Lessons from a Tragedy
In the wake of the Charleston church shootings, a Sewanee history major finds herself at the intersection of broken history and breaking news, searing pain and soaring hope, unthinkable violence and unimaginable grace.
By Amy Buice, C'16
My heart was racing when Dylann Roof was led, handcuffed and head bowed, into the courtroom. I was seated on the front row of the jury box for his federal arraignment, directly opposite the door he walked through. I had anticipated this moment, knowing that I would be looking into the eyes of the man who had dominated the national conversation for the six weeks since he had killed nine people with a .45-caliber Glock during a Bible study in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. But I hadn’t anticipated my reaction, which came like a punch to the stomach.
You’re just a kid. And you have no idea what you’ve done.
Dylann Roof and I were born seven months and 150 miles apart. We were raised—he in Columbia, S.C., I in Savannah, Ga.—in a post-Civil Rights Movement South that continued to grapple with its complicated history on the issue of race relations. We were both seven years old when terrorists crashed airplanes into the Pentagon and the twin towers of the World Trade Center. We are Millenials, children of the 21st century, a demographic that is supposed to be more socially progressive than its elders, and the first “digital natives,” a generation growing up entirely in the age of the Internet. But while I was using the Internet to keep up with friends and to celebrate adolescent milestones, Roof was using it as a window to peer into the dark corners where hate speech and notions of white supremacy reign.
Watching him shuffle to his seat at the defense table, I felt suddenly lightheaded at the realization that in some ways we weren’t so different. What happened? I thought. How did your life go so terribly wrong?
I spent eight weeks this summer in the chambers of the federal court in Charleston, serving as a judicial intern for U.S. District Judge David Norton, a 1968 Sewanee graduate and, like me, a history major. I had hoped to learn about the law and to gain some valuable experience that I could highlight on my law-school applications. I had no idea that I would have a front-row seat for a moment in history that would shake the Holy City and the entire country, that would lead to the removal of a controversial symbol from the state capitol building, and, finally, demonstrate through those most deeply affected by the tragedy that, in the long run, love and forgiveness can win out over hate and violence.
The night of Wednesday, June 17, was balmy, 85 degrees even at 9 p.m., and I was enjoying an after-dinner stroll with a few Sewanee friends who were visiting from out of town. From the downtown house I shared with two recent College of Charleston graduates, it was easy to explore the historic city and its vibrant nightlife on foot. On this night, however, our evening revelry was cut short by screaming sirens and flashing lights, by police cars and ambulances rushing to the church that Charlestonians call “Mother Emanuel,” just a few blocks away.
Immediately after the shootings, reliable information was hard to come by. Residents and visitors on the streets shared what they knew, but nobody knew much. The very real possibility that a gunman was loose on the streets of Charleston, determined to continue his rampage, drove most of us indoors, and I retreated to my house with my friends. We spent the rest of the night staring at phones and computers in disbelief as the scope of the tragedy began to come into focus. Nine of Mother Emanuel’s African-American parishioners were dead, and the killer had escaped.
The next morning, I walked to the federal courthouse on the streets of a city that had been changed overnight. On King Street, I was stopped for an interview by a TV news crew that was turning to passersby to offer perspective on the events of the previous 12 hours. I’m not exactly sure what I said, and I don’t think the interview ever aired because the story was developing so quickly. When I was interviewed, the killer had not yet been identified, and his motives could only be guessed at. By 10 a.m., the world had heard the name Dylann Storm Roof for the first time, but by then I was at my desk, trying to focus on the Social Security disability cases I was tasked with reviewing.
Inside the federal courthouse, my thoughts drifted in a different direction from the conversations being held on Charleston’s streets, in its coffee shops, and wherever else people gathered to seek information and find solace. What were the next legal steps? Would there be federal hate-crime charges as well as state murder charges? Would the case come to our court?
By the time I left work that Thursday, Roof had been arrested in Shelby, N.C., and pictures of him posing with a gun and a Confederate flag had begun to circulate widely. I remember thinking that if I had been stopped for an interview on the way home from work, it would have been very different from the one I had given that morning, when so little was known. Nationally, the conversation sparked by the shootings was beginning to take shape, on TV and in newspapers, on the Internet and around dinner tables, and themes were starting to emerge. What did it mean for South Carolina and the United States that this had happened—in a house of worship, no less—in 2015? What did it mean that the flag Roof posed with in those pictures looked like the one still flying over the South Carolina statehouse on the day of the shootings?
I had done a good bit of thinking about the South and its symbols even before the shootings. During the spring of 2015, the semester before my judicial internship, I took two classes that explored these issues closely. In History Professor John Willis’s Southern Lives class, we read literature from before and after the Civil War, and we examined the ways that the South wrestled with its new identity in the aftermath of surrender. Southerners were the first Americans to lose a war, and this fact led to a complex relationship between the people and the symbols they held dear. Every Tuesday night that semester, I spent two-and-a-half hours in Vice-Chancellor John McCardell’s Civil War Memory class, where we talked about how the stories that we tell about the war have evolved over time. We discussed the monuments and memorials found throughout the old Confederacy, including in Sewanee, and the present-day controversies that arise when people question the need to preserve them.
