- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - After weeks of blacks and whites squaring off at presidential rallies during this vitriolic campaign season, a bipartisan, multiracial group of civil rights leaders and members of Congress struck a conciliatory tone Friday, beginning a three-day history and racial understanding tour of South Carolina.

The event, which culminates Sunday with a prayer service at a Charleston church where nine black parishioners were slain, was planned months ago and happened to fall smack in the middle of a presidential race that has seen protesters and supporters face off, sometimes violently, at rallies for Republican Donald Trump. Last week, about 150 miles away from where the tour began, a white Trump supporter was captured on video punching a black protester who was being escorted from a North Carolina rally.

“I think what we can take from it is that people are very frustrated, that they’re irritated, that they are engaging in a way that we haven’t seen in a very long time,” said Republican Sen. Tim Scott, the first black U.S. senator from the Deep South since Reconstruction. “The responsibility and the onus is on every single one of us, but especially those of us who have stepped forward as leaders to present a case of a peaceful, constructive way to protest those things that you disagree with and look for ways to move forward collectively.”

Scott was among a group of seven Democrats and seven Republicans who started the tour at Zion Baptist Church, founded in 1865 and a training ground through the years for religious and political leaders. As black and white images from the civil rights era were projected on the wall, Democratic Reps. Jim Clyburn and John Lewis stepped to the church podium, telling personal stories from their time fighting for equality and noting the importance of South Carolina’s place in the progress that has been made. An occasional “Amen!” and “Preach!” came from the congregation as the gathering at times took on the feeling of a church service rather than a political event. Audience members clapped along as a choir of a dozen singers erupted in gospel melodies.

Over the next few days, the group will visit places that have played both painful and important roles in the state’s struggle for civil rights. Later Friday, the caravan would travel to Orangeburg to discuss the 1968 slayings by three black protesters by state troopers, known as the Orangeburg massacre.

Organizers hope the “Pilgrimage to South Carolina” will be an exercise in forgiveness and strength in a state whose reaction to last summer’s violence at Emanuel has been held out as a model of how to handle racially charged situations.

“I don’t think there’s any room in our society, whether in a movement, in a political campaign, for violence,” said Lewis, who recalled 1961, when he was beaten and left bloody at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, during civil rights protests. Ultimately, one of the men who had beaten Lewis, a former Ku Klux Klan member, came and sought his forgiveness several years ago.

“I said, I accept your apology, I forgive you. … It is time for all of us to lay down the burden of division in civil rights and create a loving community,” Lewis said.

After the June 17 church slayings - in which the suspect is a white man who had expressed support for white supremacy and the Confederate flag - relatives of the nine people killed expressed forgiveness for Dylann Roof, the man charged in the shooting. Some said they would pray for him.

Clyburn, the first black congressman from South Carolina since Reconstruction, said it’s no accident churches have had an important role in the civil rights movement and the forgiving reaction from the relatives of those slain. The Faith and Politics Institute has held such bipartisan events in five southern states since 1998.

“It has been faith-based from the very beginning, and that’s why forgiveness is not outside the realm of anybody’s imagination, if they really understood exactly what it is that we’re all about and still are,” he said.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/

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This story has been corrected to say more than a dozen members of Congress attended, not two dozen.

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