On June 17th, 2015, the 21 year-old Dylann Storm Roof, entered the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The church, led by the Reverend Clementa Pickney who, in addition to his pulpit, was a state senator, is the oldest traditionally Black Church in the South and has long been a fixture of the struggle for emancipation and civil rights during its almost 200 year history. According to witnesses, Roof sat down with the dozen people participating in weekly Bible study for nearly an hour before he stood up, took out his pistol and began shooting. Before he was done, he had reloaded multiple times and left 9 people dead, including Reverend Pickney. Survivors quickly reported that when his victims implored him to stop, Roof told them, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”
Roof’s victims are Tywanza Sanders, 26, who stood between Roof and his elderly aunt to try to convince him to put away his gun, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a school speech therapist and girls track and field coach, Cynthia Hurd, 54, a librarian for over 3 decades, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, admissions coordinator for Southern Wesleyan University, Ethel Lee Lance, 70, a sexton at Emanuel Church who had worked there for over 30 years, Susie Jackson, 87, Mr. Sanders’ aunt and longtime attendee at Emanuel Church, Myra Thompson, 59, a visitor from Holy Trinity Episcopal Church who had joined the evening’s Bible study, Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., 74, also a visitor to Emanuel Church, and Reverend Clementa Pickney, 41, senior pastor of Emanuel Church and state senator in South Carolina.
Dylann Roof, who is white, was captured by police on Thursday. Pieces of his story are emerging, but it was evident early in the case that deeply rooted racial hatred motivated him. The survivors’ statements make that clear. His selection of one of the most historic icons of the struggle to abolish slavery and to reach legal equality for African Americans makes it clear. His own profile picture on Facebook where he is displaying the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Colonial Rhodesia, both nations where minority white populations governed to the exclusion of the black majority, makes that clear:
And yet, the next morning, when enough of the story was directly in our faces to know that racism and a desire to instill racial terror was front and center, a national media outlet and some political figures were attempting to obfuscate that truth. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, the first woman elected to the governor’s office in South Carolina, and one of only two women of color elected to a governor’s office in American history, issued a statement stating “we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”
South Carolina Senator and candidate for the Republican nomination for President, Lindsey Graham, when asked if the shooting was a hate crime or an act of mental illness, responded saying “Probably both. There are real people out there that are organized to kill people in religion and based on race. This guy is just whacked out…But it’s 2015, there are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.” Senator Graham also defended the Confederate Battle Flag which, due to a quirk of South Carolina law, flies over a memorial adjacent to the state capitol and is the only flag not flying at half mast today.
As the story unfolded, more Republican candidates obfuscated Roof’s obvious intentions. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush initially danced around the question of whether or not Roof was motivated by racial hatred. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum declared the killings an “assault on our religious liberties” without apparently mentioning the racial component of the crime. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry was more willing to attribute Roof’s murders to psychiatric drugs than to racial hatred.
On Thursday morning, Fox’s morning show, Fox & Friends, went out of its way to portray the murders as an attack on Christianity, deliberately setting aside the nature of the church that was attacked and what the survivors were already reporting. Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck even went so far as to comment about how “we’re not safe in our own churches” as if Roof’s intention were not perfectly clear and he could have just as easily murdered people in Hasselbeck’s church.
The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial where they said that Roof’s murders were caused by “a problem that defies explanation” went on to state, categorically, that the institutional racism of the 1950s and 1960s that allowed acts of racist terrorism to go unprosecuted no longer exists. While it is fair to say that the overt White Supremacy of the past is greatly diminished and the influence the Klan once held over elected officials and judicial proceedings is basically no more, it is a horrendous dismissal of reality to say institutional racism no longer exists, and to claim that Dylann Roof’s professed White Supremacist motivations have no explanation. The disparate impact of policing policies of the past three decades on African Americans is not disputable, and we know that when individuals bring their racial prejudices into positions of institutional authority, that can lead to serious economic discrimination. And in a very embarrassing example of the power that racism still holds, Earl Holt, the president of the Conservative Citizens Council, whose website apparently helped to radicalize Dylann Roof until he pledged himself to starting a race war, has been a generous donor to Republican politicians — many of whom are now returning his money or donating it to charity.
To their credit, many of the Presidential candidates who have waffled on Roof’s motivation, have now joined Governor Nikki Haley in stating that it is time for the Confederate Battle Flag to be taken down from the memorial adjacent to the state capitol building.
