We welcome a guest post today from Steve Estes, author of Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement. Once one of the wealthiest cities in America, Charleston, South Carolina, established a society built on the racial hierarchies of slavery and segregation. By the 1970s, the legal structures behind these racial divisions had broken down and the wealth built upon them faded. Like many southern cities, Charleston had to construct a new public image. In this important book, Estes chronicles the rise and fall of black political empowerment and examines the ways Charleston responded to the civil rights movement, embracing some changes and resisting others.
In a recent post, Estes discussed the killing of Walter Scott in the context of the city’s history of racial relations and policing policy. As we reel from news of the racially motivated murders at Emanuel AME Church this week, Estes again brings valuable historical insights.
Charleston is nicknamed the “Holy City,” because of the many steeples that punctuate the graceful poetry of its skyline. There are more than 900 houses of worship in the Low Country, representing all of the world’s major faiths, and more than a few minor ones. Some of the congregations were founded in the 1600s, others in the 2010s. Some meet in grand buildings on the National Historic Registry, others in humble strip mall storefronts. Regardless of how old they are or where they meet, Charleston’s congregations are driven by faith. That faith was sorely tested this week with the racially motivated murders of worshipers in Emanuel AME church. How could a city so steeped in faith witness a scene of such unimaginable horror in one of its holy places?
In the mid-1600s, the political philosopher John Locke wrote into a draft of the Carolina Colony’s constitution, “No Person whatsoever, shall disturb, molest or persecute another for his speculative opinions in religion, or his way of worship.” Locke also proposed a representative government with minimal property requirements for voting. Yet the same draft of the constitution that guaranteed religious freedom and representative government also defended slavery, stating: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves.” The Carolina colonists did not adopt Locke’s constitution, but the tensions inherent in the document—between tolerance and bigotry, freedom and slavery—defined the city’s history.
By the 1790s there were houses of worship in the city ministering to Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Huguenots, Lutherans, Catholics, and Jews. In fact, there were more Jews in Charleston in 1800 than any other city in North America, including New York. In the early 1800s African Americans, who made up more than half of the city’s population, also began to form their own churches. One was the “African Church” that white Charlestonians razed after Denmark Vesey’s planned slave insurrection in 1822. This church would be rebuilt as Emanuel AME, the site of this week’s massacre.
Segregation was the rule in Charleston churches (as in many American houses of worship) in the twentieth century when Martin Luther King Jr. observed that 11:00 Sunday morning was “the most segregated hour in Christian America.” Even after the civil rights movement brought dramatic changes to Charleston, however, houses of worship remained among the most segregated institutions in the city, undermining efforts to create interfaith and interracial alliances.
Yet at the end of the twentieth century, the city embraced religious and racial diversity. One example of this was the hiring of the first black, Jewish police chief. Reuben Greenberg’s paternal grandparents were a Russian Jewish émigré and a black southerner. Greenberg converted to Judaism as an adult after being raised in his mother’s Methodist church. The police chief’s wife was raised in the black church and retained her Baptist faith after they were married. Reuben Greenberg was the “Holy City’s” top cop for a quarter of a century.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, people of all faiths in Charleston came together to cope with the national tragedy. Two thousand people met on the decommissioned aircraft carrier Yorktown in a candlelight vigil two days after the attacks. A few days later, 2500 attended an interfaith memorial concert at Liberty Square. “We are a patchwork quilt, all woven together by the common thread of democracy,” Tim Scott, a city councilman and future U.S. Senator, told the crowd gathered at the Yorktown. At Liberty Square, children from local Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations offered a shared prayer for peace. “America’s greatness lies in that energetic diversity that welcomes people as they are and asks only that we live and let live,” said a local rabbi, summing up the remarks by clergy of various faiths and denominations.
Lost in many retellings of the tragic massacre at Emanuel AME is the fact that the black worshipers opened the doors of their church to a troubled white man and prayed with him. The horrific events that followed that hour of prayer have shaken the faith of many Charlestonians and Americans. There are many reasons to be shocked and angered by this story. It illustrates in the starkest terms how racial extremism and violence still haunt South Carolina and the United States.
The complex history of religion in Charleston serves as both a cautionary tale and a reason for hope. Despite the many seemingly insurmountable problems that remain, there is also promise for a better day in the Low Country. There is reason to have faith in Charleston.
Steve Estes is professor of history at Sonoma State University. He was born in North Carolina and grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. His book Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement will be published in September 2015 and is available for pre-order now. His previous books include I AM a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement and Ask and Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out.