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One Family, One Year After Charleston, Part 2

Courtesy of Doctor family
Kaylin, Gracyn, Czana and Hali Doctor, at Gracyn's graduation last month from Johnson C. Smith University.

A year ago today, nine parishioners were murdered during a Bible study at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church. The suspect in those shootings faces two trials, beginning later this year.

Thursday during All Things Considered, we met some family members of one woman killed in the Emanuel AME shootings. In this segment, WFAE's Mark Rumsey talks to the family about issues of race, the Confederate flag,  forgiveness, and the death penalty.

On June 17, 2015, a young, white visitor defied everything sacred at the historic, African-American church in Charleston, affectionately known as "Mother Emanuel.”

Two days later, Dylann Roof had his first appointment in a North Charleston courtroom.   The suspect appeared on a video feed, from the nearby jail.   As Roof stared through the screen, family members of several shooting victims spoke - among them, Bethane Middleton-Brown:

“DePayne Doctor was my sister; I'm a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I am very angry…” she said.

The Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, was among the nine people killed at Emanuel AME.  She was 49.  

While relatives of some victims were quick to voice forgiveness toward their loved ones' accused killer - the journey in that direction is still taking place for Bethane Brown - as she expressed during a recent conversation around the kitchen table in her Charlotte home:

My status - that hasn't changed.  I'm still a work in progress - my intentions are to find forgiveness.  I'm still angry. I have hope. That's where I am.”

Was it painful to hear a level of forgiveness from some at that first court hearing?

"It wasn't painful,” Bethane says. “The only thing that was painful for me at that time was, I was trying to come to grips with the loss of my sister.   I don't think I'm a bad person, I think I'm a forgiving person.  I may not get there when everyone else does.”  

Bethane says, she's "numb" when it comes to the now 22-year-old man accused of the murders.

“I don't really give a thought to my sister's murderer. And I don't call him by name.  I gladly say, I call him ‘Lucifer.’ That's the spirit that took over him to make him do what he did.”

But it's not the spirit that DePayne Doctor's family hopes will be the legacy of that dreadful night at Emanuel AME church.  As we talk, her younger sister, oldest daughter, and a niece, all wear memorial pins bearing a photo of DePayne.   Messages on the pins include - "Hate Didn't Win."  

For a time following the Charleston shootings - questions about hate and race hung precariously in the hot, summer, South Carolina air.   Less than a month after the massacre, the Confederate flag was lowered for a final time from its pole on the statehouse grounds, to a chorus of cheers heard well beyond the Capitol.

Bethane says taking down the flag was a good move for race relations in the country.  But, she’s not completely convinced the flag is down for good.

I question if it will stay that way, or, will it return? It is my hope that it won't return- that it will stay showcased wherever, and that we will continue to move forward with an effort to improve race relations.  I'm a little 'iffy' with race relations, because it seems like it just keeps flaring back up.”

The future of race relations in America is also "iffy", in the eyes of DePayne Middleton-Doctor's oldest daughter, Gracyn. She's 23, and graduated in May from Johnson C. Smith University.  Like her aunt, Gracyn isn't convinced the Confederate flag is gone for good:

I'm not gonna say that we're gonna see the flag up on the statehouse again, but, who knows? You know, especially with governor changes - you just never really know people's mentality, their way of thinking, their background - you just don't know what people could do.”

Gracyn says the country can move past its troubling race relations..only when people accept the fact that racism still exists:

But I think people are in such denial, and they just don't want to face the fact that it's happening - maybe because it's not something they've experienced personally."

On this first anniversary of the shootings at Emanuel AME - Gracyn, Bethane, and other family members are in Charleston. They'll attend a memorial service for the nine victims, write on a remembrance wall, and place flowers on the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor's grave.  

Charleston obviously now holds sharply contrasting memories for DePayne's family. But for Bethane and Gracyn, other visits over the past year back to the charming city where they both grew up seem to have brought more comfort than pain:

"It was sad at first, but it then it was beautiful.  Such a beautiful day, and I remember saying, 'Charleston is such a beautiful city.’ I could see the church steeples, and of course the Battery wasn't far away, the carriage rides were coming through. It was just a very serene atmosphere that I felt.”

Gracyn thought it would be difficult to return home. And at first, it was.

I was also thinking, every time it would be hard, and I would think 'oh, I don't want to go to Charleston.'  But it's been the opposite - I get excited to go home, and I definitely feel a sense of serenity there too - especially when I'm downtown."

Events marking the first anniversary of the Emanuel AME shootings aren't the only mileposts for family members to pass along the road to healing. Accused killer Dylann Roof faces a federal trial in November. His state trial on nine murder counts is on the docket for January.

When those trials arrive, Bethane Middleton-Brown knows where she'll be.

“I plan to be at every last one, burning a candle at both ends. That's important to me,” she says. “Someone and something precious was taken from me and I need to make certain that I see that through...for her.”

Bethane supports the death penalty for Roof.  It’ s also acceptable for her if he gets a sentence of life in prison. What’s not acceptable?

”What I don't want - I don't want any insanity verdict - I don't feel that would be justice.”  

Like forgiveness, justice can seem elusive when the lives of nine people have been violently cut short, for reasons no one can reconcile.   Even so, despite everything the Emanuel AME killer took on June 17, a year ago, for Gracyn Doctor - some things have survived:

Even though he's taken my mom, he hasn't taken my joy. She lives inside of me, and I see her in my sisters.  I see her in my aunt.  It's not the same, you know, but it's enough to at least keep me going. I can still feel her presence - I know she's around.”

Bethane knows what she would say if she could address Roof today:

"What would I say to him right now? 'We are the family that love built.’  You can come from any corner you want - you can't get it.  You cannot harm us.  And as God said about Job, you can take the flesh, but you can't get the soul. And he has not gotten our soul."

The Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor.  Absent from Charleston. Absent from the pulpit and choir at Emanuel AME. But her presence is steadily felt by her family, through reminders large and small.   One such reminder is a recording, released last year, of DePayne - along with the SC Baptist E&M Convention Choir - singing,  "That's Who You Are to Me":

Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor sings with the SC Baptist E&M Convention Choir in a recording released in 2015.

WFAE's Gwendolyn Glenn contributed to this story.