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Charleston’s Unity Bridge to Peace

“In our broken hearts, we realize we love each other more.” Charleston Mayor Joe Reilly.

I hate crowds. And bridges. And I found myself headed intentionally towards both on Sunday night, as we headed to Mount Pleasant Park for the Bridge to Peace event, because sometimes the things you think you’re afraid of just aren’t all that important. We headed up Coleman into Mount Pleasant, there were people walking along the streets, all headed toward the bridge. They were carrying signs, and flags, and water. People calmly found parking places at the Omar Shrine, or the Patriots Point soccer complex, or along the roads. Police officers stood calmly along the crosswalks, smiling and offering directions. We made our way to the park, where the crowd was gathering for speeches. We got there at 7:15 or so. Helicopters circled relentlessly overhead, drowning out any noise from the speakers, so we really had no idea what was going on. And neither did anybody around us, and that was okay. I don’t think I’ll be able to ever convey the calm, warm, positive sense of peace and hope.
Charleston might be an international destination, but it’s a small town for those of us who live here. I’ve been privileged to call it home since 2003, and while I did not know any of the victims of the Mother Emmanuel Church massacre personally, I have many friends who lost people very dear to them. We are all connected by a maze of threads, through schools and churches and scouts and libraries, through sports teams and jobs and book clubs and art classes.

My daughter has been in that church and experienced firsthand the love and acceptance and warmth of the Reverend Honorable Clementa Pinckney, as he shared his welcome with her middle school class. We are all grieving. For our friends who lost colleagues and choir members, for our city and each other, for the sense of shattered peace, for the loss of nine people who were committed to their community and their faith. For the lost potential of a state legislator who could bring people together. Sunday’s lovely tribute in the Post and Courier gives you a sense of how much the victims contributed to our small town.

Our local news media have been working incessantly and sleeplessly to get information out to the public. Dewees Island’s Harriet McLeod, who writes for Reuters, was on the scene almost right away, working alone Wednesday night and Thursday morning out on Calhoun Street until 3:30 a.m. She spent all day Thursday with the prayer service at Morris Brown and street reporting and then three more reporters arrived. As a team, they have written many articles about the events, sleeping 2-5 hours a day and working mostly outside in relentless heat. Click here for some of Harriet’s writing.

When word came out about the Bridge for Peace Event, my daughter, a history major who spent spring break in Montgomery and Selma, was adamant about going, and she was right. What an event it was! Sure, it was a crowd, but a crowd full of warm acceptance, of love, of faith, and commitment to community. The greeting of neighbors, former teachers, friends from church or the gym, and new friends. The delight as you found people you knew, and the way the crowd moved and you got separated and found new friends: A Washington Post reporter. The fire marshall from IOP. Work colleagues. National comedy figures. Clergy.
Because there were so many there, all the ways to get to the web were jammed up, and I found myself wishing for a way to know where to go next. I tried all my favorite news sources, Twitter, Facebook– nothing would even load. It became clear that we needed to just put down the phones and hold hands. So we followed the group toward the bridge, waiting patiently with a like of people six people wide and over a mile long, edging toward the one point to get on the bridge.
IMG_0250Long before we got to the access point, a police officer said “Okay people, this is it. It’s now. SOMEBODY hold my hand!” And we did. A veteran who’d lost an arm asked if anyone would hold the stump, and several people surged forth to hold him. The circle immediately around us grew, until we needed to break it and add more people. We were quiet for a moment, but it was loud- helicopters and honking horns, and boats honking and people jostling. This may have been the 9 minutes of silence up on the bridge, but those of us in line on the ground weren’t silent for that long. There were prayers and music and blessings, though, as people sang “This Little Light of Mine” and distributed free hugs and shifted babies from hip to hip. There were greetings and volunteers from the Red Cross and local businesses handing out bottled water, and collecting empty bottles for recycling.
And we all held hands, and broke contact, and held hands again until the crowd surged forward, headed up onto the bridge anyway. Cassandra McLeod, who watched from her place in the Renaissance, said this:

The memorial March was absolutely incredible from both of my balconies. The people just kept coming for what seemed like forever! As the large American flag unfurled, participants began chanting “Peace, Peace, Peace!” Then later the Palmetto state flag was seen, with continuing yells of “Yay! ” The vehicle traffic also joined in with the horns & on the Harbor side there were even more cheers from the plethora of vessels & cargo ships passing by.

I felt a great pride in Charleston County & it was as if this Bridge across the waters became a Bridge to heaven, with the thousands of people paying tribute to the 9 souls that we lost & their families. There were more than a few tears!

Cassandra was with Jane Crowley, and they took these photos:
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McLeod 4

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WCBD had this slideshow:

My colleague Beth Huntley and Lu Betti took this photo:
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The setting sun lit up the crescent moon, perched between the branches of a palmetto. The essence of the flag of South Carolina was above us right there, stretching over the whole scene. A slight breeze cooled us off a little. Cars on the bridge honked and waved. Boats bobbed below in the harbor, and as the sun set, the crowd atop the bridge began to return, in the adjoining lane, walking past with high-fives and hugs. We ran into more friends, and the general attitude was one of reverence and the unity the organizers had hoped for. On the walkway back toward our car, someone had brought a box of sidewalk chalk. The crowd hushed as they approached, and it was quiet enough to hear the scratching of the chalk on the pavement. People knelt to leave a message, and passed the chalk in silence to the next person, and passers-by paused to read the words on the ground.


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As we headed home to the island at night, with the fading moon low on the horizon and stars splashed across the sky, the water trailed behind us with bioluminescent sparkles. Plankton, letting their little lights shine.