such good friends over time. But Mother Emanuel, since 1818, has stood for freedom and worship for African Americans in South Carolina. And so it’s an humbling privilege I have to serve as its pastor.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is more of the documentary, The AME Movement in South Carolina, again the late Reverend Clementa Pinckney.

REV. CLEMENTA PINCKNEY: South Carolina created The Citadel. The guns were pointed in the direction of where the members of Mother Emanuel lived. Just in case there was another insurrection, the state was ready.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is so significant, Reverend Mark Kelly Tyler, the founding of the Mother Emanuel, the church, in Charleston, with the—if you could talk about Vesey and the killings of scores of African-American men?

REV. MARK KELLY TYLER: Yeah, absolutely. So, Mother Emanuel, like Mother Bethel, like Bethel AME in Baltimore, like Mother Zion, for the AME Zion Church in New York City, all of these congregations began the late 1700s, early 1800s as a result of what became known as segregated pews. The Methodist movement in America initially was very welcoming and open to African-American worshipers. It was not unusual to see enslaved people preaching to their slaveowners. I mean, it was just an incredible experience. But sadly, they turned their back on their abolitionist roots and decided, in order to keep and appease slaveholding Methodist members who were very wealthy, that they would allow blacks to become segregated in worship. As a result, these persons, like Richard Allen and Morris Brown, led walkouts. And they began churches, sometimes without even a building to worship in. And so was the story of Mother Emanuel.

By the 1820s, Denmark Vesey, who was a class leader in the AME Church, a member of Morris Brown’s church, decided to lead a slave insurrection in Charleston, and he took advantage of the fact that having your own building prevented whites from coming in and overhearing you. And as a result of him using the buildings in such a way, when the plot was discovered and when he was hanged along with co-conspirators, the churches were destroyed, and the AME Church was banned. But as Reverend Pinckney so well says, the church didn’t disappear, it just went underground. And it re-emerged, for everyone to see, at the end of the Civil War.

And today, the AME Church, there is no state in America that has more AME churches in it than South Carolina. There are over 700 congregations, compared to only 120 or so in Pennsylvania, the founding state of the AME Church. And that ought to demonstrate, I mean, just how determined our denomination was to regain a foothold in South Carolina and never let our presence be gone again.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And there was also, wasn’t there, a particularly strong tie between the African-American community in Philadelphia and that in South Carolina? Could you talk about the historical evolution of those ties?

REV. MARK KELLY TYLER: Sure. Yes, I mean, so, obviously, during the Great Migration in the 1900s, you know, there were—you know, millions of black people left the South and came to places like Philadelphia. But long before then, when Morris Brown’s church was burned down, he was initially accused of being one of the co-conspirators. When his name was cleared and it was clear he had no involvement, he didn’t want to just stay waiting around, just in case they tried to try him, you know, or bring him up on charges again, so Morris Brown left Charleston, moved to Philadelphia and then began to work with Bishop Richard Allen. But many others took that same trek—William Catto, Octavius Catto’s father; Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, who used to teach enslaved people and free blacks in the 1830s, who 10 years after that event, because of the Nat Turner insurrection and laws that then became repressive throughout the South, also found himself leaving and ending up in Philadelphia. So there was this long-established relationship where the free black community in Charleston and the free black community in Philadelphia had this constant interchange, and it created a bond that today, again, is so very strong that many people today don’t even realize where that history comes from. Morris Brown, the founder of Mother Emanuel, is buried at Mother Bethel Church next to AME founder Bishop Richard Allen, again, just another symbol of just how strong the connection is with Philadelphia and South Carolina in the AME Church.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Dr. Raphael Warnock. He is the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., author of The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness. In fact, it was in his church, but back in 1974, that Dr. King’s mother was murdered in the Ebenezer Church. Dr. Raphael Warnock, your response to what has taken place in this week in Charleston and what you think needs to happen?

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Thank you so much, Amy. It’s great to be here with you and Juan, and of course great to be again here with my brother Reverend Mark Tyler. I’m grateful for his courageous witness.

As he has expressed already so very eloquently, the black church was born, literally born, fighting for freedom. Ebenezer Baptist Church is a part of that long tradition. You really don’t get to a Martin Luther King Jr. without a Richard Allen in Philadelphia, without a Denmark Vesey in South Carolina, without a First African Baptist Church down in Savannah, Georgia. So, this attack on the black church is really an assault against that which is our first freedom movement. It is the mother of all freedom movements.

