On June 17, 2015, Malcolm Graham learned that his sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, a librarian and a devout Christian, was one of nine victims shot and killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Here is Graham, a politician who recently lost a congressional bid in North Carolina, speaking to The Trace’s Jacqueline Thomsen, about what it was like to lose “the glue” that held his family together.
I was at home getting ready for bed in Charlotte and I saw the news scroll at the bottom of the TV. It said that there was a shooting in Charleston at Emanuel and people were feared dead.
I automatically called my sister Cynthia. Emanuel was our home church, has been for our family for some 50 years, and Cynthia’s my contact for all things Charleston. She didn’t answer so I just assumed she was trying to figure out what had happened, lending support to the church. When she didn’t call me back in an hour, I started to get concerned simply because, with something of that magnitude, she would have called and said she was OK. And then my niece called and said that they could not locate Cynthia, that there were rumors she’d attended Bible study that night. And obviously those rumors were true.
It was awful because we had to prepare a funeral service and do those things that families do when they lose a loved one, and we had to do it in a very public way because the whole nation was watching what we were doing.
During the first court hearing, some of the victims’ family members told the shooter that they forgave him. So we had to deal with this whole notion of forgiveness of the shooter two days after the incident, while my sister was still in the morgue. I simply do not forgive. I don’t think you can forgive someone for a hideous act like that two days after it occurred. Forgiveness is a journey, it’s just not granted, especially when they never asked for it.
My focus has been remembering how Cynthia lived versus how she died. Cynthia lived an extraordinary life, a storybook life. She was personable, she was sharp, she was candid. She cared about her community, cared about her church, cared about her God.
I put it upon myself to be her advocate. I wrote editorials for newspapers and appeared on radio and cable news shows. I went to the National Association of Black Journalists and was a keynote speaker there. I just kind of engulfed myself as a form of therapy, talking about what had gone wrong in our society and what we must do as a community to regain trust. I also wanted to call attention to the elephant in the room: racism and hatred and discrimination. I don’t call it gun violence. Certainly the gun was the tool the perpetrator used to commit the crime, but the crime itself was hate and racism and discrimination. To simply call it gun violence disregards what happened that night.
Anytime you talk about racism or race it makes people very uncomfortable, but I believe it was a conversation that needed to be had so I took it upon myself to talk about those issues. And at the same time, it gave me an opportunity to make sure that people knew my sister as more than a victim at the church, that she was a sister, a cousin, an aunt, a librarian, a commissioner, a friend — she was so many other things than a victim.
Our parents passed away in ’84 and ’86, and so in many respects Cynthia was the matriarch, she was the glue that held everybody together. It was tough for all of us, particularly my sister Jackie. The Friday before Cynthia passed, Jackie was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. So there was a lot of family stuff going on and we were concerned about Jackie’s health and Jackie’s life when Cynthia was taken from us.
We’re all doing better now. I don’t think we’re fine but we’re better. We are getting used to living without Cynthia. It gives our family pride and honor to know that other people have recognized her. The University of South Carolina, where she got her masters degree, has named a masters scholarship after her. And the housing authority, where she served as a commissioner for 21 years, also has established a scholarship after her.
There’s still a void there. She was someone I would talk to every day, every other day, by phone or text. I think that’s the biggest difference — no more pep talks from her, no more encouragement from her, no more “how you doing brother” from her. It’s like losing a cell phone because that’s your information pack. I can’t recharge it, I can’t get it back.
It would be motherly conversations, it would be sisterly conversations, it would be encouraging conversations as I went about my political career. I served for six years in the Charlotte City Council in North Carolina and 10 years as a member of the state senate, so I’m a political animal, I love politics and government. It’s something that Cynthia encouraged me to do and be involved in.
Cynthia was always helping me — she was a librarian, a great researcher, a great wordsmith — she edited speeches for me and would say, “Hey, you might want to say it this way,” or “You know what, I’m gonna rip this up, I’m gonna do it for you.”
At her funeral service, I gave her eulogy and it was the first time I needed that type of assistance and she wasn’t there. Certainly she would have been the person I would have called to say “I need your help to write this thing,” or “proofread it for me.”
The last time I saw Cynthia, she visited to help celebrate my oldest daughter Nicole’s college graduation. And one of the things she kept saying to my youngest daughter, Cortney, is, “You’re up next.” Cortney graduated from college this year, and Cynthia wasn’t there.
I see Cynthia every day because she’s on my cell phone screenshot. There was a picture of her that an illustrator did for the alumni magazine at the College of Charleston where she worked part-time, and it’s a beautiful picture. I saved it as a part of my screensaver. So every time I pick up the phone to make a call, there she is, with me everywhere I go.
We may be back here again soon. Not in Charleston, not in a church, but somewhere in our country someone is going to experience some type of pain simply because of the proliferation of guns, and the Achilles heel of our country, racism, that we can’t seem to get past. So we got to not just forgive and forget, but we have to remember to continue to fight for those things that make our society better today than it was yesterday.
Graham first spoke with The Trace last Thursday. On Sunday, a gunman shot and killed 50 people at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub.
[Photo: Logan Cyrus for The Trace]