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Son Of Charleston Church Shooting Victim Uses Public Speech To Bring People Together

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Five years ago today, a self-proclaimed white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners at a historic church in Charleston, S.C. While Dylann Roof awaits the death penalty, those who lost loved ones try to carry on with their lives, including one man who has made it his mission to root out racism, one person at a time. South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen reports.

VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: Chris Singleton was a carefree college student dreaming of playing professional baseball when the call came that changed his life.

CHRIS SINGLETON: I'll never forget it. I was 18 years old. I got a call on my phone from my mom's phone, actually. And the lady on the other end was saying, Chris, you got to get down here right now. Something bad happened.

HANSEN: A stranger welcomed to Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston had pulled out a gun while the parishioners' eyes were closed in prayer. He fired more than 70 times, leaving nine people dead, including Chris's mother, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. The white gunman said he wanted to start a race war. The victims were black. The next night, surrounded by his college teammates and coaches, Singleton stunned a broken community as he spoke publicly for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SINGLETON: I just say love is always stronger than hate. So if we just love the way my mom would, then the hate won't be anywhere close to where love is.

HANSEN: Singleton says he doesn't know where those words came from. He had not intended to speak. Life without his mother was a whirlwind. He poured his pain into baseball and played briefly for the Chicago Cubs minor league system. His father died, and his teenage siblings moved in with him. He married his high school sweetheart, and they welcomed a son. Suddenly, Singleton had a lot of responsibility. But he also felt a responsibility to his mom and those words that came so effortlessly - love is stronger than hate. So he began accepting what he had frequently turned down - invitations to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SINGLETON: I need you to give somebody a hug that looks different than you and tell them you love them. Come on now. Don't be too cool. We're in church.

HANSEN: Singleton now travels the country as a motivational speaker.

SINGLETON: Crazy enough, people have said to me, Chris, you know, that was the first time I've ever hugged somebody that doesn't look like me.

HANSEN: He tries to bring people together, help them see past the color of their skin. Singleton says sharing his mother's story has given him a purpose greater than his pain by setting an example as a black man who lost a loved one to racism but does not hate. He hopes to change even one misguided mind - someone who thinks as his mother's killer did.

SINGLETON: Like, when I share, I hope that I can stop one kid who would grow up to maybe be Dylann Roof, I'm hoping I would stop one kid that was taught to hate black people that doesn't think that way anymore after hearing me speak.

HANSEN: Singleton's mentor and high school basketball coach, Blake Hall, is proud. And he's not surprised by the words Singleton said that day - love is stronger than hate.

BLAKE HALL: I think your true character comes out during your darkest moments, you know? And I think, you know, through his experiences growing up with great parents and being such a high-character person even during that time, it might have surprised him, but that's who he really is.

HANSEN: On this, the five-year anniversary of his mother's death, Singleton has penned a children's book called "Different: A Story About Loving Your Neighbor." Singleton shares his favorite part - when a boy from Nigeria named Obinna moves to Charleston and confides in a teacher.

SINGLETON: (Reading) She handed him a tissue. Her eyes were soft, the kind of eyes that seemed to know exactly what you're feeling without you having to say a word. They sat in silence for a long time. Then - never be ashamed of who you are, Obinna, Ms. Sharonda said. You're beautifully and wonderfully made.

HANSEN: Ms. Sharonda is, of course, Singleton's mom - his inspiration, his teacher.

For NPR News, I'm Victoria Hansen in Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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