White Supremacist Terrorism in Charleston, and in Our History

I’ve been closely following the news from Charleston, where a white supremacist shot and killed nine people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last night. As I write this, it appears that the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, has been arrested in North Carolina.

The church that was the target of the shooting is a historic landmark and site of black resistance, and has been for centuries. Yesterday was the 193rd anniversary of Denmark Vesey’s aborted slave revolt. Vesey was an early member of the church (I’ve heard even a founding member, but am unsure), which was burned down as the revolt’s organizers were hanged.

When the shooter was first identified, a Facebook profile picture was circulated that showed him wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid South Africa and white-rule Rhodesia on it. The state of South Carolina flies the Confederate flag over the capitol.

There is a deep history to white supremacy and black resistance to it. It’s a violent history. It’s one we need to reckon with, and that we haven’t. I’ll paraphrase Angus Johnston by saying that we need to do more to teach the long history of racial violence, as part of an effort to raise anti-racists (do read the linked tweets, please).

Just as important is the history of the struggle. Teaching about resistance against hate, against oppression, is an imperative if we are to continue resisting these things. Just today, several pieces were published about the role of the AME church in the history of both white supremacist violence and black resistance.

Jamelle Bouie calls Emanuel AME Church “a historical symbol of black resistance to slavery and racism,” and Dave Zirin wrote a short piece detailing the long history of its place in 300 years of anti-racist, abolitionist history. This article on the place of black churches as symbols in American history is worth reading, in full. Here’s an excerpt on this AME church in particular:

while black churches have long been seen as a powerful symbol of African American community, they have also served as a flashpoint for hatred from those who fear black solidarity, and as a result these edifices have been the location for many of our nation’s most egregious racial terrorist acts.

Further, the very spot of land on which the Emanuel Church is built has witnessed much of this sobering history. In the summer of 1822, white residents of Charleston, South Carolina, discovered that one of their worst fears had come true: a slave conspiracy to rise against their masters and slaughter all white residents was afoot in the city. The accused ringleader, Denmark Vesey, was a former slave who had been a free carpenter in Charleston for two decades. His insurrection was supposedly planned to take place on July 14—Bastille Day. Once the plot was uncovered, however, authorities were swift with retaliation: 131 men were charged with conspiracy, 67 were convicted, and 35, including Vesey, were hanged. While historians today debate the extent of the conceived rebellion, the event proved formidable in confirming southern angst over an “internal enemy” and white supremacists knew they had to respond quickly and violently.

That Vesey was one of the founders of the Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church was no mere coincidence. To those that pushed prosecution, the church was central to the conspiracy. The year prior, city officials had closed the church because they feared it was breaking slave codes concerning unsupervised black gatherings after sunset and the law against teaching slaves to read. Charleston authorities depicted Vesey’s frustrations over their suppression of church activities as one of his three primary motivations. (The other two being the Haitian Revolution and the debates over the Missouri Compromise.) The punishment for these sins was the noose.

There’s a lot of history behind this act of violence. There’s a lot of history behind all of them. This country – this world – is marked by white supremacy. Its an idea that forms the foundations of our country, and its an idea that is tearing it apart. This is all part of our history.

Edit to add: The twitter hashtag #CharlestonSyllabus is a growing collection of suggested readings and other resources for any educator (or person eager to learn), focused on race and violence in South Carolina – and the South more broadly – as well as critical readings of race in America, the Confederacy, and white supremacy in general. Also, remember that this hashtag follows in the footsteps of #FergusonSyllabus, which continues to be a resource on the same issues.

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