We Were Never Meant to Survive: A Response to the Attack in Charleston
Friday, 19 June 2015
by Alicia Garza, Truthout | Op-Ed
Wednesday night in Charleston, South Carolina, an act of terrorism was committed against a group of Black people who gathered in prayer. The church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was a site of slave rebellions as far back as 1822 and one of the oldest Black churches in the country.
Our hearts and our prayers are with the families and communities of those who were needlessly killed.
Yesterday, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Storm Roof was arrested alive, suspected to be the gunman in this brutal and horrific tragedy. Roof went to the church and asked specifically for the pastor. He prayed with the congregation, and then after about an hour, he rose and said,
"I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go."
In the days following this one, many in the media will portray Roof as a mentally ill gunman with a troubled past who committed an isolated crime against an unsuspecting group of Black people. Facebook photos show Roof wearing a jacket with patches bearing the flag of apartheid South Africa. However, we at #BlackLivesMatter would assert that this is not, in fact, an isolated incident, but just one incident in a pattern of violence enacted against Black people in this country and around the world.
The real question we should be asking is: Who taught Roof to hate Black people, enough to kill nine of us, in a sanctuary? And can we really say that he is the only one?
The honest answer to the above question is that this country has never valued Black people - even though Black people have been of extreme value for this country.
Where are the calls for accountability for those who taught a young white man to harbor such a serious hatred for Black people? Where is the accountability for a nation that has racism in its very DNA?
We were never meant to survive. We were stolen from our families and our land, brought to this country in the bottoms of boats, chained together like animals. We were forced to work for, nurture and nourish, and build a country that never truly considered us human and still refuses to honor our humanity. The founding documents of this country designate us as only three-fifths of a human being. When we dared (and dare) to reclaim our humanity, we were (and are) beaten, lashed, hung from trees, limbs cut off, set on fire, shot and raped. This isn't something that happened in the past. This is still happening to Black people in 2015. In fact, just a few months ago, Otis Byrd was found lynched, hanging from a tree outside of Jackson, Mississippi.
We were never meant to survive. We argue that Roof's actions are not isolated, are not easily and dismissively attributed to mental illness but instead are reflections of a disease that plagues this country - racism. And we argue that until we grapple, as a nation, with the racist violence that infects this country, we will only see such acts increase.
Roof's words remind us that Black people in this country cannot consider ourselves safe anywhere. We cannot expect protection from the police. We cannot expect to be safe in swimming pools, in churches, in stores, on buses, in our communities or even in our homes. Black children are not safe. And we cannot consider ourselves safe from the daily trauma of witnessing the violence exacted against our communities. In this case, a young Black girl played dead underneath her grandmother's dead body in order to stay alive. Roof left one woman alive, telling her that he wanted her to tell the story of what happened that night.
The truth that needs to be told is that even our nation's first Black President has yet to face the fact that violence against Black people is an epidemic of epic proportions. As the demographics of this country shift to that of majority people of color, there exists both a rational and irrational fear that the very people who have and continue to bear the brunt of such blatant and brutal violence will, at some point, resist. Roof's words, "You're taking over our country. And you have to go" reflect the fear that the right has capitalized on since the 1970s - the fear of the majority becoming the minority.
And, as Black people know so very well, being the minority anywhere can literally mean the difference between life and death.
President Obama made a statement on Thursday, saying, "Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun." Despite what our president says, this is not merely an issue of gun control. In fact, this is an issue of the prevalence of structural anti-Black racism that results, in many cases, in anti-Black violence, and in too many cases, anti-Black murder.
Across the country and increasingly around the world, Black people - young, old and middle-aged; disabled and differently abled; queer; transgender; immigrant; incarcerated and more - have erupted in a wave of rebellion that has transformed our political landscape. And yet, there are still those who, in the face of extreme and unnecessary violence, will use that as an opportunity to call for peace, to distort the real issues, to essentially neutralize what has been bubbling under the surface for a very long time.
