After Mourning the Charleston Shooting Victims, White People Still Voted Trump
South Carolina residents prayed with Marjorie McIver after her sister was killed by Dylann Roof—and yet they also supported a presidential candidate who trafficked in inflammatory rhetoric.
She deftly veered our discussion away from the 2016 election after I asked her about the possibility that Hillary Clinton could become this country's female president. This was in early February, two weeks before Trump won the Republican primary in our home state of South Carolina. He'd receive nearly 50 percent of the vote in Horry County, where we lived, home to tourist mecca Myrtle Beach.
We were sitting down at her kitchen eating the salad, fried pork chops, and beans she had cooked. I wasn't there to talk politics. As crazy as it sounds, I brought up the presidential campaign to lighten the mood because what we had been discussing felt so heavy. She had just explained why she was having trouble getting to sleep at night and getting out of bed every morning.
"I have visions of that night," she said.
That night was June 17, 2015, one day after Trump rode down an escalator and announced his candidacy by suggesting that Mexican immigrants were rapists and murderers. That night was when a young white supremacist named Dylann Roof sat inside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston listening to people study the Bible and praying, then shot nine people in cold blood, including Myra Thompson, McIver's sister.
"I could still see my sister bullet-ridden; that's not a good feeling," she told me while standing over a hot stove. "When it flashes in my mind that way, I ask God to take it, and I put it in his hands. Invariably, something weeks later might trigger [visions of] that episode. It's a situation that saddens me, then I feel the hurt again and try to numb it out. I have to believe that she's in a place where she's at peace. I believe in a Heaven. I have to believe that's where she is."
We have spoken a few times since then, including the day I took my kids over to her house on the first anniversary of the shooting just to tell her we were still thinking about her. It's not quite right to say things have changed since then. They have simply revealed themselves in ways I know McIver hoped they wouldn't. Now she's spending time in a courtroom during a federal trial, where she'll contend with Roof's video confession and ugly images from the bloody crime scene. She'll wait to see whether Roof will be given a life sentence or the death penalty before possibly having to do it again when South Carolina tries him for the same crimes.
Since that night, though, McIver has begun to heal. She attended the "there are no words" performance in Charleston in which composer James Stephenson honored each victim individually with a special rendition of "Amazing Grace." (Thompson's piece was performed by a flutist, which was serendipity or a God-sent coincidence in McIver's eyes; her sister was a flute player.) There was the memorial service attended by President Barack Obama, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, other major dignitaries, and thousands of everyday mourners.
Then came what had long seemed an impossibility in South Carolina: The Confederate flag was finally removed from the State House grounds. The state's white residents, for decades, had convinced themselves that the flag—a symbol of the enslavement of black people—wasn't about racism but the heritage and pride of the South. They thought attempts to have it removed were mere political correctness, even though it served as a slap in the face to the state's 30 percent black population.
Support for Trump has been rationalized as not being about race the same way support for the Confederate flag was long rationalized.
Though the flag is still down, that tension remains, and perhaps no one knows this better than McIver. Many of the people who had cried with her at public events went on to go to Trump's rallies and vote for him, even though Haley said that rhetoric like Trump's helped pave the way for the attack at Emmanuel. They participated in several public displays of unity, including a handholding exercise across the Ravenel bridge, spent weeks dropping off teddy bears and flowers and encouraging notes at a makeshift memorial in front of the church, an interracial public declaration that Roof's desire for a "race war" would get no traction in their city or state. Then they voted for Trump.
Marilyn Hemingway, a black Charleston resident, saw that duality firsthand, the ability some had to cry with black people over what Roof had done, then support a politician who had used the kind of language they all knew had contributed to what happened. She began a series of interracial dialogues in the aftermath of the shooting to try to help bridge the divide between black and white and to increase the level of trust between the police and communities of color. Weeks into her attempts, though, she got frustrated as it became apparent that many residents were willing to do the superficial work of handholding, exchanging prayers, and condemning bogeymen like Roof—but were unwilling to dig deeper to unearth and confront darker truths about how life was still being lived in the place where the Civil War began.
