Home / Commentary / A Violent Act in the Name of White Supremacy: The Charleston Shooting
Google Earth image of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

A Violent Act in the Name of White Supremacy: The Charleston Shooting

Share this story!
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

Guest column by Emily Clark

“We pray that our time here spent today will be seen as an act of love as well as an act of righteous indignation in the face of injustices.” – South Carolina State Senator and Senior Pastor of Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church Clementa C. Pinckney, speaking at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during Civil Rights Ride 2013

“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Dylann Roof reportedly to members of Mother Emanuel AME Church, June 17

Stained glass window donated by the people of Wales after the 1963 bombing of the church. The south-facing window was designed by Welsh artist John Petts and depicts a black Christ with his arms outstretched. The right hand symbolizes oppression, his left is asking for forgiveness. The words "You do it to me" refer to Christ's parable of the sheep and the goats. Photographer Jet Lowe
Stained glass window donated by the people of Wales after the 1963 bombing of the church. The south-facing window was designed by Welsh artist John Petts and depicts a black Christ with his arms outstretched. The right hand symbolizes oppression, his left is asking for forgiveness. The words “You do it to me” refer to Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goats. Photographer Jet Lowe

On the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. was bombed by white supremacists. Four girls were killed. 16th Street Baptist Church was not a random choice.

The Birmingham campaign earlier that year was a watershed moment for the civil rights movement. Photographs of Bull Connor’s men turning fire hoses on non-violent protestors forced the nation to pause and consider segregation. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail in April of 1963. Throughout the Birmingham campaign, 16th Street Baptist Church was an organizing hub. Peaceful demonstrations were planned there. Some marches began at its doors. This made it a target. When it was bombed that fall, the reason was clear. It was bombed because it was a center of the black freedom struggle.

On the evening of June 17, Dylann Roof watched a Bible study in Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. before opening fire. He shot and killed nine people at close range. Emanuel AME Church was not a random choice.

Emanuel Church was not the first black church in the South, but it was the first AME church south of Baltimore. Founded in 1787 in Philadelphia by Richard Allen, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a black denomination, formed in protest against racial discrimination in St. George’s Methodist Church, where many black Methodists in Philadelphia worshipped. For similar reasons, black Methodists in Charleston formed their own church in 1818 and quickly affiliated Emanuel with Bishop Allen’s AME Church. From the beginning, whites in Charleston were suspicious of Emanuel AME Church. Like many other black churches in the 19th century and early 20th century, Emanuel was more than a place of worship. The church was a community center, and it was a school, dangerously teaching reading and writing to free blacks and slaves. For this reason white Charleston officials temporarily closed the church shortly after it opened. Leaders were arrested, fined, and whipped. But it would be in 1822 that the city would burn the church down.

One founding member of Emanuel was free black and former slave Denmark Vesey. A carpenter in his mid-50s, Vesey was respected among Charleston’s African American population. He was one of the teachers in the Emanuel school. He also had a plan. According to white Charleston leaders, Vesey and others were going to rebel on Bastille Day 1822. Supposedly, free blacks and slaves throughout the Charleston area would rise up, raid the local arsenal, kill white leaders and slave owners, and free all nearby slaves. If successful, the rebellion could have altered American history. But it wasn’t. Rumors of the planned revolt spread across Charleston, likely the result of nervous slaves. The date was moved up to from July 14 to June 16. The rebellion would begin at midnight, which meant June 17 was the real first day of the rebellion. June 17.

Emanuel AME Church, rebuilt after the Civil War/Courtesy Emanuel AME website
Emanuel AME Church, rebuilt after the Civil War/Courtesy Emanuel AME website

But it didn’t happen on either July 14 or June 17. Vesey and his co-conspirators were found out by white Charleston officials. They were tried and found guilty. The courts sentenced Vesey and 34 others to hanging. Another 35 slaves and free blacks, including Vesey’s son Sandy, were re-enslaved and deported in chains to Spanish Cuba. Emanuel AME Church was shut down and burned down. In 1834, the law forced all black churches in Charleston to practice their religion either underground or under the supervision of whites. Black churches like Emanuel wouldn’t rebuild and reopen until the end of the Civil War.

