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'A Lot Of People Are Always Questioning And Wondering, Can We Do More?'

Herb Frazier
Courtesy Herb Frazier

This week marks five years since a white supremacist killed eight African American parishioners and their pastor at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Wednesday's anniversary was commemorated with marches calling for an end to not only racism but police brutality against people of color. 

Mother Emanuel is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the deep South with roots in protest movements such as the Denmark Vesey rebellion against slavery in 1822. Herb Frazier, who co-authored "We Are Charleston," a book about the church’s history and the Emanuel 9, says he spent the day reflecting on the tragedy and what has and has not changed.

Herb Frazier: We have here in Charleston continuous reminders of the tragedy because there have been a series of initiatives that have come out of that event. And of course, when you walk Calhoun Street, you see that gleaming white edifice that has been there since about the 1950s. And of course, as a kid growing up here, it is something that has been so much a part of my life since I was a child growing up in the church and living here in this city.

So I think a lot of people remember the tragedy, but a lot of people, I think, are always questioning and wondering, can we do more? We have to do more to always remember those lives and celebrate those lives that were lost and of course, embrace those five individuals who survived this tragedy.

Gwendolyn Glenn: You mentioned initiatives that came out of this. Could you tell me some of those initiatives?

Frazier: Some of this survivors or relatives of the people who lost their lives, initiated programs to push out in the community the message that love will conquer hate. But also one of the things that I think is important, too, is a program that came out of this tragedy to educate the police officers here, new police officers here, about the history of the black community. So when they patrol these streets, they'll have a greater appreciation of who built this city and what these people endured since slavery.

Glenn: Charleston, the city of Charleston -- you don't have a huge African American population that can afford to live in Charleston. Are more opportunities being made for affordable housing, for instance, for people of color to actually live in the city of Charleston?

Frazier: There are hopes that there will be more opportunities for black people to live in the city. The city is quickly losing its black voting strength as a result of gentrification. As you move along the peninsula, if you're familiar with downtown Charleston, where there had been a major concentration of black residents -- you see that is changing almost every month. And there's a great fear that people are being pushed out of the city and that in turn will lessen the opportunity for business development. And then the bottom line, voting representation in the city. And I'm not familiar with any substantial effort to try to reverse that.

Glenn: What about how people are, in terms of personal interactions, with each other? Has that changed?

Frazier: Well, the personal interactions, I think has changed. I think people are somewhat cordial. But there was a story where a young black man was attacked when he was walking down King Street late one night recently by a group of white boys who didn't like the idea that he was in the company of a white girl. That probably was a backlash of some of the ongoing protests against police violence.

Glenn: The protests that are happening nationwide in response to police brutality, in response to incidents of racism. How do you see what happened at Mother Emanuel fitting in to what's happening on the streets around the nation and also around the world?

Frazier: The peaceful demonstrations and peaceful marches that came out after the shooting at Mother Emanuel five years ago is inspiring, and hopefully people will be reminded now, today, how the community responded to what happened at Mother Emanuel. But keep in mind, what happened at Mother Emanuel was not a result of police violence.

We do see peaceful demonstrations have taken place here in Charleston, but there have been incidences where the police have overreacted and there have been incidences where some people have used this opportunity to loot and burn along King Street, which is the major business district in downtown Charleston. We still have to, I think, keep the focus on the message that there has been too much overreach by the police.

Glenn: And as you said, even though the Mother Emanuel tragedy did not involve police, but it was an act of racism, which is what these protests are also about today.

Frazier: Absolutely. And just yesterday, the mayor has announced that they're going to be removing the John C. Calhoun statue. And he was a very, very brutal man when it came to enslaved people in Charleston and in South Carolina. So his statue should have been removed five years ago after the shootings at Mother Emanuel.

But now this national call has prompted the mayor and city council to make the decision to remove it. Now, there will be some people who will not agree with that. But change has to be made now because I think the moment is now for these kinds of changes here and elsewhere in the United States.

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