I am a former resident of Charleston, South Carolina and for the last two years I have been working with the Charleston County School District as their diversity consultant. On the evening of July 8th I was fortunate to attend bible study with members of the Sister Emmanuel A.M.E. Church. This was the first bible study since the funerals of the nine innocent people who were shot in the same prayer hall two weeks earlier.
Over 150 people from all walks of life and geographic locations filled the small room in the basement of the church. You could sense that we all were there to share in a special moment and to pay honor to the slain, now forever known as the “Emmanuel 9.” The service was powerful as several family members talked about forgiveness and how their ability to forgive the assailant has liberated them. One of the victim’s sisters led the discussion. Her strength and resolve was inspiring. I left the church full of emotion and deep thoughts centered on making a contribution that would honor the “Emmanuel 9” and contributing to the healing process.
On July 9th, I started driving back to my home in Atlanta, Georgia. I timed my drive to make sure I was in Columbia, South Carolina at 4 pm when South Carolina Governor Haley signed the bill to remove the confederate flag from the Capitol. I arrived on the Capitol grounds at 3:15. I walked around the flagpole to take in the moment. I found a remote area where I stood isolated from the crowd to people watch. The media was set-up everywhere with their remote trucks. The overwhelming majority of people there were in support of removing the confederate flag.
I observed members of the Klu Klux Klan arguing that the flag needed to stay and members of the Black Panthers arguing to take it down. The scene was bizarre because there was so much emotion and anger on both sides of the same issue.
There was one young man carrying a confederate flag that caught my attention. He was not arguing nor protesting loudly. He stood away from the crowd holding his flag dressed in jeans, a cowboy hat, red haired beard, cowboy boats and a blue plaid shirt. In my mind I sized him up quickly and anger began to rise inside of me. I reflected back on being in bible study the night before in the room where a young man supporting the confederate flag murdered 9 innocent people “how dare he come here and hold that flag on this historic day.”
I decided that I needed to say something and went over to speak to him about his point of view. As I approached him I could see the anxiety in his face. His body language was saying, “oh no not another person bullying me about the flag.” I reached out to him with my hand and introduced myself in a professional manner. We exchanged handshakes and he said his name was Brighton.
I asked Brighton why he was here. He shared that he was there because he wanted to support his family’s southern heritage. His support of the flag flying at the Capital was to show support of his family members fighting for the South during the Civil War. He is proud to be from the South and the flag symbolizes his pride. He went on to say that he is totally against racism and is hurt that some people including the Charleston assailants use the flag as a cloak for racist behavior and beliefs. He shared with me how people were driving by with KKK signs, blowing their car horns in support of him carrying the flag. He was disgusted and mad because he despises the KKK and he loves all people.
I thanked him for sharing his story and I offered my perspective of what the flag represented to me as an African-American with family roots from the South. How my ancestors shared stories with me of how the confederate flag was used during lynching and racist hatred towards them. Brighton, thanked me and shared that our discussion was the first time anyone had openly talked to him in a respectful manner about the details of how the flag was offensive and caused pain for African-Americans and other groups of people.
I agreed that the heritage of the South needed to be preserved and could be accomplished in a museum. We then shook hands and exchanged departing pleasantries. Before he let my hand go he said, Kevin, there is something we have in common. With a surprising look, I asked what was that. He showed me a tattoo of a cross on his forearm. He observed the cross necklace around my neck that I thought was hidden under my shirt. He confessed to being a believer, a Christian and a man of faith.
I know that Brighton and I were supposed to meet and talk that day. Two people that outwardly could not have been any more different actually had many things in common. Most importantly our value systems were aligned which allowed us to have a real conversation about race, religion and hatred. I have since talked to Brighton on the phone and he invited me to come worship with him in his small town in South Carolina. I am going to take him up on that offer.
So here’s the moral of my story…. In 24 hours I saw the aftermath of a hideous mass murder driven by hatred and racism. But yet the survivors of the slain were able to forgive through their faith. I observed people arguing their points of views based on their life’s orientations that were founded on separatism and hatred. I engaged in what could have been an emotionally charged discussion with a perfect stranger yet we found common ground based on the dignity that we gave each other. Through it all what encourages me about humanity is that although we are different…we also share similarities.
My hope is that we learn how to leverage our similarities and respect our differences so we can be a better society.