The steeple of Mother Emanuel A.M.E.
Image from Flickr user Henry de Saussure Copeland.

I’m not proud of this story. It has to do with systemic racism and how I took part in it one night at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, the church in Charleston, S.C., where Dylann Roof murdered nine people who were just trying to pray.

My incident was years before. It starts at the then whites-only church and elementary school, right next door to Mother Emanuel. It was graduation night from the eighth grade at Citadel Square Christian School. The ceremony was in our church school’s cavernous sanctuary, a place with ornate carvings, a pipe organ—and, if I remember right, a giant golden tub placed above the altar that was used for baptizing the saved.

Citadel Square Baptist Church (along with its adjoining elementary school) was an imposing neo-gothic building located on Charleston’s black-white borderlands, just off the tourist track. It faced Marion Square, the former parade grounds of The Citadel. Sometime after the Civil War, The Citadel relocated further uptown. This longtime military school (that my father and many male members of my family attended) is a direct successor to a military post set up by the state of South Carolina. That post had one mission: to put down potential slave insurrections like the one planned by Denmark Vesey.

At Citadel Square Christian School, we used the former parade grounds for playing kickball. We ran around beneath a towering memorial dedicated to John C. Calhoun, former Vice President of the United States, a Confederacy hero.

It’s important to know that Emanuel A.M.E. was located at the top of a tall stairway. It wasn’t like the other churches we knew. It was something of a fort, a place one didn’t enter casually.

Behind our school was Emanuel A.M.E. It had a steeple, like Citadel Square Baptist, but shorter. It was painted white, while ours was two-tone yellow and brown. Emanuel A.M.E. was where Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. had once preached. It stood tall on that part of Calhoun Street, a beacon among the vacant lots, run-down buildings, and a Continental Trailways bus depot. One of Mother Emanuel’s founders was the insurrectionist, Denmark Vesey—and that was why The Citadel was located nearby: to keep an eye on Mother Emanuel, the church for African Americans who didn’t know their place.

I’d arrived a little late for the graduation ceremony at my school. Instead of showing up on time, I’d gone to a screening of the Hepburn-Tracy film, Adam’s Rib, at a community center run by the local chapter of NOW. I could see my mother, already there in the pews, turning her head about, looking for me. This would have been late-May in Charleston: hot and humid—even in the shade, even at night.

Despite the heat, I would have worn my dark-blue three-piece suit. I wore that suit to all special events because I thought it was classic, something Errol Flynn would have liked. Back then, I was lost in old movies. I stayed up all night on weekends watching Bogart, Gable, and Garbo. I had a kind of netherworld life: I lived in a tumbledown, traditionally middle-class white part of the city where I wandered in and out of tired old stores that sold antebellum antiques and gimcrack junk.

I don’t remember much about my graduation from the eighth grade. I only recall taking the diploma from the pastor. He wasn’t the preacher I’d known for most of my time at Citadel Square Christian School: That particular man had absconded with a mistress. The replacement pastor had an uninspired delivery like he was selling insurance. He was far too stolid to run away, and he was good enough for the Sunday morning service that was broadcast live on local TV.

After the graduation ceremony, I didn’t want to go home. I showed my mother around the school. The education buildings were adjoined haphazardly—you might walk up some steps and reach a wall. Hallways frequently zig-zagged into nowhere, and everything was beige, brown, and gray. Voices echoed among the surfaces. It was a confusing maze, with numerous, never-used classrooms.

Taking my mother around, I spotted other students. We were like ghosts, haunting the school we were about to leave. We eyed one another: the boy who’d once showed me his belly because his locally famous father had beat him so severely, he was bruised all over his stomach and chest. There was the girl who ruled the class, basically because her father owned a popular barbeque chain. There was also the girl who modeled bikinis for me. We’d go to Kerrison’s on King Street, and in that ancient department store, she modeled bikinis, doing a twirl each time in the dressing room.

Then there was this particular girl I ran into, who I’ll call Carol. Years later, Carol ended up a society matron. She now gives money to charities and sits on nonprofit boards. Carol had been the first girl in our class to develop breasts and her progress in that area was discussed with a great deal of fervor. I didn’t care that much, though: I was burning a torch for my bikini-twirler and a new transfer student, a ballet dancer from the suburbs.

