Historical Reflections on the June 2015 Terrorism in Charleston

The following article, published in the June 2015 edition of the Baptist Studies Bulletin, is a slightly expanded version of an article that was first published online at Baptists Today.

On the morning of Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in the wake of many seemingly unjustified killings of black men throughout America, including in North Charleston, South Carolina Senator Clementa Pinckney was in his senate office. A senator since 2001, he was known for having been one of two senate members to cast “No” votes against a Voter ID law designed to suppress black votes. He cast this vote and others under the shadow of the Confederate flag on the state Capitol grounds in Columbia.

That afternoon Pinckney, a pastor, drove from Columbia to Charleston in order to lead several church meetings at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, including a Wednesday night Bible study. The same afternoon a young white man, Dylann Roof, from the Columbia area, drove to Charleston, to Pinckney’s church.

Both men carried with them the Civil War legacy of a state and region yet rent asunder by racism and hatred. Pinckney bore the name of Charles Pinckney, early South Carolina governor, signer of the United States Constitution, largescale slaveholder, and zealous defender of black slavery. Charles Pinckney demanded that slavery be preserved in the Constitution, and he and his fellow South Carolina delegates got their way. Roof bore within him the same white supremacist ideology of Charles Pinckney, an ideology that from the antebellum era through the 1960s led to untold white terrorist atrocities against blacks, including thousands of lynchings and other murders, as well as hundreds of thousands of other violent and depraved acts against black men, women and children.

The city of Charleston also bore a southern legacy. The ideological center of the slave-holding South, Charleston more than any other city was responsible for the growth of black slavery in the 19th century as the economic engine of the South. The city also led the way in the southern rebellion against the United States in order to preserve the institution of black slavery.

In addition, the Emanuel A.M.E. Church also bore a legacy from the past. In 1822 Denmark Vesey, a free black and co-founder of the church, sought to rally Charleston’s enslaved blacks to an insurrection against plantation owners. City leaders, learning of the plot, put to death Vesey and many of his co-conspirators, burned the church to the ground, and shortly thereafter enacted “Act to Establish a Competent Force to Act as a Municipal Guard for the Protection of the City of Charleston and its vicinity.” The Citadel arsenal and military academy was thereafter established to guard against future slave rebellions.

Amidst generations of slavery and oppression, many black Southerners considered the black church as the one institutional refuge where they should be safe from the ever-lurking presence of racism and hatred. Nonetheless, hundreds of terrorist bombings and burnings of black churches throughout the 20th century to the present have been particularly painful to America’s black community. The election of Barack Obama as U.S. president brought renewed hope and a sense of pride among black citizens, yet also spurred a surge in the growth of white supremacist groups in the nation.

Against this backdrop Dylann Roof was welcomed into Charleston’s A.M.E. church on June 17 by pastor Clementa Pinckney, as he would have been in any other black church in America. But in the midst of the Bible study Roof became argumentative and then violent. “You rape our women and you are taking over our country,” he told church members, as he gunned down nine of the twelve present at the Bible study. Dylann’s words echoed the false narrative perpetuated by white southerners in the post-Civil War years. In reality, the raping of black women by white men was commonplace from antebellum days until well into the 20th century. Accusing black men of such largely-fictitious crimes allowed guilty white men to deflect attention from their own widespread, heinous acts.

Roof’s murder of nine black individuals with an ill-begotten gun represents yet another Southern legacy. In the late 18th century Southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention insisted that the newly-formed United States recognize the right of slaveholding states to raise militias to put down slave rebellions. “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” read the final wording of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, providing slaveholding states the security they demanded.

But the gun story does not end there. As late as the 1970s the National Rife Association (founded 1871) supported gun control, including laws allowing the government to prohibit criminals and the mentally ill from owning firearms. Had the NRA remained true to their heritage of gun control, Roof, arrested on felony drug charges prior to the shooting, may have been prevented from obtaining a firearm.

Upon his capture Roof appeared in a courtroom, where members of the Emanuel A.M.E. church and family members of the victims, despite pain and anguish over the losses of loved ones, told the young man they forgave him. Here the southern legacy of racism and hatred again raised its ugly head as Roof stood before a white South Carolina judge, James B. Gosnell, known for his racist remarks in the courtroom, including referring to blacks as “n…rs.” True to form, Gosnell immediately set off a furor by equating the murdered and Roof’s family as equal victims, leading to social media petitions calling for his removal from the case.

The Sunday following the terrorist massacre the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church held worship services. “The doors of the church are open,” declared the Rev. Norvel Goff during prayers. “No evildoer, no demon in hell or on Earth can close the doors of God’s church.” Black cloth, weeping and hugging accompanied hymns and the sermon. “It’s by faith that we are standing here and sitting here,” Goff said. “It has been tough. It has been rough. Some of us have been downright angry. But through it all God has sustained us.”

Generation ago slaveowners and the Ku Klux Klan claimed to be following the will of God. White supremacists of the present day often claim to be Christians, as do many others who are racists and people of hate. None of these Jesus would have recognized as his followers.

Jesus taught that all persons are to love others as themselves. The U.S. Declaration of Independence declared the inherent equality of all persons. Adam Smith, the father of free markets and modern economics, defined capitalism as an economic system that distributes wealth equitably. Yet to the present day America remains a nation divided, a nation in which equality remains unrealized, the average wealth of black families is about 5% of that of white families, and many whites look upon blacks with suspicion and condescension. It is little wonder that unrest and anger remains rampant within the black community, and greater wonder that members of the Emanuel A.M.E. church can forgive the terrorist who took so many lives.

America is a nation yet entangled in a legacy of white supremacy and hatred, a legacy summed up by the Confederate flag that flies on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol. Removing the flag would be a small step toward healing. Integrated houses of worship as the norm in the Deep South would be a larger step forward. And legislative, judicial and economic equity for blacks and other minorities would place America on a far higher moral and ethical plane than ever before.