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On the Way to Charleston

Jun 26, 2015
EC from DC

Today, I am on my way to Charleston, South Carolina, to attend the funeral of the late Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney.

My heart has been heavy for days, thinking of the victims and their friends and their families. Thinking of their last moments, as they welcomed an outsider to their sanctuary. The Bible tells us to offer hospitality to one another, for we never know who we may be entertaining unaware. We never know.

As a United Methodist minister, I am deeply troubled to hear of any life lost to violence and hate. After learning of the depraved and profane shooting of these Christian men and women, because they were black, in their oasis — their sanctuary — I remembered my own commitment to Bishop W. T. Handy, during my term as Kansas City’s Mayor, to conduct the Wednesday evening Bible study and, of course, the Sunday worship service. Despite receiving numerous threats after having been elected as the first black Mayor of Kansas City, I assured Bishop Handy that I would continue to conduct Wednesday evening and Sunday services. I remembered how vulnerable I felt as a mayor and a minister, how I feared for myself, and for my family.

This attack, committed in the house of God, as congregants studied the word of God, saddens me beyond the telling. Reverend Clementa Pinckney and the men and women of Emanuel AME Church walked by faith, and not by sight. Emanuel means God is with us. And although it is hard to believe in these times of strife and sadness, I believe God is with us. Rev. Pinckney lived his faith fully, both in the pulpit and the political sphere. He believed that his vocation was vital both within the house of God and in the statehouse.

And while nothing can make the loss of these nine lives worth the cost, we have seen bright lights shining in the darkness. The Confederate flag that flew in front of the South Carolina Capitol is coming down.

Folks only began to fly and flaunt the Confederate flag in our era when the federal government began to enforce Constitutional and civil rights. That is when South Carolina first put the flag up—in 1962, at a time of turmoil and terror, of struggle and strife, and hard-fought progress for black people everywhere.

There are those who blindly and blithely call the flag a symbol of heritage, or honor, or valor. But ultimately the flag is a symbol of hate. It is time to put that symbol behind us. When you remove the symbol, you can make space for progress. And I cannot tell you how joyful I am that South Carolina, the home of Fort Sumter, a center of the Confederacy, is now saying we are ready to move on.

And while most people associate the flag with the Confederacy, this design was truly the battle flag of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, flown as they fought against the Union. At that time, Captain Henry Cleaver owned—a word that pains me to write—my great-grandfather, down in Cherokee County, Texas. This isn’t something in the distant past. This is very real, even today.

This emblem is but one endemic reminder that we are not the post-racial, colorblind, neutral society some may wish to believe. It is one reminder of the work left to be done, to pray for peace, to strive for justice, and to create a better, more harmonious world. And yet, I fear the work will be left undone, to the next generation.

On Tuesday, I reluctantly stood with my fellow Members of Congress as we were called to stand in a moment of silence, as is customary. But I fear once we sat back down, many considered our task done. Moments of silence without action afterward are hollow—and we are but poor players strutting upon the stage, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

This is also the danger of the current campaign to take down the Confederate flag. If we take down the symbol without making any true progress, we have not truly prospered.

And when this fight to take the flag down is won—and it will be---we will not have conquered the evils of racism and prejudice. We will not be colorblind. We will have more work to do.

There is still so much more to do to make ours a more perfect, more equal nation.

In America, much of our history is ugly and uncomfortable. But we don’t get anywhere by ignoring it or blindly hailing “heritage.” We only move forward with our eyes open.