Lee Bennet, Jr. grew up a few blocks away from Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and is a long-time member of the congregation. A retired Army officer, Lee spent several years as Deputy Chief of Staff of the White House Drug Control Policy Office and currently serves as a volunteer historian for his church. Mother Emanuel has weathered a long legacy of challenges around issues of race, including a 2015 attack by white supremacist Dylann Roof that left nine people dead.
“It’s amazing that we have to go through so much pain to make movement. It shouldn’t take nine people losing their lives in a church to have a discussion about a confederate flag.”-Lee Bennett, Jr.
“So as we talk about the history of the church, certainly a part of our history is the incident of June 17th of 2015, we had nine members of the church who were murdered doing Bible study as a young man comes in to be a part of the Bible study class and certainly he is invited in. He asked for the pastor, the pastor introduces himself and sits right next to him. And so the Bible study goes on for almost close to an hour and as the Bible study was over, as they would always traditionally do, rise and in prayer, close their eyes, and he shoots the pastor first and then continues shooting the others. When it was all over, we had nine people who were killed and three survivors in the Fellowship Hall and the two additional survivors, the pastor’s wife, his daughter, who were in the office at the time.”
I asked Lee how a church can begin to trust again after being through such a tragic experience.
“So all are welcome, all have always been welcome. You see where we sit, where the church is in downtown. So it wasn’t unusual to have people, in my view, people who look different from us to be within the church. It’s always been a case within the church and it’s God’s house, the doors of the church are always open. That has not changed. And more important, you have not changed who we are at all. No one has, he certainly has not. And we haven’t changed our approach to what we do.”
Lee connected the events of 2015 to the church’s long historical struggle for justice, including the planned slave uprising by Denmark Vesey in 1822.
“This is not the first time that tragedy has knocked on the doors. We pray for that never again, but not the first time. This church is a resilient church and I think to tell the church’s story over 200 years of history, I don’t think many people realize how far back the church goes. We lost nine people during that time, we lost 35 others back in 1822, they were all hung. We are resilient church and we’re going to be around for another 200 years.”
I asked if he was hopeful.
“Well. I’m hopeful, I’m hopeful. It’s sometimes hurtful that it shouldn’t take the sacrifices for that to happen, but certainly that’s happening in the climate of George Floyd and the incident following and crying for a balance and social justice. So this is a great price that is paid to in some view do the right thing? So is cautiously hopeful, but the prices is great too, and that’s what I’m seeing. Nine lives lost, to remove a flag over the capital? A man choked to death to remove it? That’s a great price to pay to start these dialogues and to recognize the imbalance, and we’re not telling the whole story or everybody’s story in that regard. So, I’m cautious with hope. Hope at a cost.”
Lee closed with some advice.
“I think we owe ourselves to tell the truth once. And I think that the church as a whole has a large part in that. And as uncomfortable it may be, the church has to take the responsibility to tell the truth and the church’s role. We still have people talk about the most segregated day in the world is Sundays. Where people going their different ways and we talk about who are your friends. Go to people’s funerals and you look around and you see either everybody looks like me or everybody looks like you, when there should be some type of blending. So I guess my thoughts are then to tell the truth and as uncomfortable as it may be, and we have to recognize our roles to fix things. It shouldn’t be the burden of the the oppressed people to say, “I got all the answers.” We’re all in this together.”
-What was your response to the Mother Emanuel tragedy when you learned of it in 2015?
-Had you known anything about the church before those headlines? Or the AME history?
-Had you ever heard the story of Denmark Vesey before?
-How would you characterize the planned uprising of 1822 led by Denmark Vesey?
-Lee said the tragic events have not changed who they are as a church. When have you had your values challenged by difficult events? How have you responded?
-How do you work to regain trust when that trust has been violated?
-Lee talks about the high price paid to open conversations about race and symbols of hate in this country. Why has it taken us so long as a nation to begin a more honest dialogue?
-Where do you see the need for more honest conversations? What can you do to help that happen?