Editor’s Note: Robert T. Chase, a professor of history at Stony Brook University, was formerly the public historian at the Avery Research Center, College of Charleston. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Chase: U.S. must have the kind of reckoning Germany had when it enacted national hate crime laws and banned display of the swastika
He says Dylann Roof evoked the same cultural paranoia that animated nearly a century of lynching in the United States
To begin his Charleston massacre, the confessed murderer Dylann Storm Roof coldly told his victims the cause that animated his deadly violence. “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country,” Roof exclaimed, “and you have to go.”
Each of these frightful exclamations – the fear of miscegenation (interracial sex), the fear of black empowerment and the threat of racial genocide – echo a history that lives on today in a visceral lineage of white domestic terrorism. By drawing on the notion of miscegenation and concocted fears of black male sexuality, the murderer evoked the same cultural paranoia that animated nearly a century of lynching in the United States.
In his manifesto, Roof confessed that he chose Charleston because of its connection with history: “I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country.” Stating that “segregation is not a bad thing,” Roof’s blog photographs are littered with historical symbols of racial oppression (both domestic and global): a photograph of Roof standing next to wax slaves, the South African flag during apartheid, Nazi-era symbols, the Rhodesian flag, the burning of the American flag and, most prominently, the Confederate flag.
After the Charleston massacre, we must, as a nation, have the kind of historical reevaluation and cultural reckoning that Germany underwent after the horrors of the Nazi regime when the nation enacted national hate crime laws and made the display of the swastika illegal.
As this year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, it is time that we honestly reckon with our troubled history of racial violence while we cast the symbols of such violence out of our public space and into our national historical memory as symbols that continue to provoke modern-day racist violence.
The first step in this process must be the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state Capitol. A second could be to change the name of the street where the “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church sits from Calhoun Street, named for staunch slavery proponent John C. Calhoun, to Emanuel Street. A third is to initiate national teach-ins on the history of racial violence in America.
Although lacking a mature understanding of American history and race, Roof’s manifesto connects the past with the present by drawing upon the historical ideology of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” a Reconstruction-era ideological tradition that seeks to renew a mythological sense of the Old South’s “white nobility” while simultaneously conducting racial violence to erect the Jim Crow-era “New South.” In citing the case of Trayvon Martin as the catalyst for his murderous mission, Roof drew on the historical tradition of the “Lost Cause” as a violent response to the modern-day Black Lives Matter movement.
Three interrelated ironies of history speak to how we might, as a nation, reckon with this moment of domestic racial terrorism.
First, the day after the shooting in Charleston, the flags at the state Capitol in Columbia stood at half-staff, while the Confederate flag, maintained at the Capitol’s Civil War and Confederate memorial as part of a political “compromise,” flew at full-staff. As a symbol of this living legacy, Glenn McConnell, a former state senator and now president of the College of Charleston, insisted that the removal of the Confederate flag was analogous to “cultural genocide,” so he brokered the political “compromise” that allowed the Confederate flag to continue to fly at the Capitol with the promise that he would never allow “symbolically burying the Confederate banner” because “encasement represents entombment.”
The Confederate flag is prominent on a license plate seen in photos taken of Roof with a car and is the symbol that animated his racial violence (and that of the Ku Klux Klan and a century and a half of racial violence since the Civil War).
A second irony is that while the city of Charleston’s largest newspaper, the Post and Courier, ran a front-page story on the massacre at Emanuel AME Church, the front page had an adhesive gun ad promising: “$30 gets you everything! … Eye/Ear Protection, a Pistol or Revolver, 50 Rounds of Ammo, an Instructor, a Range Pass and a Souvenir T-Shirt.” (The newspaper apologized for what it called “a deeply regrettable coincidence.”)
Guns and rights
Such a stark symbolic contrast reminds us that our nation’s long-standing cultural embrace that equates guns with liberty ignores the degree to which gun violence has historically also meant the suppression of the liberty and freedom of African-Americans. From the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963, to South Carolina’s Orangeburg Massacre of 1968, in which three black students were fired upon and killed by police for protesting segregation, to the assassination of the Rev Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, to last week’s assassination of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the resounding noise of fired shots has silenced voices of religiosity, civil rights and social justice.
The connection between this revered church and civil rights is an integral, but underreported, part of this story. In 1909, Booker T. Washington spoke at Emanuel AME Church; in 1962, King took the civil rights movement to that church; and in 1969, his widow, Coretta Scott King, spoke there to connect the struggle for civil rights with economic justice as she marched in Charleston’s Hospital Workers Strike. The assassination of Pinckney at Emanuel AME Church must be understood in the context of this history of both black spirituality and its connection to civil rights and social justice.
The third historical irony is that the day that Roof killed nine people in prayer also marked the 193rd anniversary of what would have been the Denmark Vesey slave insurrection had it not been foiled by an informant who told Charleston planters of the slaves’ plans to achieve their liberation.
When Charleston planters discovered the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in 1822, Emanuel AME Church was investigated for having a role in the plot, and even though its pastor, the Rev. Morris Brown, was exonerated, he was drummed out of South Carolina and the church itself was summarily burned down.
The church was then forced to close its doors altogether after South Carolina passed a law in 1835 prohibiting any black person – free or enslaved – to worship without the oversight of whites. The church was not resurrected until after the Civil War.
Suppression of black churches
The historical suppression of black-controlled churches and religion has been a response to black resistance. When the civil rights movement demanded an end to the Jim Crow South, the response from white terrorists was to bomb over 300 black churches during the 1960s – the most famous of which was the nightmare bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young girls only three weeks after Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. During the Freedom Summer of 1964, a church burned almost every other day in Mississippi. Perhaps it was these historic examples of violence against black churches during moments of resistance to racial oppression that guided Roof’s fateful and terrible act.
These historic episodes of racial oppression and violence tread a terrible path directly to the door of Emanuel AME Church. Following this path shows both the resiliency of African-American spirituality, religiosity, and a sustained commitment to social justice, as well as the historical effort to silence black religion and stifle civil rights through gun violence.
These three moments help unearth the link between a nation full of guns and the persistent history of racial violence and its attendant symbols.
Only a few weeks ago, the Black Lives Matter movement in Charleston interrupted Sunday brunches at euphemistically named restaurants such as High Cotton when protesters defiantly read the names of African-Americans killed by police gun violence.
They reminded tourists and local diners alike that Black Lives Matter. As we reconcile this act of domestic terror, we must also acknowledge that History Matters, and in light of this history of violence, we must cast aside the display of the Confederate flag as a symbol not only of the past but of the danger that it presents to people in the present.