Gatherers at church memorial: 'Symbolic maneuver' doesn't erase racism

Story highlights

  • While the Confederate flag came down in the capital, mourners gathered in Charleston
  • Some saw the flag's removal as a ceremony to make politicians feel good
  • Others said the act was significant and moving

Charleston, South Carolina (CNN)As the Confederate flag came down amid fanfare at the South Carolina State House in Columbia on Friday morning, Willi Glee, 74, stood outside his church -- unimpressed.

He knows well the pain that helped prompt the flag's removal; after all, his spiritual home is the historic "Mother Emanuel" AME Church, where nine people were gunned down by a white racist last month. Their deaths and the gunman's glorification of the flag finally spurred its demise after decades of contentious debate.
    But ask him how significant this moment is, and he doesn't mince words.
    "It's great symbolically, but it shouldn't have been there in the first place," he says. "It doesn't mean a damn thing, really."
    It's a ceremony to make politicians feel good, he says. The more important issues of our nation's racism, he fears, will continue to go unaddressed. And once the lovefest ends, people will simply go back to their separate corners.
    "The problem in America is we fail to educate our children, all of them, white and black," he says. "A long history of mistrust and mistreatment led us to today. ... And when you've lived in America as long as I have, you have no faith they'll do better."
    Around him, visitors flock to the memorial that's grown outside the church. Sprinkled amid the sea of flowers are balloons, wreaths, notes and drawings by children. Messages inscribed on paper hearts offer comfort. They say things like "Charleston Strong," "Love stands around you" and "Always in our hearts."
    A woman stands before the memorial, her closed eyes not stopping the tears that fall. Amelia, 26, who didn't want her last name used, is from Charlotte, North Carolina, but comes to Charleston often for work. This is her first time visiting the church, and in her hand she clasps a message she'll leave behind.
    "When it happened, it sounded like an impossible thing, a recounting of something out of a horror story," she says. "These are people I didn't know, but they were giving their lives to community, service and God. They were role models, and for someone to maliciously disrespect and dishonor their goodness -- so violently and selfishly -- it's hurtful to me and to all of us."
    She sees the flag's removal as a "symbolic maneuver," just like Glee. "But it's not a step to bringing justice to those who passed or diminishing the severity of what was done here."
    Amelia, who is white, says that while one person killed these churchgoers, "he stands in for a number of people in our country who feel the way he did." And until our country tackles that, achieves true equality and combats violence, a ceremony is little more than a ceremony.
    These sorts of sentiments, though, don't speak for Kiki Ray, 41, who says she wept when it was announced that the flag would come down. As a black woman, she says, it means more than she can fully express.
    "When people pull up beside us with a Confederate flag on their truck, we get scared," she says. "One person's heritage is another person's slavery."
    Ray, of Charlotte, North Carolina, is in Charleston with her family as her father undergoes surgery to remove a tumor in his chest. Thursday, the day before he went into surgery, he brought his grandson -- Ray's son -- to the memorial outside this church.
    "He knew it would mean a lot to me," says William Ray III, 20, president of the Black Student Alliance at Wake Forest University. "When I came here, I cried."
    The younger Ray appreciates how moved his mother is by the Confederate flag's removal, but he doesn't think anyone should pat themselves on the back for doing it. Yes, it's historic, but it's "a piece in a billion-piece puzzle," he says.
    The "cold truth," he says, is that there are plenty of people who feel what the church shooter feels, and racism doesn't go away when a flag comes down.
    "America was built on the backs of racism, and racism is a system that needs to be deconstructed," he says.
    Ours is a flawed system, he says, that needs a lot more work.
    "We put Band-Aids on the leaky pipes," he says, "and we have to replace the pipes."