Mr. Mayor: The Exit Interview

As longtime Charleston, South Carolina, mayor Joe Riley prepares to step down, a frank conversation about renewal, race, and the real Bill Murray

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

Mayor Riley outside his Charleston office.

Joseph P. Riley, Jr., was first elected mayor when Gerald Ford was roughly halfway through his presidency. Over ten terms and forty years, Riley remastered the city of Charleston, turning a sleepy favorite of ladies on the azalea circuit into a top-ranked destination. He oversaw the transformation of a dilapidated waterfront, the revitalization of a half-decrepit merchant district, an explosion of restaurants, and the elevation of a small city college into a national university. Among architects and urban planners, Riley is a celebrity known for his ability to keep Charleston’s growth within the elusive aesthetics of a city defined by its beauty. He also guided the city through catastrophe—Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the Sofa Super Store fire of 2007 that claimed the lives of nine firefighters. In addition, Riley has revived the conversation about race in Charleston, largely through his mission to balance the telling of the city’s complicated, often painful, and largely unwritten history. In his first term, he commissioned a public portrait of Denmark Vesey, the ex-slave said to have organized what would have been the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history, and after the Charleston massacre this past June 17 (which took place in the church whose founders included Vesey), his leadership helped steer the city toward a remarkable display of unity. Riley is stepping down at the end of his term this January, finishing his tenure on a path to raise $75 million for the International African American Museum, slated to be built on the site of the old Gadsden’s Wharf on the Cooper River, where more than a hundred thousand slaves first set foot in America.

You were elected mayor the year I graduated from high school here in Charleston—1975. Why quit now?

The only way to do this job is with complete emotional and intellectual energy. This job is not one where the buck stops here. That’s kind of a negative thing. It’s bigger than that. All the responsibility is here. So I own that happily. But you don’t want to be in this job wishing you didn’t have that duty. I have eighteen hundred employees, and they need to get their energy from me. I love the job. I love coming to work. I was here early today. It’s the best job in America because it’s interesting and demands creativity and you can do stuff. Experience benefits you, but the intensity of responsibility, at seventy-two, and with grandchildren and things to do with my wife—it’s time.

Riley addresses the media in front of Emanuel A.M.E. Church.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Leading Man

Riley addresses the media in front of Emanuel A.M.E. Church.

Everyone in Charleston has a version of where they were, what they did, and how they felt on June 17, 2015. What’s yours?

It was 9:20 or so [at night]. I was home with Bermudas on, and we had just finished eating. I got a call from the chief on the landline because I had put my cell phone down. He said that there had been a shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. and that there were some fatalities. At that moment that’s what I knew. I said, “I’ll be there.” So I went over to my closet and decided that I should put on a suit. A coat and tie. A lot of times you see a mayor out there at a tragedy and they have on a Windbreaker. But what I knew was that some people had been killed at a church, and the clergy would arrive dressed, and the dignity of the church required that.

I got there and went to go into the church, and the police said, “No, Mr. Mayor, you can’t go in there. It’s a crime scene.” And they were also worried because they didn’t know whether the shooter was around. Then gradually I learned that there were nine fatalities. I knew Reverend [Clementa] Pinckney well, and I knew the legislature was in session for three days because we were interested in the museum of African American history, so I knew that he was probably in Columbia. So I asked the police, “Has Reverend Pinckney arrived yet?” And they said, “He’s in there”—meaning, the church.

That’s how it was. Gradual. Some fatalities. Nine fatalities. It was a Bible study. A white man came in and sat down. He pulled out a gun. So it was this gradual horrific unfolding where I was, at the hotel across the street.

The police chief quickly got in touch with the families, and the families knew that their parent or grandchild or grandmother was in there and that there had been a shooting. So then, this was about 11:30, we had to go to a room in the hotel and tell them that there had been nine fatalities. The chief was the one who told them. It was his responsibility to give the official police report on what had occurred. The human anguish in each voice of the couple hundred people there, each in a different way—sobbing or just groaning… Horrific.

At that point, what does a mayor do?

A lot of things. I have still got the notes here of what I scribbled out at midnight. A mayor knows that this is a terrible, awful, historically, unbelievably bad thing. So I have a duty to the families, to help them—and I have a duty to the community, to lead. To give them comfort and assurance that we were going to take care of everybody.

I remember thinking, after that first day, how much of the media was ready to come here and find old-school bigotry and violence. But that didn’t happen. Why not?

First, we assured everyone that we were going to catch him, and I think that we caught him quickly was very important. And that was great police work and the wonderful citizenship of that lady in North Carolina. And then we worked to remove the need for people to vent their anger in a destructive way. How? I believe that, in this community, the citizens were confident and felt comfortable—that isn’t the right word—they felt that there was love here. It’s a word we use a lot, but I think certainly the African American community knew that this was their city, and these are their neighborhoods, and I was their mayor and we were going to handle this together. We were going to take care of each other.