And so, our hearts go out for the families who are dealing with this devastating and unspeakable loss this Father’s Day weekend. We need to remember that there’s someone who’s suffering the loss of a father, and it’s just an unspeakable loss. We have felt that pain, as you indicated, in our own congregation. Forty-one years ago this very month, the precious mother of Martin Luther King Jr., Alberta Williams King, was murdered at the organ of the Ebenezer Baptist Church while playing the Lord’s Prayer. It is something that still resonates as a part of the history of our church. There are members of my congregation who remember that day vividly, when we lost not only Mrs. King, but we also lost one of our deacons. And so, we’re vigilant. We’re focused. We feel connected in a real sense, all of us at AMEs, this weekend.

But whether it’s in an AME church today or a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, as was the case just a few years ago, or Muslim mosque, we have to stand up together and bear witness to the ways in which we’re all inextricably tied together, as Dr. King would remind us in a moment like this. That’s why on last evening we had a multiracial, interfaith worship service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The glimmer of light in this deep darkness is that people across races, faith traditions, gathered together in our sanctuary and in sanctuaries across the nation to say that we are one people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about this whole issue, not only of the role of the church as part of the freedom—as a key part of the freedom struggle, but also the historic attacks on black churches and parishioners within churches, all most by white supremacists or by those who would try to stop the freedom struggle; and also, a church being the quintessential place that welcomes strangers and is open to the public, this idea of the lack of safety that results when those who would seek to set back a people’s struggle use the church as a killing ground.

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: I mean, think about it. This is just the most heinous of hate crimes, and it is indeed an act of terror. This man sat with the congregants there at a very small and intimate gathering—I believe they said in the fellowship hall of the church—sat there with them during Bible study, prayed with them and then preyed on them. It’s just beyond words and expression.

But we’re in a moment in America where we are dealing with a dangerous cocktail of racism and other forms of bigotry—I would include Islamophobia in that—a lack of access or seriousness about mental healthcare, and gun laws that are written at the behest of the gun lobby and those who profit from the proliferation of guns in America. As the president said on yesterday, other industrialized, advanced nations do not experience this at the rate that we are experiencing it. And it’s time—it’s past time for us to have a serious conversation on these issues. Every now and then we have a crisis like this—well, quite too often—and there’s conversation about gun reform, but nothing happens. But we’ve got to really get focused on this issue, people of faith. We’ve got to push our legislators to deal with this. There is complicity on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, in their inability to find the political will and the strength and the courage to have reasonable gun laws.

And I have to express this, because while this occurred in South Carolina, I live in the state of Georgia, which is ground zero for the “guns everywhere” law. And I literally mean everywhere—guns now in bars, where people have taken leave of their senses, in many instances; guns in churches—we didn’t ask for guns in our churches, our legislators decided that that was a good idea; guns in schools; guns in the busiest airport in the world. And the other day, a man exercising, he said, his rights at—thanks to the acts of our Legislature, brandished a huge weapon, walking around, in order to make a point, he said, about his Second Amendment rights in the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. I submit that he was not exercising his Second Amendment rights; he was exercising his white male privilege. It’s clear to me that someone who looks like me or someone who’s wearing the wrong kind of head dressing could not have walked through the Atlanta airport and had walked out in the way that he did.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Warnock, we’re going to talk about gun control in a minute, but I wanted to turn right now to Clementa Pinckney, pastor of the Emanuel AME Church and South Carolina state senator. He recently spoke in the South Carolina Senate, calling for police to wear body cameras in the wake of the shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston.

REV. CLEMENTA PINCKNEY: Lady and gentlemen of the Senate, when we first heard on the television that a police officer had gunned down an unarmed African American in North Charleston by the name of Walter Scott, there were some who said, “Wow! The national story has come home to South Carolina.” But there were many who said there is no way that a police officer would ever shoot somebody in the back six, seven, eight times. But like Thomas, when we were able to see the video and we were able to see the gunshots, and when we saw him fall to the ground, and when we saw the police officer come and handcuff him on the ground, without even trying to resuscitate him, without even seeing if he was really alive, without calling an ambulance, without calling for help, and to see him die facedown in the ground as if he were gunned down like game, I believe we were all like Thomas and said, “I believe.”

What if Mr. Santiago was not there to record what happened? I’m sure that many of us would still say, like Thomas, we don’t believe. I believe that as a legislature, that as a state, we have a great opportunity to allow sunshine into this process, to at least give us new eyes for seeing, so that we’re able to make sure that our proud and great law enforcement officers and every citizen that we represent is able to at least know that they will be seen and heard, and that their rights will be protected.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the late Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state senator, the youngest person elected to the South Carolina state Senate. He was elected when he was 27 years old, gunned down on Wednesday night at the age of 41, married with two children.

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