Support for Trump has been rationalized as not being about race the same way support for the Confederate flag was long rationalized. Trump votes were a stand against creeping political correctness, or a way to get a pro-life Supreme Court, or a desperate attempt to preserve a shrinking manufacturing industry that Trump vowed to save, or a cry from marginalized white people. It mattered little that fellow residents who happened to be black saw in Trump a man who rose to national political prominence on the bigotry of birtherism and had a history of discriminating against black and brown people in both his private business and public statements.
McIver knows pain that her white neighbors do not.
What the presidential campaign has made clear, above all else, is that the country is awash in pain—some of it real, some of it misplaced. In 2012, a coal power plant a few miles from McIver's house was closed because Santee Cooper, the company that operated it, decided not to spend the money needed to upgrade it to meet new federal regulations. That's just one data point in the long decline of an old economy where you didn't need a high school diploma—and sometimes you didn't even need to know how to read—to make ends meet. South Carolina is a poor, rural state with a growth that was stunted by the Civil War, then a century of Jim Crow laws and societal norms that made it impossible to fully develop its homegrown talent. The decline in the manufacturing industry just made it harder for residents harmed by an under-funded school system that was especially hard for black, brown, and poor white students.
Like many coastal states, South Carolina was hit hard by the real estate crash of 2008. While the market has begun to bounce back, a spate of foreclosures and devalued homes and properties remain. Historic-level floods in consecutive years exposed the state's infrastructure problems, with dozens of dams breached and dozens of roads shut down.
That's economic pain, the sort of pain nearly every American knows. But McIver knows pain that her white neighbors do not. She hurt in 1963—a year after the Confederate flag was thrown up the State House flagpole as a statement against the Civil Rights movement, the first time she was arrested in Charleston protesting Jim Crow. She hurt later, when she and other black kids in 60s Charleston had to abide by a curfew if they wanted to remain safe, when she watched white people in her city leave in droves at the thought of more integration.
She hurt when she got the news of the shooting, when she learned about Roof and heard the echoes of the racist rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan back in the old days. She was hurt when she found out that Roof had received a meal from Burger King shortly after his arrest. She is hurt every time she hears about another young black man being lost to gun violence, which happens too frequently where we live, two hours north of Charleston, even though we had a black man succeed a black woman as police chief. She has reason to be hurt every time the police shoot a young black man, like they did to Julian Betton in Myrtle Beach about a 20-minute trip from where she lives two months before Roof killed her sister in Charleston. The cops paralyzed Betton, were caught in lies about what happened, and yet have not been charged with any crime.
"When you are on the outside looking in, you don't necessarily see the ills, the problems, the concerns all of the people in a particular community have. You don't see those things," she told me. "But if we who have to live it every day live it, then we know."
McIver, like most black South Carolinians, have had to spend decades ignoring their daily hurt, having to grin and bear the presence of monuments honoring slavery proponents, including a statue of Ben Tillman, a former governor who bragged about lynching black people to gain political power, that sits on the State House grounds. Those have remained even after the flag was removed.
McIver was hurt like the rest of us when video emerged of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shooting a fleeing Walter Scott in the back just a dozen days after Betton was paralyzed in that Myrtle Beach raid—and when Slager's trial ended with the jury deadlocked over whether that amount of evidence was enough to believe a crime had been committed.
She hurts—but she also forgives.
"If I believe in the word as the scripture says, then I have to forgive," she said. "It still hurts. If we don't portray this front, knowing that forgiveness is the way, what message will we be sending to our children?"
McIver didn't want to talk about politics. But I can't help but compare to her example of choosing forgiveness instead of rage to the white people who turned to Trump in their time of pain. People here admired the selflessness of McIver and some other of the shooting victims' families. Then they turned around and decided to stand with, rather than against, the kind of rhetoric that led to the murder of her sister.
"In Charleston, after the tragedy, the forgiveness from some of the family members unfortunately resulted in white people making the tragedy about them," Marilyn Hemingway told me. "Holding hands across the bridge, painting memorial walls, donating money were means to deal with guilt and not really do the hard work it takes to change our society. The forgiveness statement allowed white people to grab it and use it to deflect blame and disallow real change. What will it take to make permanent, substantial societal change? I don't know."
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