Former Mayor Joe Riley Reflects on a Tragedy That Shook Charleston to its Core

June 16, 2017, 10:30 am EST | Share:

CHARLESTON, SC (CAROLINE BALCHUNAS, WTAT-TV) — Saturday marks two years since the tragedy that shook Charleston and the entire country to its core, the Mother Emanuel massacre where nine people were shot and killed.

The stories from that night are endless, but one man has a perspective unlike anyone else — former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

It was a night he will never forget.

“I remember the call. I remember realizing I needed to put on a suit and tie.” He raced down to Emanuel AME, a house of God now an active crime scene.

He learned a gunman shot and killed nine people worshiping inside. “I knew many of them, certainly Senator Pinckney.”

Legislative session was in full swing and that night Riley said he was confident the Reverend and Senator Clementa Pinckney was in Columbia with other lawmakers. He wasn’t.

“Until that second I really didn’t even imagine that Senator Pinckney was there and then I remembered they said ‘Mayor, Senator Pinckney was there.’”

40 years as mayor, his last year in office, Riley faced his biggest challenge.

Down the block the victim’s family members waited for news. “In that moment only the police chief and a few people, including me, knew what had happened,” recalled Riley.

Together, he and Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen broke the silence. “(There was an) audible response, which was probably 200 people there then,” Riley said. “Family members and friends, just every way that a human being can express anguish, despair, heartbreak, and disbelief.”

He said they cried, hugged and prayed together. Then around midnight, they told the country what happened during a press conference. The suspect, at that time, was still at large.

“As the investigation continued we were able to determine that there were eight deceased individuals inside the church,” said Chief Mullen that night.

“We made it clear that we understood what had occurred and that it was a hate crime,” Riley said. “That these prayerful, bible studying, church members had been killed because the killer was a racial bigot,” Riley said.

Days later, the killer, Dylann Roof, faced more than a Charleston County judge. Inside the courtroom, family members delivered a stunning, tearful message to Roof.

“I will never be able to hold her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again… but I forgive you,” said the daughter of one of the victims.

It sparked one of the Holy City’s greatest messages—love conquers hate. Riley says it was more than a teachable moment.

RELATED: From Broken to Empowered: How Charleston Defied Hate – We speak with Alana Simmons about her grandfather, Rev. Daniel Simmons.

“You know in many respects the tragedy of that night, the unspeakable act, was perhaps Charleston’s worst moment,” Riley said. “And the family and the community’s response to this may have been one of our city’s finest moments.”

At that time, other cities in the nation were also dealing with race related crimes, many of which sparked massive riots and retaliation. But not here.

Riley says that night they decided to lead with positivity and grace. It is now one of Riley’s lasting legacies.