Carol and I were good friends, perhaps because neither of us was Southern Baptist. I liked Carol’s outsider status, her love for the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man. She’d talk to me about her breasts and kissing boys, how her breasts made her back hurt, and more about her breasts, and how her breasts compared with Lynda Carter of Wonder Woman. Occasionally, she talked about my butt. She’d slap it now and then and say I had a good butt and I should wear tighter pants. I learned a great deal from our conversations.

That night, she and I somehow got away from our parents. Eventually, we picked up some other student, a female whose name and face I can’t recall. In the movie of this scene, that person would be a bit player. Did we then get drunk? I don’t see how. But I remember the three of us laughing and getting increasingly manic and careless.

Sitting In the school parking lot, we laughed and talked about our futures. Carol was going to attend the Catholic high school down the block. I wanted to go there, but my mother wouldn’t allow it. She was worried I’d confuse my being an Episcopalian with being Roman Catholic—or something; I was never certain of the logic.

But that night was filled with hope. Carol and I (and our third wheel) promised each other we’d be friends forever. I adored Carol and had always found it easier to talk to girls than boys. With girls, you could talk about relationships. In Charleston, boys only wanted to talk about football and other boring things like NASCAR, fishing, and whether Peterbilt trucks were better than Mack trucks.

* * *

The three of us wandered to the swing sets the little kids used. Carol and I used to swing high on those sets and then jump out into the air. One last time, Carol and I jumped out from the swing sets. And then at some point, she upped the ante: She decided we would walk out past the schoolyard and go into the city while Carol pretended to be mentally disabled, what we would then have called “retarded.”

Our third wheel and I were supposed to pretend we were taking care of Carol while she waved her arms and flailed her legs. We all thought it sounded hilarious. I’m not the hero of this story.

We went to a hotel and walked up and down the lobby, and Carol put on a show. Security eyed us. They probably thought we were three stupid kids. We left, deciding to take our show on the road. Carol wanted to go to Mother Emanuel.

It’s important to know that Emanuel A.M.E. was located at the top of a tall stairway. It wasn’t like the other churches in Charleston. It was something of a fort, a place one didn’t enter casually. There was, after all, a long history of burning down black churches in the South, Emanuel included. Its first building was burned to the ground after the Denmark Vesey revolt.

I’d wondered what services were like there, but frankly, that church had always intimidated me. I’d seen the dignified men and women going in and out of it, wearing elaborate Sunday clothes and ornate hats.

It was a garden party, every week. John C. Calhoun was buried in our graveyard, beneath the live oak trees: we were a top-dog church in Historic Charleston, the one with the dead VIPs.

During the languid summers at the place where my family went to church, St. Phillips Episcopal, most of the congregation was off somewhere on vacation. Our priest joked about turning the church into “The Steeple Steakhouse.” In his sermons, he quoted James Thurber and T.S. Eliot. For informal gatherings, he played jazz piano. The men wore blue blazers and khaki pants. Their belts were usually fabric and imprinted with designs, such as whales and horses. The women wore bright lime or yellow sundresses and open-toed shoes. It was a garden party, every week. John C. Calhoun was buried in our graveyard, beneath the live oak trees. We were a top-dog church in Historic Charleston, the one with the dead VIPs.

At St. Philips, we knew our lives would go on, well enough, provided we followed all the rules. The congregants at Emanuel, though, seemed more serious. I often wondered what was inside Emanuel A.M.E., but the truth is, I had no idea. I didn’t know anyone who went to services there. And still much worse, I had no African American friends—none at all.

* * *

Carol flailed her arms, a grim parody of the mentally disabled. We followed her up the steps into Emanuel. There was a gathering of some kind in the sanctuary, perhaps a service. If I remember right, many of the people inside turned around and looked at the three of us—three white fools who felt like they had the right to be there because our whiteness gave us an all-access pass.

Regret and fear took over and I wanted to pretend I didn’t know Carol. I stared at the service inside, the stained glass behind the altar, the vaulted barrel ceiling, the arched, gothic windows, and the men and women dressed in their best. It felt dignified in there, but not grand. This was not a show-off place.

