ROCKINGHAM — Love for one another was a common thread among the speakers at a prayer vigil Wednesday evening.
About 70 people, black and white, joined together in Harrington Square to remember those killed at a Charleston church one week prior.
A white candle — on a table with a red tablecloth and vase of white roses — was lit and a “clang” rang out as the names of each of the victims were read aloud.
Last Wednesday, police say 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof walked into the Emanuel AME Church — where he was welcomed by the congregation — and killed nine of its members to reportedly start a race war.
Although the people of Charleston came together, the event has sparked debate in South Carolina and across the country over racial tensions, especially regarding the Confederate flag, which flies over the statehouse.
“We gather on this sacred ground, aware of the Confederacy in our midst,” said the Rev. Dian Griffin Jackson as she welcomed the crowd, referring to the Civil War monument located on the other side of the square, “but also aware of love.”
Rockingham Mayor Steve Morris was first to take the podium, recalling the events of the tragic night.
“They felt safe and secure in their sanctuary,” he said. “But then…love was overpowered by hate.”
Morris went on to talk about how video games, television and movies “glorify violence.”
“These things have got to stop,” he said. “We can’t continue to pollute the minds of our children this way.”
Instead of violence, Morris said individuals should try to “bring love, peace and encouragement to our fellow man.”
Richmond County Sheriff James E. Clemmons Jr. reminded the crowd of “the active role that we as citizens have to play” in holding each other accountable.
He encouraged those listening to report crimes if they know they’re occurring.
“If it goes unchecked, where does it go next?” he asked.
Clemmons said, as he has in the past, that crime will always exist.
“A criminal wants a gun, a criminal will get a gun,” he said. “We live in a nation now where we’ve seen these type of tragedies all too often.
“You cannot run in fear,” he said. “You have a right to protect your home, you have a right to protect your church…we have a right to take care of each other.”
One of the victims of last week’s shooting was Cynthia Hurd, sister of former N.C. state senator Malcolm Graham, with whom Gene McLaurin served during his Senate term.
“I can’t imagine what the family members are dealing with,” McLaurin said, noting he was impressed by their offer of forgiveness to Roof for his actions. “The goodness in that is something we should never, ever forget.”
McLaurin said cruel, racial jokes should not be tolerated, but instead individuals should embrace diversity.
“Not only will goodness and justice prevail,” he said, “but we need to love one another.”
The former mayor and senator closed, quoting the late North Carolina poet Maya Angelou: “Hate has caused a lot of problems in the world, but it has not solved one yet.”
Following the singing of “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” pastor Gary Richardson from Place of Grace stepped up to the mic.
“You don’t have to be in Charleston to feel the pain in Charleston,” he said.
Richardson said he was reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and cited the line about midway through: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
“That’s as far as I got on that speech,” he said. “That we’re to be judged on the content of our character.”
Like McLaurin, Richardson spoke about the forgiveness of the victims’ families.
“They showed the content of their character,” he said, “showing the character of Christ in diverse times.”
Doris Rodwell, political action chair for the local chapter of the NAACP, told the crowd about two senators on the federal level pushing for gun control legislation.
“We need some common-sense gun safety reforms,” she said. “The shift starts with your vote.”
Closing the event was Dobbins Heights Mayor Antonio Blue who recalled a similar, yet non-fatal, incident not far down the road.
Several years ago, three men were arrested after Anson County deputies say they destroyed the sanctuary of Cedar Hill AME Zion Church, smashing all of the windows and spray painting racial slurs on the walls, in addition to defecating on the altar and burning a cross on the steps.
“Racism is our cancer, and cancer kills,” he said. “And that’s what happened last week.”
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 and follow him on Twitter @William_r_Toler.