Charleston and Our Need for a Change of Heart

by Rich Harwood

State Senator Paul Thurmond, the youngest son of former U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, once the standard-bearer of the Old South, recently stood on the floor of the South Carolina Senate and delivered a speech calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from the State Capitol.

He, like others in South Carolina, had a change of heart. He, like others, said it was crystallized by the horrific killings at Emanuel AME Church, in which the lives of nine people were taken, including his state Senate colleague Clementa Pinckney.

In other words, he and others had their personal walls of protection punctured, walls that often serve to keep at bay the cries and experiences of others. Only when these walls are breached can one’s heart be touched in new ways. Only when these walls come down can we truly see and hear one another.

There is something distinctly human about a change of heart. It cannot be legislated. Nor dictated. And it never can be coerced. It comes only from within us; authored directly by each of us. And yet it is often prompted by something outside of us. Something we see or experience anew. Something we come to understand differently. Something that stirs a latent feeling within us.

Indeed, it should not take this kind of senseless tragedy for such a change to occur within us. The question before us though is how do we move forward so that people continue to gain confidence that change is possible, that we can in fact come together and get things done that matter?

We have all heard the calls for action in the aftermath of the recent killings in Charleston, Baltimore, New York City, and Ferguson, among other places. They run the gamut: from possible policy changes in gun laws to more support for early childhood education and mental health to shifts in community policing.

Such calls have only grown louder with each passing incident. All the while, many others in our communities continue to die each day from violence, except their plights will never be known to the rest of us. They often die alone in silence.

But as I have watched events in South Carolina over the past week, I am convinced we must do something beyond the recent calls for action: mobilize good will. In fact, this may be the most important step of all.

We have seen the power of this approach in South Carolina. The brave acts of forgiveness toward the shooter from those who lost loved ones. The rallies made up of South Carolinians from all walks of life. The change of heart of political leaders – from state Senator Paul Thurmond to Governor Nikki Haley to U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham.

When I use word “mobilize" I know that it can immediately imply organizing people to participate in letter writing campaigns or sign online petitions or become advocates for a certain policy change. Such activities have their place.

But they are not what I have in mind, at least not in this instance. Instead, our task is to produce opportunities for people to interact on a human scale. Small and local is where these actions need to start – where people can regain their footing, confidence, and ability to do things together. In the midst of all the policy debates that will undoubtedly continue, we can make this happen now.

Recent tragedies in South Carolina and elsewhere have created this opening. Only when we take it, can we tear down the walls of protection and give rise to a change of heart.