In 1964, James Chaney and two fellow civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. In 2005, one of the perpetrators, Edgar Ray Killen, was finally convicted and incarcerated. Plough talked with Julia Chaney-Moss, Chaney’s younger sister, shortly after nine black churchgoers died at the hands of a young white assailant in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Plough: Following your brother’s murder, what was your journey to forgiveness?
Julia: In the beginning, I had no option but to figure out a way forward. At such a moment, you have the responsibility: what are you going to do with the rest of your life? If I would not have taken personal responsibility for the choice to forgive, I would have been indelibly tied to the cause of my pain. I made the choice to continue living and free myself.
I’ve always disliked the word hate. I want no part of the damage it can do. I want to stay focused on the power of love, the power of humanity.
Two days after the Charleston shooting, the victims’ families spontaneously responded with forgiveness. But almost immediately, some called this a sign of weakness. Your thoughts?
I was a little taken aback by some of the media commentaries. One pundit said, “What is wrong with these people? Shouldn’t they be angry? Because I’m angry.” I was thinking, Oh ye of little faith, little do you know! You have access to all kinds of information, but you have no idea about the power of belief in God. If you don’t have that, then you don’t understand.
There was an immediate reverberation because the white people of South Carolina got it: they, too, wondered why the victims’ families were not angry. And they were shocked and amazed that they were not. That’s why one of the state senators immediately reflected on his friendship with Clementa Pinckney [the pastor who was among the victims], and pledged to introduce a bill to take down the Confederate flag. I’m glad to be alive to see the family members’ compassion, and to see the reaction in kind by the legislators.
Is faith necessary in order to forgive?
Forgiveness begins within. It’s a choice for each of us. As the young people grew up in Emanuel AME Church, I’m sure they were exposed to this process. Forgiveness is not an event or an episode; it’s a lifework that’s engaged in every day. You can’t just think, “I can do this.” You can’t build those muscles or keep those muscles if you don’t exercise them.
I continue to send blessings to my brother’s murderer in prison in Mississippi. Recently a reporter called me to say he had gone to visit Edgar Ray Killen, and I thanked him, because I don’t know if anyone besides Killen’s own relatives visit him. It’s so important for us to know that, yes, we can radiate blessings into other people’s lives.
Interview by Esther Keiderling on June 7, 2015.