Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley had already eaten dinner and was getting ready for bed on Wednesday night when he heard his landline ring. “That time of night, that’s unusual,” he recalled. “And so when it was the chief of police, I knew he was calling me with bad news.”
It was Greg Mullen, Chief of Police, calling to tell him that there had been a shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “He didn’t know the extent of it, whether there were many fatalities,” the mayor tells TIME. “As I was putting on clothes, I increasingly found that it was going to be this awful catastrophe.”
Mayor Riley and Chief Mullen went to a nearby hotel, where family members of people who had been in the church were assembled. None of the family members knew how many people had been shot, or how many had died, but when the mayor and the Chief of Police arrived, they reported that there had been nine fatalities. “The people there knew almost certainly that one of their loved ones had been killed,” the mayor recalls, with obvious emotion in his voice. “And the moan, the wailing, the natural human pain, that was just so heartbreaking. And we stayed there and consoled and hugged and comforted as many as we could.”
“It was awful, it was just awful,” says the nine-time re-elected mayor, who has held office since 1975. Nine black people were murdered, including Reverend Clementa Pickney, who also served as a state senator. The mayor recalled Reverend Pickney as a “wonderful man.”
“He was a very tall man with great posture and presence and had a very deep voice,” the mayor recalls. “But he spoke softly. It was a wonderful comment about his character—because of his size and stature and a very deep voice, he could have exhibited power, but he was gentle, thoughtful, he was a devoted pastor and he was beloved in the state senate.”
Mayor Riley says the suspect, 21-year old Dylann Roof, must be “horrible afflicted with the disease of racism” or “whatever lunacy allows you to sit at a church for 45 minutes and then pull out a gun and start killing people,” but stopped short of calling him a terrorist.
“Whether he was a terrorist and exactly how you define a terrorist, I don’t know,” he says. “I put him more in the [category] of the shooter of the children in Connecticut, the shooter in the movie theater—they’re deranged people.”
The takeaway, Riley says, isn’t about racial hatred as much as it is about the easy availability of guns. “This guy that obviously wasn’t 100% emotionally stable could get a gun as easily as he could buy a diet beverage. I think this raises that same alarm bell that our country just hasn’t been able to deal with.” He also pointed out that Roof grew up over 100 miles outside of Charleston, noting that this “wasn’t something that emanated from the civic culture of this city.”
“Times have so drastically changed, you don’t see people waving confederate flags, you don’t see them like a generation ago. You don’t see the flags waved as evidence of resistance to racial progress,” he says. There’s still a Confederate flag hanging in the state capitol, but Riley led a march in 2000 from Charleston to Columbia to demand that the flag be removed.
Riley, who has spent most of his four decades in office fighting for racial equality, is currently in the process of building a museum of African American history on the Charleston Wharf, to acknowledge the city’s legacy of slavery; 40% of all enslaved Africans who came to North America came through Charleston.
But the Mayor doesn’t think this shooting points to a broad subculture of hatred in Charleston. “It doesn’t equate to a societal defect on any kind of scale,” he says. “It’s very isolated, it’s very limited. He got a gun. And he’s hateful and unbalanced enough to sit in a church for 45 minutes and then pull out a gun and kill people.”
“How you prevent a deranged person from doing bad things?” he asks. “I have dedicated these 39 and a half years to advancing the cause of racial progress and inclusiveness. We’ve done that in so many remarkable ways in Charleston. It’s a different city than it was 40 years ago. So we can’t let this one hateful nutcase who lives 110 miles away affect that.”