Hope and Hate in Charleston
Fortunately for America, Dylann Roof, charged with killing nine African-Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, S.C., was caught within 15 hours of the heinous crime. We have been spared the anguish and fear of a prolonged search that would have left black churches in dread of the possibility of another attack. We should not forget that this was not the first attack on a black church in the South and not the first attack on the Emanuel AME Church itself.
There is a great irony in the suspect’s choice of this church as the target of his hateful attack. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1787 in Philadelphia by Richard Allen to create a church where whites and blacks could worship in equality. He founded “Mother” Bethel when he and other black worshippers walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church (today known as the United Methodist Church) because of discrimination. In 1816, Morris Brown and thousands of other blacks decided to found “Mother” Emanuel AME after leaving the Methodist Episcopal churches in Charleston and surrounding areas.
From the beginning the AME Church was committed to justice for many of the freed slaves who attended their services. It was the first independent black denomination in the United States. So committed to freeing slaves was Brown that he was imprisoned for a year. Then, in 1822, Denmark Vesey was organizing what would have been the largest slave revolt in the United States when he was arrested and executed. Subsequently, Emanuel AME Church was burned to the ground by whites, and black churches were banned from meeting in the Charleston area. The church was later rebuilt.
The pastor of Charleston’s modern-day Emanuel AME, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, stood squarely in the long tradition of justice-seeking clergy to serve in that pulpit. At age 41 he was by all measures an outstanding example of the best of the black church tradition. We may not have known his name nationally, but he not only served the church but also served in the South Carolina Legislature for nearly two decades. He was certainly known locally for his leadership of the community’s response to the April police killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man in North Charleston. Both the Emanuel church and the Rev. Pinckney were important symbols to the black community and to South Carolina as a whole.
Roof is said to have driven two hours specifically to this church and asked for the pastor before he allegedly carried out what is certainly the most deadly terrorist attack on a black church, white church, Sikh or Jewish temple in U.S. history.
According to USA Today: “Police say they thought Roof was the lone gunman within hours of the bloody attack on the church. … Asked whether authorities believe Roof had acted alone, [Charleston Police Chief Greg] Mullen said: ‘We don’t have any reason to believe anyone else was involved.’ ”
Saying Dylann Roof was the lone gunman is not the same as saying he acted alone. He is the latest face and force of white racism in the United States. The suspect walked into Bible study in a historic black church and, as he allegedly started shooting, he reportedly stated that he was there “to shoot black people” and further declared that “you rape our women and you are taking over our country and you have to go.” Nothing in his litany of lies was original to him, but it is part and parcel of the common chatter of the well-established ideology of white supremacy in America.
Roof was undoubtedly in conversation, online and in person, with individuals who taught him the standard version of the racist delusion that fuels the hatred of so many in our country. He wanted his country “back,” and so do a lot of skinheads, Klansmen, Aryans and tea party supporters. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, so I don’t think he was familiar with the history of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa, both of whose flags adorned his jacket in a picture on his Facebook page. On a Web page attributed to him, he identifies himself as “the last Rhodesian.” Rhodesia came and went long before he was born, and apartheid South Africa died the year of his birth.
Roof is part of a racist stream running through America. But it seems to be an underground stream because white America is so keen on denying that racism is alive and that actual racists live among them. Even Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush could not bring himself to admit that the Charleston killer was motivated by racial hatred. “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes,” the former Florida governor said at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference.
Denial of racism and racists allows for ignoring the biggest, most persistent problem in our nation’s history: racism. Denial of racism allows the Confederate flag to fly in South Carolina and Mississippi. Denial of racism allows police officer after police officer to be exonerated for killing unarmed black men. Denial of racism allows mass incarceration to be seen as an acceptable solution to the poor education and unemployment of black men. Denial of racism allows income inequality to be seen as proof that capitalism works. Denial of racism allows Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum to actually say out loud, “They talk about income inequality. I’m for income inequality. I think some people should make more than other people, because some people work harder and have better ideas and take more risk, and they should be rewarded for it. I have no problem with income inequality.”
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No, the Charleston shooter did not act alone. Relatives and friends of Dylann Roof have come forward confessing their clear awareness of his violent hatred of black people. Did they blow it off as just the hotheaded rantings of their brother, cousin, nephew and classmate, hyped up on talk radio and Internet conspiracy theories?
Denial of racism allowed family and friends alike to celebrate his 21st birthday by contributing to his gun fund.
Racism is in the air we breathe. We must proactively clean the air of this kind of thinking, feeling, talking and acting. Silent capitulation to Roof’s hateful views was a quiescence he took for affirmation — affirmation not that they all agreed with him but that they were, at least, engaged in the same conversation.
The perpetrator of this crime did not act alone. He acted in concert with all those who deny that the Confederate flag is an unmitigated symbol of white supremacy. He acted in concert with all those who get political vertigo when they see a black man in the White House. He acted on behalf of all those who want their country “back” from blacks, Jews, Muslims, women, gays, lesbians, transgender people, Latinos and the mongrel immigrants from everywhere other than Western Europe.
Those who want to say he acted alone are also quickest to judge him mentally ill. But this is just the liberal version of the denial of racism. I’ll accept that racism is a form of mental illness when white America admits that it is an epidemic. There are degrees of the racism disorder, and this example is the most extreme form. I do not at all believe that all white people are rabid racists. Most are well-meaning but absolutely unaware of the task at hand, a task that they must engage in vigorously if we are to continue to see real progress in remediating racism in America. There are members in most white extended families who share Roof’s views even if they don’t directly commit violence. If white people really want to help, they don’t need so much to hold hands with blacks but with each other.
From Denmark Vesey to Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama, blacks have been trying to defeat racism from the outside. In an unprecedented scene at the bail hearing for Roof, family members of the dead — many of whom were probably members of the Emanuel AME Church — actually offered forgiveness to and prayers for him. This is also in keeping with the theology of the black church best expressed by King: “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
I was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1979. I joined the United Church of Christ and served a black congregation in Los Angeles for 10 years. But I decided over a decade ago that I would serve a white congregation, if it would have me, to do the kind of bridge work that I felt was key to racial progress in America. But we can only do so much.
This is white folks’ work, and white folks must see it as their problem. Racism and the ideology of white supremacy must be defeated from the inside. So please: Talk to your sons, teach your daughters and lead your grandchildren into the ways of equality and justice, for the sake of us all. This is the only hope we have to overcome the hate that is eating away at the soul of our country.