"There is a hope:" Families of Charleston shooting victims envision the country’s future six years after massacre

Six years ago, a White gunman opened fire in the basement of a predominantly Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine of its congregants and shaking the nation. Today, the church is still operating, providing a symbol of hope and forgiveness that the clergy, families and victims say is led by the church’s rich historical legacy and faith. 

Established in 1816, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, commonly referred to as Mother Emanuel, was the site of speeches by abolitionists and civil rights leaders like Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Wyatt T. Walker. The church has been the subject of racist attacks throughout its history: In 1822, the church was burned down by an angry White mob; in 1832 the city outlawed the church for having an all-Black congregation. 

In 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof targeted Mother Emanuel with what investigators later said were intentions to ignite a race war. Eight people died on the scene, and a ninth died later at a local hospital. The following year, Roof was convicted on 33 federal charges. He was sentenced to nine life sentences on state murder charges and sentenced to death on federal charges. 

CBSN contributor Antjuan Seawright spoke with families of the victims on how the massacre impacted their lives and on their outlook for the future. 

Reverend Eric Manning, pastor of Mother Emmanuel: “Still we rise”

Reverend Eric Manning became pastor of Mother Emmanuel about a year after the mass shooting. Despite the long history of attacks on his church, he said that his congregation is still encouraged about the future.

“Even in the face of all of the political turmoil, even still in the systemic racism that we are continuing to deal with day in and day out…there is a hope,” Manning said. “Every morning when we wake up, it becomes a day of hope. It becomes a day of thanks-giving and it becomes a day of reflection and doing the best that we can do to bring all of God’s children together.” 

Forgiveness has been crucial in keeping Mother Emanuel running for more than 200 years, he said. 

“Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily ever excuse anyone for the act that they have done,” he said. “You still have to have the consequences for your actions, same way as Dylann Roof. Forgiven? Yes, but he has the consequences for his actions — but what forgiveness begins to say to us is that, ‘I am no longer going to allow you the power over me. I’m going to release that.'” 

Manning said messages of love, grace and understanding continue to be shared within his congregation. He encourages everyone, regardless of race, to attend his church’s services, and urges congregants to “leave your party affiliation behind” to focus on justice. 

“Every day, when I come in, I’m always constantly reminded that downstairs on the lower level there was a murder that took place of nine beautiful people,” he said. “And every morning when I come in, I pause, and I reflect. And I do— I try to do my job, first always bringing glory to God, and then second, remembering the Emanuel Nine, remembering the survivors, and then praying that I will continue to be able to uphold their legacy, uphold their memories in a way which will continue to draw more people.”

The pastor said that he doesn’t believe that the country’s environment has gotten better six years after the massacre. “It has progressively gotten worse,” Manning said, referencing police brutality incidents and mass shootings of recent years. “I pray that it will begin to change a little bit.” 

South Carolina is one of three states in the country that does not have legislation to protect citizens against hate crimes. The state has also yet to close what is widely referred to as the “Charleston Loophole,” which allows people to purchase firearms after three days if the FBI has not yet completed a background check. 

Eliana, Malana and Jennifer Pinckney, family of victim: “I want to make sure that change happens”

Eliana Pinckney, who was 11 years old when her father, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, was murdered in the attack, said that she too is “frustrated by the lack of change” in the country, but added that she is “hopeful” for her generation as they reach voting age. 

“I’m very, very excited to see the revolution that my generation is capable of,” said Pinckney, who is now 17. 

The teenager said that she is proud to be regarded as a hero, along with her younger sister Malana and her mother Jennifer. 

On the day of the shooting, Eliana said she was home with her grandmother while her mother and Malana attended Bible study with Clementa, who was the pastor at the time. When shots rang out in the basement, Jennifer recalled grabbing her young daughter and hiding in a secretary’s office, where she locked the door and hid underneath a desk. 

“Bullets came flying through the office,” Jennifer told CBS News. “[Malana] was asking me like, is her daddy going to die and so forth.”

She said that she heard what sounded like a man trying to leave near the secretary’s office before Roof shot the person. Jennifer said that she heard him say that he “had to do this.” The mother and her young daughter sat under the desk with their hands over each other’s mouths until she retrieved her phone from her husband’s office to call 911. 

“When it was time for me to walk out there was pools of blood, ceiling, walls, floor,” Jennifer recalled. “It was a sight I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”

Malana said that she doesn’t regret going to church on that night. “I do give my gratitude because, without this, I don’t know where I would be today and I’m just really thankful for that part.”

“It’s six years later and I still have my ups and downs,” Jennifer said. “I still can remember that day like it was yesterday. I’ve had to become not only just mom but dad as well and we’ve had our little times.”

Eliana described her mother as “the best parent of all time” and said her dad “is the greatest teacher” that she has ever had. 

Eliana will be attending Temple University in the fall, where she said she will study musical theater and public relations. Malana will be going into the eighth grade, which she said she is “very excited” for. Jennifer said that her late husband would be proud of his girls if he was still alive today. 

This weekend, CBSN brings you to Charleston, where community members continue to lean on each other six years after nine people were killed at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Download the CBS News app on your cellphone or connected TV to watch “The Charleston Church Shooting: Six Years Later” on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET and 10:30 p.m. ET.

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