The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where a young white man reportedly shot and killed nine people Wednesday night, is an historic center of religious and social activism, with roots in anti-slavery and anti-segregation struggles going back two centuries and a contemporary commitment to the struggle against police brutality and economic injustice.
The oldest AME church in the South, and one of the largest African-American congregations in the region, it is referred to as “Mother Emanuel” because of the central role this faith institution has played in the lives and the history of a city, a state, a region, and a nation. That centrality is recalled in the church’s history:
In 1822 the church was investigated for its involvement with a planned slave revolt. Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, organized a major slave uprising in Charleston. Vesey was raised in slavery in the Virgin Islands among newly imported Africans. He was the personal servant of slavetrader Captain Joseph Vesey, who settled in Charleston in 1783. Beginning in December 1821, Vesey began to organize a slave rebellion, but authorities were informed of the plot before it could take place. The plot created mass hysteria throughout the Carolinas and the South. Brown, suspected but never convicted of knowledge of the plot, went north to Philadelphia where he eventually became the second bishop of the AME denomination.
During the Vesey controversy, the AME church was burned. Worship services continued after the church was rebuilt until 1834 when all black churches were outlawed. The congregation continued the tradition of the African church by worshipping underground until 1865 when it was formally reorganized, and the name Emanuel was adopted, meaning “God with us.”
Rebuilt and expanded over the ensuing decades, it became an essential stop on the circuit of civil-rights champions, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in the 1950s and 1960s; and it has remained a touchstone for contemporary struggles for economic and social justice. The church’s pastors have long been leaders of those struggles.
The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was among those killed during the prayer meeting Wednesday night, carried on that tradition. When he was elected to the South Carolina General Assembly almost two decades ago, at the age of 23, he was the youngest African-American to serve as a South Carolina state legislator. Since 2000, he has served in the South Carolina Senate.