- - Monday, June 22, 2015


The Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression, the Late Unpleasantness — call it what you will depending on your preference — began in Charleston Harbor with an attack on Fort Sumter, and ended four years later with a northern victory that preserved the Union and freed the slaves.

The history of that war and its origins are complicated but in the century and a half since it ended in a farmer’s parlor at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Americans from both North and South have worked hard to reconcile their differences with each other.

The work continues. Perfection has always eluded mere men, and always will, but the progress since those first and last shots were fired is unprecedented in human history. Some cling to old animosities and seek to avenge acts they do not understand that took place long before they were born. There are those among us, as in the Balkans and the Middle East, who thrive on grievance and nurture the flame of racial hatred, who learn nothing and forget nothing. But they are few, and perhaps fewer in Charleston than in most other places.

This is startling, perhaps even disappointing to those who cultivate their piety by passing judgment on their neighbors, but forgiveness, goodwill and generosity have been abundantly evident in the days since the insane shootings that took the lives of nine Charlestonians at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The shooter, mentally ill or driven by hatred, was white and his victims were black, but the city did not erupt into riot and the usual senseless mayhem encouraged by agitators from beyond the city. The police caught the suspect quickly, and members of the families of several of the dead called on God, in the true spirit of their Christian faith, to forgive the guilty. There was no call to avenge by fire and blood. Over the weekend a hundred thousand black, white, Hispanic and Asian Charleston residents joined hands to unite in the wake of human tragedy.

Nothing comparable happened in Ferguson, Missouri or Baltimore, Maryland, and that says a lot to the rest of us. Those who would exploit tragedy found no willing conspirators in Charleston. The claims of those who blamed the legacy of a war that took place a century and a half ago, or in accusations of racism thrown about so recklessly, found willing ears in Ferguson and Baltimore, but not in Charleston.

Does racism exist or, more correctly, persist in Charleston? Of course it does, but the people of that city steeped in history have taught us all a lesson. Perhaps the white woman who tipped the police that she noticed the suspect as she drove to work on the morning after the massacre, spoke for Charleston when she pleaded with police to catch the killer of “our” people. It was her tip that led to a quick arrest.

Those tempted to exploit tragedy to further divide us by race or class should remember what happened, not when Dylann Roof opened fire on innocents studying the lessons of the Bible, but in the days following. The people of Charleston gave us all an eloquent lesson in Christian forgiveness, evidence that the people of Charleston, both black and white, are perhaps better people than many of us.

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