The targeting of Emanuel AME Church was not random, nor was the date of the shooting. It was calculated. It was brutal. It was white supremacy. Considering Roof’s target, his choice of date, and his reported words about African Americans “taking over our country,” identifying this as a hate crime is easy. A violent act in the name of white supremacy. What’s difficult is finding a way forward.

White supremacy is more than the Ku Klux Klan. It’s more than the Aryan Nations. It’s more than the Christian Identity Movement. White supremacy is more than its historical and present defenders. There are real effects of white supremacy, and you don’t have to defend it to benefit from it. White privilege is the result of centuries of white supremacy. Recognizing the violent past of white supremacy is easy. White Americans need to do more than condemn the Charleston shooting. We need to recognize it as a product of our history. We need to face it and talk about it. We need to be quiet and listen to persons of color. Only then can all of us, whites and persons of color, try to find a way forward.

 

Emily Suzanne Clark, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University where she teaches classes on American religious history.

 

Emily Clark

About Emily Clark

Dr. Emily Suzanne Clark is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. She specializes in American religious history with a focus on the intersections of religion and race in American history and culture. She received a B.A. from Austin College, her M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Missouri, and a Ph.D. in Religion from Florida State University. In addition to American religious history and religion and race, her research and teaching interests include African American religions, American Catholic history, religious material culture, and religion and politics. She has published on the Moorish Science Temple, African American Catholicism, and religion in the U.S. South. Her current book project, A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-century New Orleans, explores the politics of talking to the dead. She is an active member of the Gonzaga Digital Humanities working group and is the Associate Editor for the Journal of Southern Religion.
When not teaching, reading, or researching, she can be found hiking and running about the area and playing soccer in the local Spokane adult leagues.

Visit My Website
View All Posts

Check Also

We Need Justice and Forgiveness

First, forgiveness and seeking justice are not the same thing. While they are both other-regarding and virtuous, there are important differences.

2 comments

  1. “White privilege is the result of centuries of white supremacy. Recognizing the violent past of white supremacy is easy. White Americans need to do more than condemn the Charleston shooting. We need to recognize it as a product of our history. We need to face it and talk about it. We need to be quiet and listen to persons of color. Only then can all of us, whites and persons of color, try to find a way forward.”

    What does this mean practically, right here in Spokane?
    This is offered as a diagnoses but is ‘talking and listening” the only prescription?

    • The thing about implicit bias is that it’s difficult to address explicitly. I think the first step needs to be a widespread, non-defensive, honest awareness and admission of the problem. I think children should be administered multiple versions of the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) at the beginning of the school year, and curricula should be adjusted to overcome these unconscious biases. Moreover, I think it’s something adults should attempt often, because most of the people who perpetuate racism don’t consciously know (or at least won’t admit) that they’re racist.

      Having identified the problem, “talking and listening” become our most effective tools to address it. You can pile on layer after layer of regulations and prohibitions, but the only way to address the root of the problem, the underlying structures that inevitably create racist outcomes, is to change your fundamental understanding of the world and how it works. This is why Jesus taught in parables–it’s one thing to tell a crowd of people “everyone in need is your neighbor”–they all nod reverently, murmur assent and then go away unaffected–it’s quite another to invite them to walk in the sandals of the good Samaritan, and the Priest, and the Levite, and even the naked, bleeding man in the gutter. To encounter these people doing the wrong things for the “right” reasons urges us to question ourselves when we feel tempted to hurt someone because we think it’s the “right” thing to do.

      In addition to these conversations, of course, art has a powerful transformative potential. Think back to the values you carried out of childhood, the sense of right and wrong you first developed. Odds are it was a reflection not only of the Bible stories you read/had read to you, but of Seuss, and Disney, and the Little Pokey Puppy. The tales we tell and hear in our most formative years are the best tool for moral transformation that we have at our disposal. And of course, moral transformation does not end with the passing of childhood; it merely gets more difficult. Just look at Twain, or Dostoevski, or Dickens–indeed, any author with a prophetic, moral voice. Or if literature isn’t your thing, try film–the Wachowskis have a compelling, if occasionally unsubtle, series on NetFlix right now called “Sense8,” and on the topic specifically of race, I strongly recommend a little film called “White Man’s Burden.” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114928/?ref_=nv_sr_1)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *