Charleston, S.C., is perhaps the most genteel city in the nation. I spent the greater part of a decade there working as a reporter and an editor at the Charleston newspaper.
I came to know Charleston well, along with the surrounding towns and counties.
Several weeks ago, there were national headlines about an unarmed man who was shot in the back and killed while running from a policeman -- which occurred in the city of North Charleston, not Charleston. North Charleston is the rougher, unkempt cousin to adjacent Charleston. One could not imagine such an event happening in respectable Charleston, known by locals as "The Holy City."
So it was especially shocking that a mass shooting Wednesday night occurred at an historic black church in Downtown Charleston. Nine people, including the pastor; who was a state senator, were gunned down in cold blood by a young white man during a Bible study meeting.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a man I know and respect, called it a hate crime, and apparently he is correct.
There has been little racial tension in Charleston. I have lived in several states and in several cities around the Southeast, and folks from different races and different backgrounds get along better in Charleston than in many other places.
I was already saddened by this horrific event in my former town when the crime then became personal: I discovered that I know one of the victims. Myra Thompson, who, I'm told, was leading the Bible study Wednesday night, was the wife of the Rev. Anthony Thompson. I had sat with her in tiny St. Stephen's Reformed Episcopal Church in Summerville, S.C., a Charleston suburb, when her husband was pastor there during the 1990s before he took over a larger church in Charleston.
Whenever we were visiting my in-laws in Summerville in those days, we spent Sunday mornings at St. Stephen's Reformed Episcopal Church, which was essentially my wife Bonnie's family's "home" church, even though it was black.
My father-in-law, the Rt. Rev. William H.S. Jerdan, spent three decades as the bishop over the Reformed Episcopal Churches in the South, the majority of which were black. St. Stephen's was just a few streets over from his home. We were always readily welcomed by the black congregation there. Rev. Thompson and his wife were especially gracious. I remember Myra Thompson's sweet smile.
It is ironic that this terrible tragedy occurred on the day that would have been my father-in-law's 100th birthday. Bishop Jerdan had worked diligently and tirelessly for racial acceptance and racial equality throughout the Charleston area during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and beyond. It is comforting to see that on Thursday afternoon, hundreds of black and white Charlestonians united in grief and in hope for a special memorial service at an AME Church in Charleston.
And on Thursday night, black and white Tiftonites gathered at Dayspring Inspirational Church for a community-wide prayer service for the victims. Undoubtedly, such services are occurring throughout the South and throughout the nation.
Although the scourge of racism has not been eradicated from our midst, the majority of Americans of all races do see beyond color toward the content of one's character.
We have come a long way indeed, but this bloody and senseless event in Charleston reminds us that there are still miles to go.