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Charleston, S.C., Church Formed Around Anti-Slavery Movement

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, is the oldest AME church in the South. The congregation was formed nearly 200 years ago by black men deeply involved in the antislavery movement. Over the years, the church grew to be a symbol of black freedom. For more on the history of Mother Emanuel, we're joined by a former pastor of the church, Stephen Singleton. Welcome to the program, and my condolences for your loss.

STEPHEN SINGLETON: Thank you.

CORNISH: Help us understand the church's place not just in Charleston but in the history of African-Americans in this country.

SINGLETON: Well, it is the third-oldest AME church in the world. It has been a hub for advocacy. Denmark Vesey was a part of the congregation when he was planning his insurrection, and the congregation itself of course was very, very involved. The church, where it was located then, was burned. The congregation still existed, but they were meeting where they can until slavery ended, and then they banded together and built the sanctuary that they are in now. And they built it as a statement that people of color could build a majestic, ornate, beautiful sanctuary. And that has been a benchmark - a landmark in this city ever since.

CORNISH: Help us understand its role during the civil rights period of the mid-20th century. We know activists, obviously, like Dr. Martin Luther King spoke there.

SINGLETON: Yeah. Dr. King spoke there. It was a place where advocates used to come and meet and plan their strategies. They would hold rallies. They'd been involved with politics, the voting rights movement, just kind of getting people registered to vote when that came along, always involved with the rights of people in the city of Charleston and, of course, an emphasis on people of color.

CORNISH: We know that Rev. Clementa Pinckney was also involved in the vigils and protest over the death of Walter Scott, the man killed by a police officer in North Charleston earlier this year. How do you believe that Rev. Pinckney carried on the church's activist legacy?

SINGLETON: Well, he's always been a public servant. He's been a servant of God and a servant of the people since he was a young, young, young man, before he was an adult, really. So he got involved with politics in his early 20s. He beat the odds and was elected as state legislature, became a state senator. And at the same time, his ministry flourished. And while he was serving the people, he was doing that because he was serving God.

CORNISH: What is this like for you to be coming back to the city for something so awful?

SINGLETON: It's tough because not only did I know him, but on the unofficial reports of the nine people who were slain, I think I know seven of them. So it's tough. I'm here just trying to get it going. So - but we're going to - we're people of faith, and people of faith know that we heal. God helps us to heal. This doesn't drive us away from God. This drives us to God, and that's why I'm here now.

CORNISH: But this sounds like this could have been a Bible study you might have led, right? Tell us about this congregation.

SINGLETON: Every Wednesday night, we had Bible study. We ended in prayer, and that sounds like what they were doing last night. It wasn't unusual for visitors to drop in. This young man came in. You know, the church is supposed to be open, and he took advantage of that. This isn't run-of-the-mill racism. This was closer to evil.

CORNISH: What are you hearing from members of the congregation today?

SINGLETON: Well, there are a lot of broken hearts, a lot of sorrow and a lot of healing to be done. And that's what we're going to work on, and that's what we're going to focus on because if we get bitter and angry, we just make a bad situation worse.

CORNISH: Reverend Stephen Singleton, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SINGLETON: Thank you.

CORNISH: The Reverend Stephen Singleton - he was the pastor of Mother Emanuel from 2006 to 2010. He's now senior pastor with Grace Heritage Ministries in Columbia, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.