CHARLESTON, S.C. — Joseph P. Riley Jr. has spent nearly 40 years as mayor of this genteel city, an era defined by vibrant growth, his steady grip on power and his understated manner. The serenity of his final chapter in office ended Wednesday.
“Nine beautiful, loving people in a meeting about prayer and their religion were killed by a maniac,” Riley, 72, said in a brief interview Friday. “It’s the worst.”
The crisis encapsulates what has been his greatest challenge as mayor: freeing Charleston from the burden of the region’s dark racial past. His allies see the situation as tragedy.
“This heroic, historic figure who is just wounded by the thing he spent his whole life trying to change,” said Phil Noble, a Democratic operative and longtime associate of Riley’s. “It’s so in keeping with the history of this place.”
“Our tragedies are all tangled up with our triumphs,” he added.
Walking the streets under the hot Charleston sun, Riley can be found in his tan suit consoling families, answering questions from scores of journalists and occasionally, in a shaky voice, asking for a moment of privacy so he can collect his thoughts.
But as the gravity of the killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church unfolded, he laid out the stakes in stark terms, winning praise from around the country for speaking forcefully and with compassion.
“In America, you know, we don’t let bad people like this get away with these dastardly deeds,” Riley said Thursday after Dylann Roof, 21, was detained and charged with killing church members gathered at the prayer meeting.
If the country was unsure of what to expect from a white, southern mayor, the city was not. An unapologetic progressive Democrat, he is a man known and trusted by Charleston’s white and black residents.
His election in 1975, with the support of some of Charleston’s African American power brokers, earned him the nickname “Little Black Joe” from the city’s white elite, Noble said.
During his first mayoral campaign, coming after a stint in the state legislature, Riley spoke about what he saw as a “tremendous amount of alienation” in the city’s historically black neighborhoods and called for revamped recreational and public spaces to make residents of all backgrounds feel more included.
In 1982, Riley hired Reuben Greenberg to be the city’s first black police chief — a post Greenberg, who died last year, would keep until 2005.
He personally opposes the death penalty — even for the perpetrator of Wednesday’s killings — and has long been a supporter of more stringent gun control.
None of that has stopped Riley, the mayor of a city surrounded by conservative enclaves in a deep-red state, from regularly being dubbed one of the most the beloved politicians in America.
Much of that recognition has been rooted in Charleston’s economic turnaround.
“In my opinion, Joe Riley will go down in history as one of the greatest statesmen in South Carolina,” said city councilman Rodney Williams, “because of what he did for Charleston, the transformation of Charleston.”
“Charleston is really the hub of the state,” Williams added. “He has really made this city a magnet in terms of its growth, popularity and leadership.”
Riley’s approach to Charleston’s economic rebirth required the same delicate balance that he applied to the task of mending race relations.
Remaking the city entailed carefully planning for new buildings to reflect Charleston’s elegant and colorful architectural sensibility, whether for parking garages or hotels. Riley labored for years to get a minor-league baseball stadium built on the waterfront, which he eventually succeeded in doing; despite his objections, it’s named after him.
Above all, Riley has wanted Charleston to look to the future and not its past. Featured on CBS’s “Sunday Morning” in May, he said a “historic city should be a living place, because if you don’t have that, then it’s a former something, a former once-great city that’s now pretty to see.”
He has also wanted Charleston to move beyond the painful legacy of slavery and segregation that has always surrounded — and continues to shadow — the rest of the state and the South.
Fifteen years ago, he was one of 46,000 who marched to the capitol of South Carolina to call for the Confederate battle flag to be taken down.
That effort too has come full circle. The attack on the church beloved as “Mother Emanuel” has reinvigorated calls for South Carolina to finally remove the flag.
Relocating the flag from the capitol dome to a spot on the nearby grounds was an uneasy compromise. Now, African Americans in Charleston say that compromise should finally be done away with, once and for all.
“We can overcome this, but the teachable moment for the state is that to have a world-class state means that we need to move the confederate flag from the state capitol grounds,” Williams said.
Even Riley’s onetime political adversaries give him credit for helping the city make progress on these intractable issues.
“We’ve had our clashes, but he’s one of the greatest mayors of our time,” city council member William Dudley Gregorie, who has run against Riley in the past, said in an interview Friday. “If you look at the city from 1975 to now, it’s night and day, a progression from a very seedy downtown to one of the best downtowns in the country.”
Gregorie, who plans to run for mayor when Riley leaves office later this year, also noted that the city has made racial progress — and he is evidence of that. He represents a majority-white district in Charleston.
“That in and of itself tells you that the city continues to evolve,” Gregorie told reporters. “They voted for an African American. They voted for the son of slaves.”
Friends and observers attribute Riley’s nearly unchallenged hold on the mayoral office for much of the last four decades to a series of crises that helped cement his control and season him as a leader.
Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which tore the roof off City Hall and flooded streets, was one of the mayor’s most trying moments in office until Wednesday evening. A Category 4 storm, it left 13 people dead in South Carolina and 49 total. Another difficult time was a fire in June 2007 at Sofa Super Store that claimed the lives of nine Charleston firefighters.
“His demeanor and bearing was the same way it is today. But during that storm, he grew a lot. Catastrophes can do that,” said Capers Barr III, Riley’s former law partner and friend since the 1960s. “He has learned over time about how important it is to project a spirit of positive calm.”
In recent days, President Obama and Vice President Biden have reached out to Riley by phone. Barr has left several encouraging voice mails for the mayor but hasn’t spoken with him. “It’s a deluge, I’m sure,” he said.