My Life Since the 2015 Emanuel AME Church Shooting: Melvin Graham's Story

“Churches. Concerts. Where can you go that you're not going to be the victim of mass violence? And schools. What's left?”

A sidewalk memorial in front of Emanuel AME Church (David Goldman / AP)
Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of conversations with those who have survived high-profile shootings or lost loved ones to them. The other interviews, as well as background about the series, can be found here.

Cynthia Graham Hurd was a librarian in Charleston, South Carolina, and three years after her death, books are still being donated in her memory. Hurd was murdered at the age of 54 along with eight others in a 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, also known as Mother Emanuel.

Her brother, Melvin Graham, is heartened by the fact that Hurd is still being remembered by her community and the country—but he’s angry about the inaction he sees when it comes to gun control. I spoke with Graham about his family’s long history at the Mother Emanuel church and why the Parkland students give him some hope. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Isabel Fattal: How has your life changed since your sister’s death?

Melvin Graham: I didn’t realize just how important my sister was in her own right. The things that she did on an everyday basis, just being herself, were things that just impacted so many people. Even now, years later, I still run into people who tell me how Cynthia has affected their lives, just by reaching out and helping them, encouraging them. To this day, there are still tributes being done in her honor. We did a book drive last year and we collected 11,000 books just in Charleston that are going to go to reading partners. The community is still to this day honoring the Emanuel Nine. Not just Cynthia, but different members.

Fattal: Do you think the way the Charleston community has been honoring the victims is different from what you’ve seen elsewhere?

Graham: I see it as the community being pulled together by a common cause and a common commitment in the sense that they realized that this could have been them. This could have happened to any one of them sitting in their church in their community.

Fattal: Does your family have close ties to the Mother Emanuel church?

Graham: We grew up in Mother Emanuel as little children. Thinking about what happened, it struck me that where Cynthia was murdered in the basement of the church is where we had our mother’s funeral, because the church was being repaired when my mother died. Mother Emanuel was always home. That's where my heart and where my spiritual beginning was. Mother Emanuel is always there.

Courtesy of Melvin Graham

Fattal: What are you feeling when you look at what's happening right now?

Graham: I’m angry. I’m angry at politicians in that I see this community and other communities around the country that have been affected by gun violence, not on an individual level but in a mass way, with mass shootings particularly. You would think this would be the time. Each time something happens you think, this is the time we’re going to get some action, some movement, some unity in Washington to do something. Or even in our state legislatures. And each time they have let me down, they have failed me. They’ve shown me—and this is just my opinion—that they simply do not care. They have placed guns over life itself.

Fattal: Do you have any hope, looking at today’s activists?

Graham: I have hope, because these young people said something very important—“We are the next generation of voters, and we will vote you out.” That gives me the hope. We have to vote out the politicians who have decided that Washington is the place they want to die. Their staying in Washington, in their positions, is more important than the people they’re supposed to represent.

This generation sees things a little bit differently. The communities around the country are saying, enough is enough. A lot of people are seeing that this can happen to them at any time, at any minute, and we have to do something, because it’s coming at such a rapid pace.

Fattal: Have you been involved in activism yourself?

Graham: In the beginning, I spoke to state representatives. I’ve been to Washington to try to talk to some representatives, particularly from my state. I hear, “You’re in our thoughts and prayers. We’re sorry this happened to your family.” But when it comes time to taking a vote to actually do something about it, it’s not there. I’ve had politicians say, “I’ve introduced legislation” on this matter or that matter. But the things they introduced either have no chance of passing or it's just a minuscule step in the right direction—a small step just to say they did something.

Fattal: Why do you think the national attention has arrived now, in the wake of the Parkland shooting?

Graham: Parkland is the combination of many mass shootings back to back to back. With Charleston, the community pulled together and surrounded the families and supported them. We had a killer that went to trial, which prolonged the situation and kept it open. Whereas with most mass shootings, the perpetrator dies and the event itself falls away from the headlines. As Charleston happened and then Nashville and Las Vegas and all the others, the combination just kept building and building. Each time, your sense of security and safety was diminished. Churches. Concerts. Where can you go that you're not going to be the victim of mass violence? And schools. What's left?

And the weapon of choice is one that even the designer said was made to inflict mass casualty, to kill as efficiently as possible. And yet politicians still don't seem to care. Having sat through that trial and having to listen to what happened to my sister and others ... I tell people, stand up. Look at your feet. Extend your arm. And that's how far away the gun was that killed nine individuals.

Fattal: Do you think that the Charleston shooting has been forgotten?

Graham: I don’t feel that Charleston has been forgotten. Even now, things are happening in memory and honor of the Emanuel Nine. Right now there's a garden being planted in my sister's memory.

Fattal: Do you have lingering questions or anything you wish the national conversation would focus on?

Graham: I would like to see politicians be honest. This is a very personal thing. If you don’t mean it when you call the families and say "I'm sorry for your loss," if you’re not truly sorry, don’t call the families. Don’t use them as props in their tragedy, and then when they ask you to actually do something, and I'm talking realistic fundamental things, you throw your hands up and say, "I can't do that." Be honest. Say, "My career in Washington and keeping my position is more important than your loved one's loss." Because every time you have an opportunity to do something and you don't do it, I feel like it's an insult to the families and to the victims.

Fattal: What would you like to see in terms of solutions?

Graham: They talk about doing background checks, but then they do things that weaken what they've already done. If you don't want to do anything, then at least make the things that we do have work. Let's put up a nationwide system of background checks; let's properly fund and staff the offices that do the background checks. A lot of these things are there, but they've weakened them to the point that they're useless. Dylann Roof should not have gotten that gun, but there was a flaw in the system.

Fattal: Do you think when we talk about the Emanuel AME shooting, we should be talking about race?

Graham: I don't think so. I think that’s just a smokescreen. It’s part of the problem, but it's not the major problem. If someone’s racist, that doesn’t bother me. I can’t change someone's heart. I can hopefully talk to them and maybe I can change their mind. But if you put a weapon in that person’s hand, then they’ve gone from calling me bad words to taking my life.

Fattal: Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Graham: My hope is that the Parkland students will have the continued effect they’re having right now. I hope that politicians see that there are going to be real consequences for their inaction and they're now going to have to do what they're supposed to do. Now's the time where they're going to have to say, “I have to do my job. Because if I don't, I won't have a job.”