Charleston mayor: 'When there's this much pain, you have to ... find a path forward'

When a high-level official of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of South Carolina complained that a downtown hotel had discriminated against him, Mayor Joseph Riley offered a swift public apology.

Riley has spent nearly 40 years as mayor of this historic city, building bridges between black and white. He was not going to let progress slip away. Bishop Richard F. Norris said he had been told to vacate his room in the middle of the night -- treatment he might have expected in the 1960s, not in 2013.

“I could not have that for my city, have him feeling that way here,” Riley, 72, said in an interview this week.

The mayor’s skills as a bridge builder have been sorely tested since June 17, when nine black Bible study members were slain at Emanuel AME Church by a white gunman in what authorities call a hate crime.

Riley, who is white, can still hear the sobs and the moans as families learned that their loved ones would never be coming home.

He has attended each funeral.

He has assailed the violence as a product of racism and hate.

“The only reason someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate,” Riley said hours after the killings, flanked by members of the black community. “It is the most dastardly act that one could possibly imagine.”

His forthright statements reminded many in this stately city of 130,000 why they keep reelecting him.

James Haynes sent the mayor a thank-you card. “I am proud to be a Charlestonian,” the retired firefighter dictated to his wife, who has better handwriting. “Wouldn’t you consider running for reelection?”

Haynes said it was hard to imagine waking up without Riley, who leaves office in January, as mayor.

“He’s a beacon -- in good times and bad times,” said Haynes, who is black. “He holds this city and keeps it together. We call him LBJ, you know? Little Black Joe.”

As a lawmaker in the early 1970s, Riley joined South Carolina's black leaders in advocating that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday be a paid holiday for state employees. That finally came pass in 2000.

Riley led a 120-mile march from Charleston to Columbia in 2000 to call for the Confederate battle flag’s removal from the Statehouse dome. Legislators agreed to shift it to a nearby Confederate war memorial.

Since the church slayings -- allegedly by a gunman who posed with the flag -- lawmakers have agreed to debate whether to remove it from the Statehouse grounds. To Riley, it’s long past time.

“Myself and others wanted that flag put away forever ... but for some politicians in the Legislature, there just wasn’t that belief,” he said. “It just wasn’t there.”

Now, there appears to be enough support to do just that.

Conversations on race can be fraught in this city, founded in 1670, where 40% of newly enslaved Africans arrived.

The mayor, a Charleston native, considers his most important project a plan to build an International African American Museum on Gadsden's Wharf, where an estimated 100,000 slaves landed. He has helped raise more than $37 million -- nearly half of what’s needed for the project, which is scheduled to break ground in 2017.

Riley also has helped revitalize the city's historic corridor and lure Fortune 500 businesses. Boeing has opened a plant in the area, with 7,500 employees constructing the new 787 Dreamliner.

Don H. Doyle, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, spent time in Charleston around 1975, when Riley took office.

“At 7 p.m. in the evening, you could fire a cannon on the main street and it was just dead,” he said of the historic area, now lined with boutiques and restaurants. Riley worked with business interests and the black community to transform the city, protecting its history while building new hotels, Doyle said.

It paid off. South Carolina raked in a record $18 billion from tourism in 2014, and Charleston has been ranked a No. 1 travel site for several years by magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler.

“It's now thriving; it’s a mecca for tourists. It’s a real foodie place -- a cosmopolitan place where young people want to be. He didn’t do it all, but he really made it happen,” Doyle said.

City Councilmember James Lewis Jr. said part of Charleston’s success was due to Riley’s amiability.

“You gotta get along with people, and he knows how to talk to people,” Lewis said. “If he has an idea, he doesn’t just throw it on you. He says, 'Well, I have this idea: Do you think we can do it?'”

Riley holds an open house at City Hall each Tuesday night so constituents can ask him and his staff questions.

“I’ve always said what’s in my heart,” he said. “I think people respect that.”

The leader of the local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People does. “When you look at his work, he really is a leader,” Dot Scott said. “He's always had an open-door policy. He's been inclusive and wants to hear from all of Charleston, not just some. And he always speaks up and speaks his mind.”

Scott noted that the city’s black population had dwindled in the last 20 years, due in part to gentrification. Some residents have been priced out.

“Schools are the most segregated they’ve ever been,” she said. “Is that the mayor’s fault? No. But we all need to do better to make the city more whole and together.”

Riley has a history of trying.

“He's a fair man,” said Jennifer Ellis, 52, on a recent afternoon as she weaved sweetgrass baskets outside St. Michael’s Churchyard.

It used to be, said the descendant of slaves, that the city’s parking enforcement officers wouldn’t let her and fellow street-sellers park for more than two hours on Meeting Street, a busy thoroughfare. So 10 years ago, she went to see the mayor.

Riley listened and told her he’d get back to her, she said -- and parking officers never bothered her again.

Now, officers smile and wave as she and other Gullah women sell their wares. The police pointedly avoid their trucks while ticketing nearby cars.

“I love the mayor,” said Chloe Morone, 19, a white teenager who was selling Italian ice cream outside the marble-trimmed City Hall. “He knows Charleston has a rich culture, even though it’s steeped in negative history. He does the best he can with how Charleston is and he tries to push us forward.”

For Riley, grappling with the past is a way to build a better future.

“When there’s this much pain, you have to look forward -- find a path forward,” the mayor said as he and grieving Charleston try to do just that.

“It really is a testament of this city’s strength,” Riley said, his voice trailing off.

“The heartache will live with me the rest of my life,” he said, but “hopefully not for everyone.”

kurtis.lee@latimes.com

Twitter: @kurtisalee

Special correspondent Jarvie reported from Charleston, S.C., and Lee from Los Angeles.

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