But where are the calls for accountability for those who taught a young white man to harbor such a serious hatred for Black people? Where is the accountability for a nation that has racism in its very DNA?
We, as a country, in the face of even more Black lives taken way before their time, have a choice to make. It is no longer a question of whether or not racism exists, nor is it a question of whether or not racism is an epidemic that plagues our very existence. The choice we have to make is whether or not we are willing to take it on in a real way.
Our lives, quite literally, depend on it.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
Alicia Garza is an organizer, writer and freedom dreamer living and working in Oakland, California. She is the special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the nation's leading voice for dignity and fairness for the millions of domestic workers in the United States, most of whom are women. She is also the cocreator of #BlackLivesMatter, a national organizing project focused on combatting anti-Black, state-sanctioned violence. Alicia's work challenges us to celebrate the contributions of Black queer women's work within popular narratives of Black movements and reminds us that the Black radical tradition is long, complex and international. Her activism reflects organizational strategies that connect emerging social movements without diminishing the specificity of the structural violence facing Black lives.
Race, Class, and Violence
By Winslow Myers, SpeakOut | Op-Ed
Black Death: The Rashomon Effect and Our Symbols of Justice
By Arthur Goodridge, Truthout | Op-Ed
Black Lives Matter Activists in South Carolina Demand Reform After Police Killing of Walter Scott
By Juan González, Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! | Video Interview
Why White Terrorists Attack Black Churches
Sanctuaries like Charleston’s AME Church aren’t just places of worship—they’re political institutions that threaten white power.
By Matthew J. Cressler
June 19, 2015
Members of the public continue to pay their respects and leave flowers outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina June 19, 2015, two days after a mass shooting left nine dead during a bible study at the church. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters
On Monday I searched for a new home in Charleston alongside my wife and young daughter; in the fall I begin my first year teaching religious studies at the College of Charleston. On Wednesday I drafted my African American religions course syllabus, featuring a visit to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—a church affectionately known as “Mother Emanuel” for its centrality in the history of black Charleston and the South. On Thursday morning I awoke to news of immeasurable loss facing the Mother Emanuel and greater Charleston community.
In the immediate aftermath of tragedies on this scale, talk quickly turns to the senselessness of violence. President Obama expressed his “deep sorrow over the senseless murders” and noted that “there is something particularly heartbreaking about the death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place a worship.” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley invoked similar terms in a statement that offered prayers for the “victims and families touched by tonight’s senseless tragedy at Emanuel AME Church.” She continued: “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”
The harsh truth is that this act of terrorism was not senseless. The language of “senselessness” implies lack of logic or purpose. The true terror of Dylann Roof’s attack on Emanuel AME is the fact that it fits neatly into an ongoing, blood-soaked history of white violence against black women, men, and children in religious institutions. Roof reportedly told a survivor, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.” Do not be mistaken. This attack embodied white supremacy at its most blunt and brutal. And it is neither inexplicable nor a coincidence that it happened in a “place of worship.”
Black religious institutions were emblems of freedom and thus legitimate targets in the eyes of white supremacists.
We often imagine religious spaces as set apart from other spheres of life, which makes an attack on a church seem especially abhorrent. But the lines that divide the religious from the political have always been more porous than Thomas Jefferson’s imagined “wall of separation” between church and state. Black churches exist as simultaneously religious and political institutions, and that has made them targets. Sermons unpacking scriptural passages also mobilize resistance to racism; hymns that praise God affirm the value of black life in the same breath. For this reason, institutions like Emanuel AME stand as affronts to white supremacy. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass, black churches have long distinguished the “Christianity of Christ” from slaveholding religion, the “Christianity of this land” that is Christian in name only. Because of this, black churches have served as ever-present threats to white power.
