Church shooting strikes at the heart of black culture

Story highlights

  • For years, church was a sanctuary from oppression and prejudices outside
  • AME church understands power of social change, experts say

(CNN)If the killings had happened anywhere else they still would have been horrendous. The shock, outrage and fear would not be diminished.

But coming as they did inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the gunshots are echoing through black communities in a particularly painful way. The soaring, historic structure in Charleston, South Carolina, is not just a building. It's not even just a place of worship. Emanuel is at the very heart of African-American history, and for many people it is holy ground in every way.
"The black church has always been our freedom house," said Alton Pollard, dean at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C.
    Emanuel has sent a message for generations of black citizens marginalized in the halls of politics, business, education, and even other churches, Pollard said.
    "You will come there without recrimination made against you. So no matter the disparages of the larger social order, you come here and you can learn how to be as fully human as you are."
    That legacy has been hard won. Located less than a mile from Charleston's historic slave market and established in 1816 -- deep in America's slaving past -- Emanuel served from the start as a center for disenfranchised, struggling people.
    One of the church founders was a slave who'd bought his own freedom, Denmark Vesey. He tried to organize what would have been the biggest slave rebellion in American history. But the plan was discovered, angry whites burned the church, and arrested more than 300 of the alleged plotters, executing 35 of them, including Vesey.
    Later, runaway slaves were secretly helped on their perilous journeys to the north by people tied to Emanuel. And when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to lead the civil rights, he stood in Emanuel's pulpit to invite others to join the movement.
    Through it all, as the oldest AME church in the south, Emanuel stood as a beacon to those who would stand up for black rights in a white-dominated world.
    "People like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks," said historian Douglas Brinkley from Rice University. "The AME church is always about human rights and civil rights. The AME church really tries to organize people for social change within our political structure."
    As the only institution that many generations of black people were allowed to rally around, the church in many places served myriad functions.
    "It was the lyceum," Pollard said, "where you came to learn dramatic arts, where you learned public speaking, where you became a prolific debater and thinker. It was the gymnasium where you got your athletics and all your recreational opportunities. It was the place where you could learn to not only be a good civil servant but you could be a leader in the church."
    Maybe that's what led President Barack Obama to look uncharacteristically downcast as he said, "There is something particularly heartbreaking about death happening in a place (where) we seek solace, we seek peace."
    The legacy of Emanuel is so strong and so well known, Gov. Nikki Haley said through tears, "The heart and soul of South Carolina is broken."
    To be sure, in the long fight for equality, plenty of black churches have been burned, bombed, and desecrated time and again. But this? "There's been nothing quite this grim (in years) where you have someone lurking in a church and massacring people because they're black," said Brinkley.
    By all accounts, Emanuel will bounce back. It always has. But at least for now, for a few moments, there are tears once again in sanctuary that has already wept a great many.