Growing up in southeast Georgia and going to school in middle Tennesee, I had seen my share of Confederate flags and never given them much thought. But last semester when I was taking those classes and having conversations about the material we studied, I started to think more deeply about them. When I saw a Confederate flag—a flag, by the way, that was never used as the national flag of the Confederate States of America—waving from the bed of a pickup truck on Winchester’s Dinah Shore Boulevard, I knew that its meaning today was different from its meaning 150 years ago. Knowing what we know about history, I thought, why do you need that? Why is that significant for you? And even if you want to put the flag on your car or in your home, does it make sense as a symbol for a state government that represents its entire citizenship and not just those who support the flag’s display? That’s clearly something we need to talk about and be sensitive to.
During the anxious days following the Emanuel shootings, those classes in what had once seemed like ancient history came to vivid life with a cultural relevance I couldn’t have imagined possible when I was sitting in those classrooms in Walsh-Ellett. Twenty-three days after the shootings, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley ordered that the Confederate flag be lowered from the state capitol for the last time, and I knew that Dylann Roof had unwittingly effected an important change. Haley, the first woman and first Indian American to serve as governor of South Carolina said, “These grounds are a place that everybody should feel a part of. What I realized now more than ever is people were driving by and felt hurt and pain. No one should feel pain.”
I learned that Dylann Roof would appear in our court by accident. Judicial interns have access to the court’s electronic docket, and I was scanning it one morning in July to see what hearings and trials I might be able to attend in the coming weeks when I saw the words “Roof Arraignment” appear matter-of-factly on the screen. The system also gave me access to all of the supporting documentation for the charges, and I read every word of the indictment, the potential penalties, the lawyer’s briefs. I had been reading court filings for other cases for weeks, but this was different. Having felt the pain along with Mother Emanuel, the city of Charleston, the state of South Carolina, and the rest of the country, this one seemed personal.
On the day of the arraignment, I took a seat in the jury box along with my fellow interns. The courtroom was packed with families of the victims and as many members of the media as would fit. As members of the court, the interns were allowed to bring cell phones into the courtroom, but no one else was. When I found myself seated next to courtroom sketch artist Jerry McJunkins, he realized that I had the phone and asked me to help him out. For the next hour, I searched for pictures of Dylann Roof on my phone, looking for a variety of angles, and showed them to the artist so he could make preliminary sketches. McJunkins took note of the proportions of Roof’s face, the set of his eyes, and the way his bangs hung just above his eyebrows. By the time he entered the courtroom, I had seen every picture of Dylann Roof that was available on the internet, so the killer’s vacant stare shouldn’t have been a surprise to me.
And yet it was. Roof’s seeming indifference to the grave proceedings was disquieting. I had attended more than a dozen hearings during the summer, and I never saw a defendant who didn’t try to ingratiate himself to the presiding judge with a little humility, a simple “Yes, Your Honor.” But when U.S. Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant read the charges, asking Roof if he understood the 33 counts of hate crimes and firearms charges that had been added to the raft of state murder and attempted murder counts, the defendant offered nothing more than an emotionless “Yes.” The confessed murderer fidgeted with his handcuffs and chewed his lower lip while others debated his fate.
When members of the victims’ families testified at Roof’s state court arraignment just two days after the shootings, they did so with unimaginable grace. “I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance. “You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you.”
After six weeks of living with the pain of their loss, family members also spoke during the federal arraignment, entrusting justice for their loved ones to the legal system. Leroy Singleton, the brother of victim Myra Thompson said, “We miss her a whole lot. But we thank God for his grace and mercy. ... It’s hard right now ... but we will let the system work itself out.” It was impossible not to be moved by the family members’ pleas for justice, especially as they looked directly at the implacable Roof, seemingly searching the killer’s eyes for answers to a simple question: “Why?”
The family members’ faith in the legal system was surpassed only by their faith in God. As an aspiring lawyer and the daughter of an Episcopal priest, I share their faith on both counts. One of the things I most admire about our legal system is that nothing more is required of them in the search for justice. They were heard, and now the legal system will work to move toward justice for them. I hope one day to be able to play a part in a system that delivers justice for those who have felt the deep pains of injustice.
Following the arraignment, Mother Emanuel’s interim pastor, the Rev. Norvel Goff, summed up the family members’ pleas. “The process has started,” he said. “This is a long journey, but we are committed to the task to make sure justice is done. ... Hate never overtakes love.”
I passed by Emanuel AME frequently in the weeks after June 17 and never saw it when there weren’t at least a couple dozen people gathered to pay their respects to the victims of the shootings. It wasn’t just the families. Charlestonians and people who traveled great distances, people of all colors, ages, and creeds stopped by the church to share the pain and grief and to offer condolences. Vigils were held around the city, with church officials, politicians, and civic leaders calling for unity in the face of senseless violence.
President Obama delivered the eulogy for Mother Emanuel’s slain pastor, State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, saying, “As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He’s given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.” At the end of the eulogy, the president launched into a solo rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The mourners rose to their feet and joined him in song.