When we think of white terrorist attacks on black churches, the first that comes to mind is the infamous civil rights–era bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which claimed the lives of four black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. But to fully understand what has motivated white people to enter black places of worship and kill people for centuries—whether with nooses or bombs or guns—we must look back further still. One hundred and fifty years before Dylann Roof killed nine people at Mother Emanuel and a century before four members of the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, a wave of white Christian violence against black religious people and institutions swept the South.
Gods and spirits, songs and sermons, dancing and drums, scriptures and other sacred stories all played pivotal roles in black resistance to white domination, ever since the first Africans were carried across the Atlantic as slaves. When black Americans became Christian—which did not happen in large numbers until the 18th century—they did so in ways that challenged white assertions of black inhumanity. Slaves identified with the plight of the Israelites in the Book of Exodus and anxiously awaited the day when the wrath of God would rain down on the Egyptland of America, and they too would be set free.
Denmark Vesey is a poignant example of the role of black religion in battling white supremacy. Vesey was among the founding members of Emanuel AME, then known as “the African Church,” and most famous for his leadership in a slave rebellion planned for June 17, 1822—193 years to the day before the Mother Emanuel attack. The church played an instrumental role in supporting Vesey’s thwarted plot, and whites treated the church accordingly. In his social history Black Charlestonians, Bernard Powers Jr. called the formation of the African Church in Charleston “a rebellious act of revolutionary proportions,” and it was punished as such. Once discovered, white Charlestonians executed members and burned the church to the ground. (For more on Vesey, and the plight of the African Church in 1822, read Maurie McInnis’ Slate essay.)
Independent black religious institutions emerged en masse for the first time at the end of the Civil War, 43 years later. Freed from the economic exploitation and dehumanization of slavery, African Americans labored to liberate themselves from the surveillance and control of white religious institutions as well. Black Christians left predominantly white denominations in droves and established their own. In Charleston, Powers reports that in 1859 more than 4,000 African American parishioners remained in four Methodist Episcopal churches; by 1866 those same churches could not count a single black member. On the national level, this trend amounted to nothing short of a “black religious awakening,” as termed by the scholar Eddie Glaude Jr. It represented a “declaration of independence and self-determination” that initiated widespread institution building and led to a flowering of black political power, albeit a short-lived one.
If Emancipation precipitated the rise of independent black churches, Reconstruction’s collapse a decade later transformed those churches into prime targets of a systematic campaign of white terrorism. In the 1870s and 1880s, Northern whites once allied with black abolitionists withdrew their support. The historians David Blight and Edward Blum have both demonstrated how white people in the North and South prioritized reunion with each other over and against the prospect of rebuilding the nation free of white supremacy. With federal troops withdrawn from what had been the Confederate South, black churches and the women and men and children who made them met with destruction and devastation. White Christian paramilitary organizations like the Ku Klux Klan fought to restore white ruling order. (For more on the Klan’s activities in this period, read Kidada Williams’ article in Slate on the long history of white terrorism.) Black religious institutions were emblems of freedom in the face of domination and thus considered legitimate targets in the eyes of white supremacists. Terrorists burned black churches and lynched black people by the thousands. Vigilante violence paved the way for legal Jim Crow apartheid.
The Mother Emanuel massacre should be situated squarely in this long history of African Americans struggling to be free and the death dealing they so often meet because of it. We may never know, on an individual level, what “motivated” Dylann Roof to sit in the pews of Emanuel AME for an hour before killing nine praying people. But we certainly can and do know why white terrorists would target black people in a church. By their very nature, black churches pose threats to white dominance in both quotidian and structural ways. It would be a grave mistake to conclude that this attack bears no meaning, that it cannot be explained, that it does not “make sense.” Black churches and the people who give them life have far too frequently faced death for their resistance to racism. Failing to recognize this most recent attack for what it is does disservice to the lives lost in building this beloved community.
Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Charleston shooting.
Matthew J. Cressler, Ph.D., will be assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Charleston beginning in the fall. Connect with him at matthewjcressler.com.
