5 Years After Charleston Church Shooting, Pastor Says Addressing Racism Is More Urgent Than Ever

From South Carolina to Minneapolis and beyond, Pastor Dimas Salaberrios sees progress in the ongoing fight against racism and injustice

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Five years ago today, an avowed white supremacist murdered nine members of a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, after joining their Bible study group.

After hearing news of the massacre, Dimas Salaberrios, a New York City pastor who often helps churches during times of crisis, raced down to Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

"When we got down there, we just saw thousands of people, white, black, Latino, Asians, just gathered in front of Mother Emanuel," he says. Seeing the "unification of races," as he puts it, was profoundly moving to him — and was something he saw again several weeks ago after coming to Minneapolis and participating in the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd.

"The timing of the anniversary and all of this," he says, referring to the growing racial justice movement sparked by Floyd's death, "is quite profound to me."

Following the June 17, 2015, Charleston shooting, Salaberrios, a minister at Brooklyn's Christian Cultural Center, co-produced the documentary film Emanuel — executive produced by Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis and NBA star Stephen Curry — which is now streaming after a limited theatrical release last year. (The documentary can be viewed for free through June 23 on Starz, Starz On-Demand, Amazon, iTunes, Roku and other platforms.)

Dylann Roof
Dylann Roof. Chuck Burton/File/AP

On Tuesday Salaberrios, who responded to Floyd's death by founding the Stop the Silence initiative, aimed at countering systemic racism and police brutality, marked the Charleston anniversary by moderating a Facebook Live Q&A with Davis, fellow producer Mariska Hargitay, South Carolina congressman James E. Clyburn and others.

Emanuel chronicles a journey of faith and healing in the aftermath of the horrific attack, amid the historical backdrop of the southern port city that served as a gateway to the African slave trade. The shooter, Dylann Roof, was sentenced to death. He has never apologized to the victims or their families.

Similar to Floyd's death now, the murders at Emanuel A.M.E Church focused the country's attention on its racism. President Barack Obama broke into the refrain of “Amazing Grace” during his televised eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a church pastor and state senator who was among the victims.

But the documentary also reveals that moving forward has been a challenge for many in the community.

Waltrina Middleton, whose cousin, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, was killed, says in the film: “We never got to the truth-telling. We never got to the place where we talked about ‘Why.’ Why did this man come into this church and felt empowered to claim all these lives? We never talked about the reality of racism in this city, in this community, in this country, and what do I say to DePayne’s four daughters? What do I say to them when the headlines say ‘Forgive,’ and I’m trying to explain and reconcile that their mother was shot to death in the basement of this church?”

Memorial outside the Emanuel A.M.E. Church after the June 17, 2015 shooting that killed nine church members. Stephen B. Morton/AP

The current dialogue about race and justice, with its push to expose and correct racial disparities in the criminal justice system, drives the message that Salaberrios hopes to put forth now. "We need the churches to be engaged as much as they were in the civil rights movement, to do prayerful protest, to be out there," he says. "Maybe now, it has to be a 'Stop the Silence' where white people are challenging other white people. We're trying to get people to speak up very boldly against injustice, into change."

"We were always told, 'Be quiet, trust the process, now the process is going to work,'" he says. "I think African Americans, myself included, I have no faith that anybody's going to go to jail anymore. That any of these officers are going to do time. That trust is so broken."

Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Sign up for PEOPLE's free True Crime newsletter for breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases.

But his experiences in Charleston and during the current movement give him reason to hope. Among the many responses in South Carolina, leaders removed the Confederate flag from its perch above the state capitol. "That hasn't even happened in Virginia yet," he says.

After the church shooting, "people were broken, humbled, but they came together as a city and were like, 'we cannot stand for this. And as a state, we have to send a message,'" he says. "And I've been to the other cities where there's been a huge outcry, and I think that's important. People have to express themselves. People have to get these things out of their system."

"And it just shows that with a focus, with a drive, with a passion, we keep moving forward, we can see great results."

Emanuel can be viewed for free through June 23 on Starz, Starz On-Demand, Amazon, iTunes, Roku and other platforms.

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

  • Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
  • ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.
  • National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.
Related Articles