Police in Charleston, South Carolina are investigating a shooting they call a hate crime: a young, white man shot and killed at least nine people at a historically African American church on Wednesday night. The church’s pastor Clementa C. Pinckney, a state senator, was among the victims. The gunman was still at large early on Thursday.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal, better known as “Mother Emanuel” is one of the oldest African American churches in the country, and affiliated with the Free African Society, a religious group that provided aid to newly-free slaves.

During the civil rights movement, it was a site for rallying by the likes of Martin Luther King.

From its early days, the church has faced opposition. Soon after its establishment in the early 1800s, its founders were jailed for allowing slaves and free blacks to gather without white supervision. After one of its founders, a slave named Denmark Vesey, was hung for planning a rebellion, the church was burned to the ground. Even after it was rebuilt, its members had to meet in secret for over 30 years until all-black churches were allowed in 1865, after the civil war. A military citadel was built with its guns pointing at the church and the black community nearby.

The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston
The early days of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Image: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church

The church has grown into one of the most well-known congregations of African Americans in the south, active in the local and state community. It hosts community health fairs, college outreach programs, and its church school recently held a “Bunny Hop.”

Pinckney comes from a line of pastors pushing against racial boundaries. His grandfather sued the South Carolina Democratic Party for allowing whites-only primaries and his uncle pushed for the desegregation of buses in South Carolina’s Jasper County.

Pinckney, who was elected to the state senate at age 27, recently led a prayer vigil for Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot dead by a police officer while running away. He “played a key role” in getting legislation passed after the shooting that will require police to wear body cameras, Rev. Joseph Darby told NBC.

In a 2013 speech to visitors at the church, Pinckney said, “What our church and denomination stands for… It stands for the universal vision of all people being treated fairly under the law as God sees us.” Explaining the church’s mission further, he said:

“We don’t see ourselves as just a place where we come to worship but as a beacon and a bearer of the culture and a bearer of what makes us a people. But I like to say that this is not necessarily unique to us. It is really what America is all about.

Could we not argue that America is about freedom, whether we live it out or not, freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness? And that is what church is all about. Freedom to worship, and freedom from sin and freedom to be full what God intends us to be and have equality in the sight of God.

And sometimes you’ve got to make noise to do that. Sometimes you may even have to die, like Denmark Vesey, to do that. Sometimes you have to march, struggle and be unpopular to do that…Our calling is not just within the walls of the congregation, but we are part of the life and community in which our congregation resides.”

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.