As Nation Mourns Nine Black Victims of Church Massacre, Details of Suspect's White Supremacy Emerge
Friday, 19 June 2015
By Amy Goodman and Juan González, Democracy Now! Video Interviewhttp://www.democracynow.org/2015/6/19/as_nation_mourns_9_black_victims
A 21-year-old South Carolina man with apparent sympathies to white supremacy has been arrested for the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof reportedly sat with the church members for an hour before before he opened fire. Roof’s capture came as the names of the nine slain African-American churchgoers were released. The Department of Justice is investigating Wednesday’s attack as a hate crime, motivated by racism or other prejudice.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharonda Coleman-Singleton was a 45-year-old mother of three, reverend and high school track coach.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Cynthia Hurd was a 54-year-old librarian. She was the manager at St. Andrews Regional Library since 2011.
AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Simmons was a 74-year-old ministry staff member at EmanuelAME and the former pastor of Greater Zion AME Church in the nearby town of Awendaw.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Myra Thompson was the wife of the Reverend Anthony Thompson of Charleston’s Holy Trinity REC Church.
AMY GOODMAN: The Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor was a 49-year-old mother of four.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ethel Lance was a 70-year-old grandmother who had worked at Emanuel AME for more than three decades.
AMY GOODMAN: Susie Jackson was Ethel Lance’s cousin and the oldest victim of the massacre at the age of 87. She was a longtime member of the church.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Susie Jackson’s nephew, Tywanza Sanders, was the youngest victim at 26 years old. He was a recent graduate of Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina. He graduated from the university’s Division of Business Administration. Before the shooting took place, Tywanza posted a short video clip on Snapchat, where you can briefly see the suspected gunman, Dylann Roof, sitting at a table with all of the victims during the Bible study. Roof reportedly sat with the church members for an hour before he opened fire.
Sylvia Johnson, the cousin of slain pastor Clementa Pinckney, said a survivor described to her what happened inside the church.
SYLVIA JOHNSON: From my understanding, the suspect came to the church, and he asked for the pastor: "Where is the pastor?" They showed him where the pastor was. He sat next to my cousin, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, for throughout the entire Bible study. At the conclusion of the Bible study, from what I understand, they just start hearing loud noises just ringing out. And he had already wounded—the suspect had already wounded a couple of individuals, including my cousin, Reverend Clementa Pinckney.AMY GOODMAN: Sylvia Johnson also recounted what she had been told by the survivor of the assailant’s motives.
SYLVIA JOHNSON: She said that he had reloaded five different times. And her son was trying to talk him out of doing that act of killing people. And he just said, "I have to do it." He said, "You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go."AMY GOODMAN: The suspected gunman, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, fled the church. He was arrested Thursday morning in Shelby, North Carolina. A friend of Roof’s said he wanted to start a new civil war. Dalton Tyler said, quote, "He was big into segregation and other stuff. He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself."
In a photo posted on Facebook, Dylann Roof is seen wearing a black jacket that prominently features the flags of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and apartheid-era South Africa from when the two African countries were ruled by the white minority. Another photo posted online appears to show Roof posing in front of a car with the front plate, license plate, that reads, "Confederate States of America."
The Department of Justice is investigating Wednesday’s attack as a hate crime, motivated by racism or other prejudice. President Obama addressed the nation on Thursday and spoke of the significance of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship. Mother Emanuel is, in fact, more than a church. This is a place of worship that was founded by African Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because it’s worshipers worked to end slavery. When there were laws banning all black church gatherings, they conducted services in secret. When there was a nonviolent movement to bring our country closer in line with our highest ideals, some of our brightest leaders spoke and led marches from this church’s steps. This is a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America.AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’ll be joined by two leaders of two of the most prominent black churches in the country. We’ll also discuss the issue of why so many are afraid to use the word "domestic terrorism." Then we’ll talk about gun control in the United States. Stay with us.