We labeled it a hate crime right away. It was very important, especially to the African American community, that there was no whitewashing as to exactly what happened. That it was this person who because of his hateful, evil, racial bigotry wanted to go and kill people. And it was very important, and this was several days after, that I said that this bad person was not from Charleston. It was important for my city, for the citizens of my city. The truth was this person’s hate was not incubated in Charleston. It was incubated 110 miles away. It was incubated in America, and it was happening in Charleston, but it was not incubated here.

Then there were the funds—the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund. I knew that the citizens needed some way to help in the healing. So I urged that we had to get some funds going so that all the citizens had something to do, some way to touch the community of the survivors. And then, of course, we talked about coming together. We prayed and reached out, with both hands, and in the unfolding of all these things, there was just no apparent need for something destructive to happen. The African American community knew that they had the complete sympathy and support from their city, from me and from the citizens—all of whom would be there.

Then the families, unscripted, go into the bond hearing and say, “We forgive you.” That was right smack out of their Bible study. I think all of those things, and that over the years we built bridges among our different neighborhoods and communities, made us into a Charleston that was engaged and proud and secure.

The mayor is sworn in for his second term, in 1980.

Photo: City of Charleston

The mayor is sworn in for his second term, in 1980.

A number of old port or industrial towns around the country—Portland, Austin, San Diego, Seattle, New Haven—seem to be having a kind of revival of restaurants, shops, a strong college presence, and people coming to town for various reasons. But Charleston has been a leader in this effort. What’s the secret recipe?

You begin with this principle: that the city should be a great place in which to live. You start with the residents. It’s holistic. If you have a sparkling downtown but other neighborhoods have been rotting, that eventually is not going to work. If you do something because this will just be great for tourists, that’s not going to work either. And you also have a great strategic plan. A city is an ecosystem. You don’t just plop something down because, say, they have one of those in Portland. Each city has its own DNA, and every urban ecosystem is different. Then you work like the devil to put those pieces into place.

I’ve got lots of favorite stories in this regard. But at one point the Francis Marion Hotel on Calhoun and King was bankrupt and the College of Charleston wanted to buy it for a dorm, and I said, “This building at this critical intersection—a three-year-old would look at that building and say, ‘That is a hotel.’” You look at it and you know it’s a hotel, and then it becomes a dorm? This is a visible light blinking in your downtown that now says, this used to be a great corner in a great city, but now it’s slipped and the best that they can do is a dorm. We had to do a zillion things to get that hotel working again, but you have to worry about stuff like that.

Another one: I had these very good friends who owned land on Market Street—this was fifteen years ago—and they wanted to put in a Hard Rock Cafe. I said, “We don’t need a Hard Rock Cafe in Charleston. That’s not Charleston.” So you have a good strategic plan and you don’t quit, you don’t relent, whatever it is.

Charleston’s success has also brought more people, as we say here, “from off.” Does that change the character of a city?

Yes, you have people from off. But there was an essay written about the New South, and someone said that the South is not likely to change because of the people who move there—that, after a while, you find yourself buying your own pickup truck.

I think there’s a quality like that in Charleston for the people who come here. Abe Rosenthal, the former editor of the New York Times, came down here after Hugo and fell in love. He wrote this really nice piece, and he concluded by saying that in Charleston interesting things happen. A stranger walks down the street and someone approaches him and starts smiling, and they say good morning and pass on, and you assume it’s a case of mistaken identity. And a few minutes later it happens again, and he said after a while the stranger starts doing it, too. It’s a way of life and it’s nice, and so when you come down here, you are more apt to be changed by your experience than you are likely to change things.

The landscape of the South has many symbols and monuments to Confederate history. In the wake of the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House in Columbia, should Southern mayors think about moving statues and rewriting inscriptions on monuments?

I think that for the most part the monuments should stay. We should understand why the monuments were put there—obviously the practice and the institution of slavery that no one can accept now, well, three hundred years ago, churches and other people easily rationalized it. But then we should build more monuments. That is why we’re building the African American museum here in Charleston. That is the best response. Build something that teaches and inspires and presents the truth that we never presented and honors people who have never been honored. I think the monuments stay because they tell us what people were thinking at the time, and now we can move on to create monuments of our own.

Let’s talk about Bill Murray, who is now one of Charleston’s most famous citizens. There’s an urban legend of how he walks into a fast-food restaurant and goes up to people at a booth and starts talking, grabbing fries off someone else’s tray, and says, “Here’s the killer part: When you tell this story, no one will ever believe you.” What’s a true Bill Murray in Charleston story?

What’s really great about Bill Murray in Charleston is that he loves living here because he can be a real person. He’s on a bowling team and he goes bowling with blue-collar guys. He was an assistant coach on a T-ball team. So many movie stars have such trouble in life because they never can be truly real, and he is here in Charleston because he’s very comfortable here, and that just thrills me.

Charleston has become known as one of the great food cities. What’s your favorite restaurant?

A certain place on Gibbes Street.

Wait, that’s where you live. Ah, I see what you did. All right, so what’s your favorite meal in town?

Whatever my wife is serving on Gibbes Street.