‘I’ve got something to say.” That is what a black minister heard God say to him moments before the minister unexpectedly spoke to Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist who had murdered the pastor’s wife two days earlier. At the conclusion of a midweek Bible study, Roof had opened fire as those gathered in the basement of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, bowed their heads in prayer. Roof killed nine innocents.
The massacre took place on June 17, 2015. At a court hearing two days later, with Roof appearing via a closed-circuit television feed from jail, the judge asked the bereaved families if they had anything to say to the accused. That minister would be among a string of those who looked at Roof and uttered the unfathomable “F” word: forgive.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean nothing changed. Within a month of the shooting, the Confederate battle flag — a symbol Roof had adored — was removed from the state-capitol grounds. Walmart and Amazon stopped selling items bearing the flag. Thousands marched in a peaceful display of solidarity.
Director Brian Ivie has captured in searing detail the well of pain and faith from whence these acts of hate and forgiveness flowed. His documentary “Emanuel,” debuting June 17, provides insights into Charleston’s racial history and the prominent role of Emanuel in the South.
Thanks to assistance from basketball star Stephen Curry and other celebrities, Ivie had the resources to craft a stunning piece of filmmaking.
Ivie doesn’t sweep the religious roots of these responses under a rug but presents them with powerful frankness. To a world convinced that Christianity is either a spent force or a farce, he showcases undeniably powerful and authentic depictions of faith in action.
I watched an advanced screening of “Emanuel” with an audience of people from a variety of backgrounds. Afterward, it became clear that though we had watched the same film, we had seen different things.
A brief shot of a white-gloved honor guard respectfully folding the Confederate flag as it came down one final time was lost on me, but others zeroed in on it. One woman noted the importance of whites moving beyond mere silence on these questions. When whites don’t speak, another black woman said plaintively, “it wounds us.”
Healing those wounds will require facing unpleasant parts of our history that have been hidden or warped into causes for celebration. I remember my sad surprise upon reading about the 2018 opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. It commemorates the victims of lynchings, and its companion museum catalogued hundreds of lynching sites, with soil from each location stored in a glass jar.
I was shocked to see dirt from Cass County, Texas, where I spent my childhood, featured in a New York Times photograph. When I was growing up, lynchings were never spoken of, at least not within range of my white ears. Later, I learned that Cass County became Davis County in 1861 — to honor Confederate President Jefferson Davis — before reverting back in 1871.
Though the capital of the Confederacy eventually moved to Richmond, Jefferson Davis first governed from Montgomery. His residence there is remembered as the First White House of the Confederacy and is maintained “as it appeared in the spring of Southern independence in 1861.” A brass plaque on the steps of the Alabama state capitol marks where Davis took the oath of office.
Not far from that marker is the Foundation for Moral Law, founded in 2002 by Roy Moore — he of 5,000-pound granite Ten Commandments and a famously failed run for the Senate. The foundation is located in an 1856 building built by a bank that, as the foundation notes, “generously supported the Confederacy.” In 2010 the building was used to host a celebration of Alabama’s secession, a move that probably came as no surprise to those familiar with Moore’s neo-Confederate ties.
“Emanuel” is the story of an extreme conversation between Roof, a white man radicalized with the help of such Confederate symbolism, and an African-American community that responded with faith despite great pain. But forgiveness is a pathway to healing — not a license to forget. While the story of the Emanuel nine shouldn’t be the end of our conversations, this film is a powerful start.
John Murdock is an attorney and writer with roots in Texas. Adapted from First Things.