I wanted to crawl into the carpet. A woman in white came up to us and said, “You’re welcome here. Everyone is welcome here.” She motioned us into the sanctuary, Carol included, who kept on with her act like a road-show vaudevillian.

I ran outside and bounded down the stairs. I just couldn’t be there. Carol and the third wheel joined me a few moments later. They were laughing—it was hilarious. That woman called after us from the top of the stairs, “Everyone is welcome here.”

* * *

No doubt those church members knew that skinny white kid Dylann Roof, with his bowl haircut, was a mess inside—just as they’d known my friends and I were privileged jerks who should have been taken out to some old-style woodshed.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded during the age of slavery. It was a key part of the Underground Railroad and continued through Jim Crow. The churches were intended as safe places for everyone, despite the bullets, burning crosses, and lynchings. I don’t count myself as a Christian, but I hope to God Dylann Roof didn’t rob Mother Emanuel from remaining a fearlessly welcoming place.

No doubt those church members knew that skinny white kid Dylann Roof, with his bowl haircut, was a mess inside, just as they’d known my friends and I were privileged jerks who should have been taken out to some old-style woodshed. They decided to love Dylann Roof anyway, just as they’d actively decided to love the three of us.

During that full hour when Dylann Roof sat in Mother Emanuel (he sat among them for an hour), both terrorist, pastor, and the congregation knew love wasn’t bulletproof. I can’t imagine what that last hour must have been like for the members of Emanuel A.M.E. while Dylann Roof sat among them.

But Dylann Roof doesn’t matter. His “manifesto” is irrelevant. I don’t care about his friends or his suicide watch. No matter what happens to him, he’s about to learn something about American Apartheid: Most of his fellow prisoners, the people he will have to share his space with, will be African American. Welcome to the American prison system, Dylann.

Also, because this is South Carolina, the justice system will eventually kill him. The implied message will be: We killed racism because we killed Dylann Roof. After all, Charleston is a tourist juggernaut and that juggernaut must be protected at all cost.

* * *

We’ve been fighting this race war for generations. White people are in denial of it, perhaps because it’s too hard for us to see it. So we find it a boring topic because our privilege allows us to be bored.

I’d like to think the better side is winning (albeit slowly) but this war won’t end on its own. It won’t be won by good people who stand along the sidelines and saying soft things. People need to speak and counteract what Martin Luther King once called the “appalling silence of good people.”

Racism can’t be wished away, especially if you’re white. Because if you’re white, you’re a part of the problem.

“Good people” who do nothing need to know that doing nothing means they are in consent with what happened at Mother Emanuel. They are also guaranteeing the continuance of terror. It could even mean, on some level, they’re happy with it, too.

Racism can’t be wished away, especially if you’re white. Because if you’re white, you’re a part of the problem. Your skin color is a currency. Failing to acknowledge this only guarantees that racism will remain completely intact. Bull Connor and George Wallace are both rotting in the ground somewhere, but racism is still here. Racism is mostly coded now, but there are plenty of Dylann Roofs out there.

* * *

Whenever I visit my family in Charleston and I walk past Mother Emanuel, I still feel ashamed of what I did. I don’t remember how Carol and our third wheel and I separated that night. I’m sure we hugged and laughed and considered that night among the best ones ever. In any case, we went on using our white, all-access badges. And we’ll continue to use them for the rest of our lives.

But now, I keep thinking of what that woman said from the top of the stairs at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal: Everyone is welcome here. On the first Sunday after the massacre, Reverend Norvell Goff, presiding elder of the Edisto District of the State Conference of the A.M.E. Church, told the congregants, “No evildoer, no demon in hell or on Earth” can close the doors of Mother Emanuel.”

I hope he’s right. Because there are many Dylann Roofs. And many more kids like me, Carol, and the faceless third wheel who think they can just stand by and make bad jokes.

Meakin Armstrong

Meakin Armstrong is Senior Fiction Editor at Guernica. He is a ghostwriter, essayist, fiction writer, and journalist — and has been published in a wide variety of journals. You can follow him on Twitter at @meakinarmstrong.

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism.

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.