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Charleston, S.C., church to honor victims with forum on healing

Six years after the Charleston church shooting, Mother Emanuel AME will hold a discussion on forgiveness, reconciliation and social justice.
Mourners gather at a makeshift memorial outside the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.,  on June 18, 2015, after a mass shooting at the church the night before.
Mourners gather at a makeshift memorial outside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 18, 2015, after a mass shooting at the church the night before. Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images file

Walter Bernard Jackson Jr.'s grandmother was a forgiving woman.

Susie Jackson was deeply involved at her church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. She was a trustee and an usher, and she sang in the choir. Jackson described his grandmother as someone who truly respected everyone.

At 87, she was one of nine people slain in June 2015, when a white supremacist opened fire on a Bible study group at the church.

Walter Bernie Jackson Jr., with his grandmother Susie J. Jackson, one of the Emanuel Nine victims, at his eighth grade graduation ceremony.Courtesy Walter Bernie Jackson, Jr.

"Hate is an evil force that has hindered us as a country from doing a lot of things," Jackson said. "My grandmother always believed we need to see past that and really dig deep into getting to know individuals."

Six years later, as the church community continues to grieve, it is also grappling with the process of forgiveness.

The ​Emanuel Nine Commemoration Committee ​will hold events this week to remember those lost in the shooting. Thursday's forum will include the families of the Emanuel Nine victims; Sarah Collins Rudolph, who survived the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963; and Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers, who survived the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh in 2018. The discussion will be based on the ways reconciliation is connected to healing.

Jackson said forgiveness has been a challenge since his grandmother died, although he sees that difficulty as part of grieving. "It's a process," Jackson said. "I truly believe that you don't necessarily have to put a timeline on individuals in terms of when or how long it should take for them."

His process involves fighting for social justice causes. Jackson was recently elected as a board member for the Franklin Township Board of Education, where he plans to advocate for equity in education, an issue his grandmother was heavily involved in.

Walter Bernie Jackson Jr.Courtesy Walter Bernie Jackson Jr.

"The goal is to eliminate systemic racism, white supremacy, and remove barriers, so all students have equal access to rigorous academic programs," Jackson said. For Jackson, it's an honor to carry that in remembrance of his grandmother and for his three daughters, Chloe, Jasmine and Tiana.

Founded in 1816 by abolitionist minister Morris Brown, Mother Emanuel AME is the oldest AME church in the Deep South. The church has hosted notable civil rights leaders, including Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Isaiah DeQuincey Newman.

The Mother Emanuel Memorial Foundation is building the Emanuel Nine Memorial, a permanent memorial on church grounds to honor the Emanuel Nine victims and the survivors. The memorial was designed by Michael Arad, the architect behind the National September 11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City.

As part of its legacy, the memorial foundation will also fund national and regional social justice initiatives.

The Jackson family is also working on a memorial garden in their matriarch's honor. The garden will be around the corner from the church. Jackson's grandmother loved nature as much as she loved the church. "This garden will be a place where people can come and find a moment to reflect and find peace within themselves," Jackson said.

In addition, the Jackson family will continue their involvement with social justice awareness around the U.S. "Until the world changes," Jackson said, "I don't think we'll ever stop. We'll just keep fighting on until change arrives."

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