Faith, love, and hope for reconciliation
Charleston Shooting | A year after the shootings at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church, one woman continues to call for racial unity
by Dick Peterson
Posted 6/17/16, 08:37 am
Alana Simmons didn’t intend to speak to Dylann Roof at his bond hearing, two days after he shot and killed nine members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. But as others began to speak forgiveness, she felt the need to tell about the legacy of love her grandfather, Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74, left behind. The experience changed the direction of her life.
Now, a year after the June 17 massacre, Simmons heads a growing non-profit organization that promotes acts of forgiveness and gives voice to the message that love is stronger than hate.
“The families [at the bond hearing] were forgiving him for all the terror he had caused,” Simmons recalled. “I had this humbling epiphany of how love conquers all, so when I got the chance to speak, I said, ‘Although my grandfather died in the hands of hate, he lived in love and preached love, so his legacy will be love. And hate won’t win.’”
Cameras were rolling, but Simmons thought they were there to videoconference the hearing. She didn’t know they were broadcasting live. Those watching the proceedings quickly picked up on her words and created a hashtag that went viral.
Tech savvy and well aware of the power social media could wield for both good and bad, Simmons, 25 at the time, used the impromptu platform in the interview that followed to issue a challenge: “Use the hashtag. Go and show someone who is different than you an act of love. If you really want to help, post that to a social media account. Everyone has one. Use yours for good.” At the very least, get the imagery out there that black and white, rich and poor, Christian and atheist can stand together, she said.
At the funeral of Mother Emanuel senior pastor and state Rep. Clementa Pinckney, Simmons met President Barack Obama, who asked her what he could do.
“So I told him the same thing, and I gave him our T-shirt with our logo, a black hand and a white hand making a heart with the words ‘Hate Won’t Win’ in the middle,” she said.
Obama told her he had some Twitter followers and offered to help spread the word. Simmons was skeptical until her brother showed her a tweet from the president’s account, including a picture of the T-shirt, the hashtag, and this note: “inspired by the grace shown in Charleston and the Simmons family.”
Suddenly, Simmons had 20,000 new followers and everyone wanted a T-shirt.
Simmons and her family weren’t selling the shirts at the time, but it wasn’t long before they were. They used the proceeds to start a non-profit created to give back to communities and families affected by hate crimes, discrimination, and bullying.
Since its inception, the Hate Won’t Win Movement has encouraged building relationships to bridge differences within communities, focusing on the fields of education, politics, media, family and community, and religion.
Simmons noted differences among races, religions, social class, and political viewpoints remain in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.
“From civil rights came just that—the rights,” she said. “We can fight for our rights and we can have those rights, which of course we should have as humans, but if we want to stop these systematic differences, it’s not going to come from fighting, but by fostering relationships.”
Speaking for her own generation, Simmons said the issue of race is not as emotional as for her father’s and grandfather’s generations. Because of that, her contemporaries are better equipped to leave conflicts in the past. She believes the Civil Rights movement should be remembered, but the grievances of the past should not become hindrances to reconciling differences.
“It’s not black people who are going to save all black people,” she said. “It’s going to include white people too. There’s no way we can make change by ourselves. There has to be a collaborative effort, and this generation is willing to collaborate. We have the same goal in mind—to be colorless. There was a time when just walking into a room was a problem. Now it is a problem when we see disparity, when we see somebody getting privilege.”
Simmons has spread her message of forgiveness and reconciliation from the social media platform she birthed to speaking engagements across the country and on national television.
“Every time I’m interviewed, I pray,” Simmons said. “I don’t want the words to be my own.” Instead, she wants to testify to the faith of the Mother Emanuel victims and their families, proclaiming no one has the power to shake that faith.
“We’re that rooted,” she said.
Dick lives in Summerville, S.C., is a former newspaper reporter and editor, and is now a freelance writer and caregiver for his wife with multiple sclerosis.