Picking up the pieces from Charleston: How contemporary racism and lax gun laws contribute to needless violence

Morgan Gisholt Minard, Editor-in-chief

It seems impossible that the hate of one person could impact so many in one fell swoop, yet that’s exactly what happened when 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people during a Bible study in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. in June 2015. Of the nine churchgoers that Roof had targeted for their skin color, three were family members of Rev. Sharon Washington Risher, who was born and raised in Charleston. Risher spoke at the University on Jan. 17 in the ELC Forum as part of the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Week.

The theme of the week was “Charleston, Rwanda and the Possibilities for Peace.” Other events included a Beloved Community Dinner focused on individual activism for social justice, a discussion and lecture with Rwandan author and government official Joseph Sebarenzi on peace as an alternative to revenge, and a discussion and lecture with Arun Gandhi on the teachings of his grandfather, Mohandas Gandhi.

As Risher spoke on Jan. 17, she set the scene of a Bible study gone heinously wrong that left her mother, two cousins, and a childhood friend dead. The murders were committed by a young man with enough hate in his heart to enter a historically black church in downtown Charleston with the intention of killing as many as possible; the subsequent investigation revealed that ideas of white supremacy and revulsion toward black Americans were at the root of his motivation to kill in cold blood.

Risher spoke with conviction and emotion of the recently concluded trial, where she and other family members of the victims sat for 20 days listening to the expert testimony and gruesome details about where and how and why their family members had been killed.

“There were questions that I had about details … well, I got more than I bargained for with details,” Risher said.

Risher spoke of the deep roots of slavery and racism in Charleston, where African Americans worked in fields and built the famously beautiful houses. Charleston, and everything in it, “were done off the backs of slaves and their ancestors,” Risher said.

In the year and a half since the shooting, Risher has become an advocate for reexamining gun laws and has been a spokesperson for grassroots advocacy groups Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown for Gun Safety. For Risher, the political and the personal have become inextricable.

“This is the kind of person that America has bred. This is the kind of person that does not think about other people. Our job, people, is to remember, no matter who we are and where we come from, that every human life is important,” Risher said.

Several members of the audience donned Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America shirts, one of whom thanked Risher during the Q&A session afterward for her words on the meaning of peace. Risher had explained that peace was more than just feeling warm and cozy and protected; rather, it is the feeling you want for someone else of being safe and protected, which the audience member said “resonated with [her].”

Another attendee asked which direction or form political activism should take regarding issues of racism and gun violence, to which Risher said, “Until we can get common sense changes, things are going to continue … Laws are changed through our legislation, so that’s where I will continue.”

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