THIS IS THE MAJOR MODERN PUBLIC SYMBOL OF WHITE SUPREMACY IN THESE UNITED HATES:
PHOTOS BELOW: The Confederate flag and an undated photo of Roof sitting on the hood of a car with a Confederate flag on its license plates. The photo was shared by WLTX of Columbia, South Carolina. It has been suggested that the shooting was timed to coincide with two large political rallies in the city, as just hours before Rev. Pinckney met with Hillary Clinton as part of her presidential campaign and Jeb Bush was also due to visit Charleston today. It is understood his appearance has now been cancelled.
Is South Carolina Just Gonna Fly That Confederate Flag Today or What?
by Jia Tolentino
South Carolina, a state that thoughtfully welcomes its 19 known hate groups by flying a Confederate flag over the statehouse, is facing a real quandary today. When a white man walks into a black church—a church that was targeted, surveilled and burned down 200 years ago in a period when black churches were prohibited from meeting without a white person present, and which has since served as a powerful site of resistance to a state that lynched black men as recently as 1947—and is accepted by them in prayer before he opens fire and kills nine people, including a state senator: what are you gonna do with that damn Confederate flag?
When Governor Nikki Haley was asked about the Confederate flag’s dubious official presence in 2014, she answered, “What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
Right, right, nice, nice. Last night, Haley wrote on Facebook, “We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” Haley seems confused, or something—but the rest of us could easily leap to the possibility that a racist murderer might be highly motivated by a number of things, such as racism, as well as a desire to murder, and also maybe a governor who is like, “What I can tell you about this slave-state white supremacy symbol officially sponsored by my administration is that CEOs think it’s pretty chill.”
Anyway, photos show the state flag and the American flag at half-staff above the House:
And the report, so far, is that the Confederate flag is still flying high atop its pole.
Here’s to the wildly unrealistic hope that the next time it’s moved, it’s taken down. But we know, of course, that it won’t be. This breed of racism is the state’s origin, a strand of its DNA: South Carolina was the first state to fly a Confederate flag over war-captured territory, its slave-loving, red-white-and-blue banner marking the official start of the Civil War at Fort Sumter in 1861.
Confederate Flag Flying on South Carolina Capitol Grounds Provokes Anger After Charleston Shooting
June 18, 2015
By AVIANNE TAN
Commentators on social media are calling for the Confederate flag that remained flying outside South Carolina's state house this afternoon after nine people were shot dead at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to be removed on the grounds that it is "insulting" to the victims of the shooting.
Gov. Nikki Haley, who was in tears during a news conference this morning on the mass shooting at the historically black church, previously rejected the notion of removing the flag at a debate last year, saying it was a "sensitive issue" but that she didn't believe the flag presented an image problem for the state because she never had "one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
Haley's press secretary told ABC News today, "In South Carolina, the governor does not have legal authority to alter the flag. Only the General Assembly can do that."
The offices of South Carolina's General Assembly and South Carolina Lt. Gov. Henry D. McMaster did not immediately respond to ABC News' requests for comment.
South Carolina, which is one of five states that still doesn't have a state hate crime law, recently celebrated "Confederate Memorial Day" this past May, during which a large Confederate flag was displayed on the steps of the South Carolina State Capitol.
Many object to the flying of the Confederate flag, which some say recalls the South's support for slavery during the Civil War. Supporters say it's a symbol of southern heritage.
The governor and the state is now under fire on social media, where many are linking the state's acceptance of the Confederate flag to the Charleston shooting, which is being investigated as a federal "hate crime," according to federal authorities.
PHOTO: Confederate re-enactors position a gigantic Confederate flag on the steps of the South Carolina State Capitol building on May 2, 2015 in Columbia, SC
Richard Ellis/Getty Images
PHOTO: Confederate re-enactors position a gigantic Confederate flag on the steps of the South Carolina State Capitol building on May 2, 2015 in Columbia, SC.
There were over 36,600 tweets with the word "Confederate flag" over the past day, according to Twitter analytic service, Topsy.