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An Interview with Jennifer Berry Hawes

After the tragic shootings at the Mother Emanuel AME church, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes knew this was a story that needed telling. In GRACE WILL LEAD US HOME: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness, she offers a moving portrait of the events and emotions that emerged in the massacre’s wake. Today, Hawes joins us to share more about her writing experience, to highlight a courageous librarian named Cynthia Hurd, and to talk about life as a Charlestonian since that terrible day in 2015.

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How did you decide you wanted to write a book on the massacre?

I didn’t think about writing a book until five or six months after June 17, 2015. I had been covering the aftermath of the shooting for the newspaper I work for in Charleston and had begun to realize that, while the massacre itself had caused such unimaginable pain for the survivors and the victims’ loved ones, it was only the opening chapter of a much more complex story. I have since come to think of mass shootings as akin to tossing a rock into a pond. The initial impact disrupts the surface in obvious ways. But then ripple upon ripple of disruption spreads from that impact. This is what happens after these events, and happened here, from divisions among families and the church to divisions within families grappling with so much pain. Add in critical issues to our nation–race and gun violence–and this became a much more complicated story than we could tell in our newspaper. My editors agreed. As people who live and breathe Charleston, we wanted to bear witness to this deeper narrative.

Tell us a little about the librarian, Cynthia Hurd, one of the nine people killed in the church.

To me, the lush garden of climbing roses and overflowing window boxes that Cynthia meticulously tended outside of her home beautifully illustrates her essence. She was a helper, a nurturer, a warm spirit who greeted people with a wide, toothy smile. When her sister, Jackie, was diagnosed with cancer just a couple of weeks before the shooting, Jackie called Cynthia first. “I got you,” Cynthia promised, and everyone knew she meant it. When Cynthia agreed to stay at Bible study on June 17, she had plans to go with Jackie, who lived two states away, to meet with doctors and discuss her treatment options the following week.

Cynthia’s brother once told me a story about how as children, while their siblings rode bikes and played outside, they’d often find her sitting on the porch reading a book. She took that love of reading into adulthood and worked her way up in the Charleston County Public Library system to become manager of a branch now named after her. She helped anyone who came through its doors, from children in need of summer reading assignments to adults in need of research help. In a 2003 interview, Cynthia said, “I like helping people find answers,” adding that the best thing about being a librarian was service. “Your whole reason for being there is to help people.” That so many groups in Charleston and beyond have launched or enhanced literacy initiatives in Cynthia’s name speaks to the depth of her devotion to that calling.

Do you think Charleston has changed since the murders?

Yes, although in smaller ways than many people would like. After the shooting, people began talking more about the city’s shameful racial legacy in ways they hadn’t before. Black and white people emerged from their entrenched silos to find commonalities. Two prominent neighboring churches, Mount Zion AME and Grace Episcopal, began a joint book study that still brings black and white worshipers together to read books, converse and break down barriers between them. Our police chief launched the Illumination Project, a large effort to bring diverse people and police officers together. I could go on. However, the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow remain unhealed. Unfortunately, our legislators have failed so far to pass meaningful policy changes needed to address the enormous racial disparities that persist here in everything from education to housing to healthcare.

Did writing the book change you in any way?

It certainly made me more aware of racial hatred and the undercurrent of racist views that permeate our country. Before covering the Emanuel massacre and learning about what fueled Dylann Roof’s thinking, I had never browsed white supremacist websites. So, although I knew such ideas existed, I hadn’t realized the sheer enormity of people who not only shared white supremacist views but felt compelled to join online communities. That was depressing.

On the other hand, delving more deeply into the historic role of forgiveness in the black church inspired me to see beyond the cruelty of these white supremacist views to better appreciate the sheer humanity at play in this story. To think that for 200 years African Americans at Emanuel and beyond had embraced this tenet of the Christian faith to endure and succeed despite so much oppression gave me faith that our country still can heal from our racist legacy, if we are determined to do so.

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