Seven months after a white supremacist gunned down nine back worshipers inside a Charleston, S.C., church, former N.C. Sen. Malcolm Graham said he is still struggling to understand the violence of that day, which claimed the life of his oldest sister, Charleston librarian Cynthia Hurd.
Speaking Monday at the 22nd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Breakfast in Charlotte, Graham said he had yet to reach a place of forgiveness.
“We all have to huddle around our faith, relying on our faith,” he told the crowd of about 1,200 people. “There are some who are able to forgive in two days. I am still on that journey. I am still on the road of understanding; I am not on the road of forgiveness yet.”
Graham, 53, said the June 17, 2015 killings inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston were a direct assault on black Americans, and he called on people of all races to reject hate and speak out against bigotry in all its forms.
“The attack that night was more about a race of people who were assaulted that night,” he said. “It was about humanity that was assaulted that night. Each and every one of us has a moral obligation, yes a responsibility, to do something and say something about it.”
They welcomed a stranger
Hurd, 54, was among 14 people, including state lawmaker Clementa Pinckney, who had gathered at Emanuel for Bible study when “they welcomed in a stranger who did not look like them,” Graham said. (Pinckney was also the church’s senior pastor)
“At the conclusion, during the benediction, when heads were bowed and eyes were closed, gunfire rung out,” Graham told the hushed audience. “…What he did was kill nine innocent people, terrorize five others.”
The next day far from Charleston, police arrested 21-year-old Dylan Roof, an avowed racist, as he drove through Shelby. He was charged with nine counts of murder and is awaiting trial. He faces a possible death penalty if convicted.
Graham said the Charleston church, among the most historic black churches in the state, had been a pillar in his family’s life – the scene of weddings, funerals and his first Easter speech. His parents are both buried there.
A matriarch lost
He recalled that Hurd become the family’s matriarch after their parents died while Graham was a student at Johnson C. Smith University. Graham said his sister also loved books and had spent more than 30 years working within the Charleston County Public Library system.
“She can’t be remembered as just a victim,” he said. “She was more than that–much more than that.”
Graham said his “journey to forgiveness” has been “very complex.”
Within three weeks, he said, he lost a sister, read false media reports stating that the victims’ families had all forgiven Roof, then saw the Confederate flag come down from the state house grounds in Columbia.
“After decades of trying by the NAACP and other major institutions to bring the flag down, it took the deaths of nine individuals for South Carolina to find its moral compass,” he said. “What do you do with all of that in three weeks.”
Graham said he had no choice but to be strong.
“I had to be strong for my family and this community, because the attack on the individuals there was an attack on a race of people. The only thing that mattered was that they were there and that they were black. And so strength was needed,” he said.
Graham added: “What is it about the color of my skin that makes people cringe when they see me, to the point that they want to kill me? Why, in the house of God, did nine innocent people have to die? Where was God?”
A call to action
Graham said many of the social ills that existed in King’s day – poverty, gun violence, racial hatred and brutality — continue into 2016. And in an apparent reference to the current political climate, he called on those in the audience to reject politics of hate, along with racial and gender stereotypes and demeaning jokes.
“We have to walk away from that kind of (thing) and stare it down and make it unacceptable in your homes and your religious community and your clubs,” he said. “We have to call it out when we see it.”
Graham said he is working to honor his sister by building a foundation in her name that will focus on reading and literacy.
“I think it’s one of the things Dr. King would want me to do, to continue to honor her legacy and her memory, and then challenge this community, that we have to say something, we have to do something,” he said.
“Cynthia would not have wanted me to be bitter, or harbor hatred,” Graham added. “She would want me to continue to fight for her, to fight for you. And that’s what I will continue to do. And I elicit every one of you to fight with me, as we combat these issues that are still with us today.”