I wish to be very clear here. What the hosts and producers at Fox & Friends did, and, to a lesser degree, what Senator Graham and Governor Haley, did is an act of erasure. There is no doubt about what motivated Dylann Roof’s terrorism. There was no doubt on Thursday morning even though the production team of a major morning program mightily tried to remove it from their “discussion.” Hasselbeck said the attack happened at a “historic church” rather than a “historic BLACK church” and that omission could not have been more deliberate or more outrageous. The 200 year history of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is wrapped inextricably to the struggles and triumphs of the African American community in the South, and they did nothing less than try to erase that entire history out of some perverse desire to not name racist terrorism inspired by the very worst in our national heritage for what it is.
I do not know the true motivation behind those who cannot bring themselves to unequivocally state that racial hatred and White Supremacy is what drove Dylann Roof to his actions. Perhaps they are racists themselves and sympathize with Roof’s seething hatred and fear of black people. Perhaps they are cynical and see more political utility to casting this as an unknowable act of barbarity or as part of a larger script about religion being under attack. Perhaps they know that a minor but potent part of the constituency and audience are sympathetic to Roof’s motives if not his actions and will respond negatively in the polls or ratings if they hear White Supremacy called out in public. Whatever the reason, there is nothing admirable in failing to call Dylann Roof exactly what he is: a White Supremacist who deliberately chose one of the most iconic symbols of the African American community for an act of terrorism as devastating as any in the 1950s and 1960s.
Jon Stewart, setting aside his normal comedic monologue in favor of more sober reflection perhaps summed up that phenomenon perfectly:
I heard someone on the news say “Tragedy has visited this church.” This wasn’t a tornado. This was a racist. This was a guy with a Rhodesia badge on his sweater. You know, so the idea that — you know, I hate to even use this pun, but this one is black and white. There’s no nuance here.
And we’re going to keep pretending like, “I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.” But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. That’s — that’s — you can’t allow that, you know.
Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, all those guys, ISIS, they’re not s— compared to the damage that we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.
And this is where the role of educators has to be considered very seriously. The victims of Dylann Roof are the latest in a long history of attacks against crucial landmarks in the lives of our African American countrymen and women and against their very lives themselves. The Black Church has been a cornerstone of African American community and activism for centuries, and its role has subjected it to repeated and vicious attacks from the original Klu Klux Klan of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, through the rise of the Second Klan in the 1920s and the waves of riots and violence inflicted upon African American communities across the country, to the waves of violence against the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. White Supremacy and Apartheid always defended itself through violence and terrorism, and while the struggles of the mid-20th Century may have legislatively defeated those institutions, we did not stamp them out of existence. Roof’s attack on a historic Black Church was the first deadly attack since the 1963 Alabama bombing and 1964 murder of civil rights workers, but it was by no means the only attack on a Black Church in the past 52 years.
Americans may like to imagine that we left White Supremacy behind with the 1960s, but it is clear that the hatred still seethes within many of our countrymen, and it is very clear that it boiled over in Dylann Roof spurring him to annihilate members of the Charleston black community as they studied the Bible in one of the cornerstone institutions of that community. And it happened in a state where a sitting United States Senator and Presidential candidate still feels the need to defend the state sponsored flying of a flag that led 100s of 1000s of men into battle to keep blacks in bondage. There is no ambiguity here. Roof is a vicious racist inspired to act by the still present legacies of White Supremacy which we refuse to confront boldly and bluntly. He apparently self radicalized by immersing himself in an online world where White Power advocates work collectively to stir up racial hatred and to advocate for race war — an advocacy that Roof took to its next logical step.
The result is an act of abject terrorism meant to make people feel unsafe in their most precious institutions, which deprives the black community in Charleston of beloved mentors and family members, and which deprives the state of South Carolina of a remarkable, young spiritual and political leader whose potential for good seemed limitless a few days ago:
As a scholar, as an educator, and as a member of a community still seeking racial justice, it is my obligation to passionately denounce not merely Roof’s act of racist terrorism, but also to denounce those who want to strip it of its historical and social contexts and leave it “merely” as the act of one, lone, troubled young man for which none of the rest of us have any responsibility. That is a lie. And it can only be confronted by a passionate and genuine commitment to social justice and for speaking out in defense of social justice. We cannot allow either the media or our leaders to murder both history and the truth when speaking about Charleston without hearing from us.
The martyrs in Charleston — The Honorable Clementa Pickney, 41, Tywanza Sanders, 26, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, Cynthia Hurd, 54, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, Ethel Lee Lance, 70, Susie Jackson, 87, Myra Thompson, 59, and Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., 74 — deserve our resolve and our dedication to social justice.