Rev. Nelson Rivers III grew up in a world very different from today’s Hellgate High School students.
“Growing up in Charleston, everything was segregated,” the pastor and longtime civil rights activist told about three dozen students Tuesday. “Things we take for granted now.”
During an hour-long discussion at Hellgate, Rivers recalled being ordered out of stores and bowling alleys in Charleston, South Carolina, while he grew up there in the 1950s and '60s; white residents moving out of his neighborhood once his and other African-American families moved in; being called the N-word in public.
“The prominent memories get etched in your soul,” he told students.
This was the perspective social studies teacher Rachel Lunde hoped her students would hear. “I think that he is a very important leader in our community, in our American community, and it’s always good for students to hear firsthand accounts of experiences they have not had.”
Rivers, currently the pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, has been fighting racism with various civil rights organizations for decades.
The blatant segregation Rivers faced in his youth is long gone, but the attitudes behind it linger — sometimes with devastating results. In 2015, a white supremacist shot and killed nine parishioners of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
The victims included Rev. Clementa Pickney, a close friend of Rivers’. “We were together one week before she was killed,” he remembered.
After visiting Hellgate, Rivers was to speak at a local screening of the documentary "Emanuel," hosted by the University of Montana’s Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center. The film focused on the shooting and its remarkable aftermath. Two days afterwards, four of the victims’ families faced shooter Dylann Roof via videoconference and said they forgave him.
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“They became the face of the forgiveness of Dylann Roof,” he said. “And (they) really didn't forgive him for him, they forgave him for themselves, to be at one with the tradition” of forgiveness in Christianity.
The killings prompted a contentious — but successful — effort to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of South Carolina’s state capitol. That campaign, Rivers told students, showed the challenges of reckoning with America’s history of slavery.
“The flag always became a symbol of something else, because the day you admit what was done to people, then you have to ask the question, ‘Who did it?’ That what the flag was about. Nobody wants to feel guilty. Who wants to be guilty of something that was so unimaginable?”
That same hurdle, Rivers said, awaits a proposal junior Ignatius Fitzgerald asked about: slavery reparations. “It might happen on my watch, I think there's a better chance of it happening on your watch. How it happens, the mechanism, is not my concern. America has refused to do this one simple thing to redeem the soul of itself by admitting" the realities of slavery.
Afterwards, Fitzgerald said the topic had come up in class discussions. “It’s interesting to see different perspectives on it,” he said.
Overall, he thought Rivers’ talk was “fascinating. It’s a perspective you don’t often get to see in Montana, with as white of a town as we have.”
Rivers, for his part, is encouraged by what he’s heard from students in Missoula and around the country. “When I talk to them now, I see they really are thoughtful,” he said afterwards. "It's not obscene, this notion of reparations, so they'll ask the kind of questions you heard today.”
That’s a valuable perspective to have, he continued, when discussing race in a state as white as Montana. “They’re willing to speak truth to their own power.”