THEY RANGED in age from 26 to 87. They were three men and six women gathered in the one place you’re supposed to be safe: the bosom sanctuary of the black American church.
But on June 17, Dylann Storm Roof pulled his 2000 Hyundai Elantra into the parking lot of the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., walked inside, pulled out a .45 Glock pistol an hour later, and took their nine lives.
For the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel Simmons Sr., Myra Thompson and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, that sanctuary on Calhoun Street vanished. For the rest of us, what vanished were any remaining well-nurtured illusions that pure, unalloyed, unapologetic racism doesn’t exist in the United States.
Bahari Sellers asked on MSNBC: “If you can’t be black in a church, where can you be black in this country?”
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But the other, deeper, more uniquely American tragedy is there as well. Roof had his reasons for doing what he did, but reason itself had nothing to do with any of them. We knew that once it was learned he hoped to start a race war. We knew that after two private citizens and part-time bloggers discovered Roof’s manifesto on another undisclosed web site. On that site, under the heading of “An explanation,” Roof offered his own cracked manifesto, explaining the actions to come:
“I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. 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. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
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THE MURDERS in Charleston were swiftly followed by champions of the non-diagnosis, those who refused to see any causal connection between Roof’s meticulous, procedural plan of execution and the virulent bigotry that motivated him to follow through on that plan.
On June 19, Bill Maher cut to the chase on his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher “The Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, said, ‘We’ll never understand.’ Jeb Bush: ‘We can’t know.’ Jindal, Lindsay Graham, all of them said some version of, ‘It’s incomprehensible. There’s no way to know what motivated a racist to kill black people,’” Maher said. “Fellas, you know what? When a guy like this talks about, ‘The South will rise again,’ he’s not talking about IQ levels. This guy openly said he was trying to ‘start a race war,’ which is delusional ...
“There are words you can’t say on the right. One of them is taxes—as in we’re going to raise them—and one of them is racism. They hate being called ‘racists,’ conservatives, but isn’t denying racism in and of itself a form of racism?”
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a piece published June 21 in The Daily Beast, Olivia Nuzzi and John Avlon turned over the rock of the Council of Conservative Citizens and discovered a sordid history squirming underneath. In their masterful report, Nuzzi and Avlon explain how the Council of Conservative Citizens bears “a dark lineage, descending from the White Citizens Councils that sprang up throughout the deep South as part of the “massive resistance” to desegregation, spurred by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.”
The reporters explore the history of the council from the heyday of the Jim Crow era up to the year 2007 — when a statement of principles made it clear that the Council opposed “all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action’ and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”
This in 2007. In such an environment, with such a relentless and poisonous history to motivate him, what Dylann Roof did on June 17 wasn’t just possible, it was almost inevitable.
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THE ZERO-sum-game mentality reflected in the thinking of the Council of Conservative Citizens is all of a piece with an older generation of white Southerners chronologically long removed from the Civil War but fully versed in the Jim Crow era and the years after.
It’s a matter of identity, in their case an identity that’s a product of both regional pride and racial hatred. The old wounds and slights from losing the Civil War, the outrage and resentments over social advances in the Jim Crow era — all have been handed down from one generation to the next; Dylann Roof is just one of the latest to brandish inheritance of this malignant heirloom.
The others are the various nightcrawlers who set fire to at least three mostly black churches in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee ... in the past week. Two other fires — one in South Carolina, one in Ohio — are being investigated as possible arson, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
And last night, the evening of July 1, the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, a century-old church in Greeleyville, an hour from Charleston, was burning — an eerie repeat of a fire started by the Ku Klux Klan almost exactly 20 years ago. WACH Fox 567 and The Root reported on Tuesday.
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The event was supposed to be an eulogy for Pinckney and the president struck all the right notes in saying goodbye to a beloved clergyman and state senator. “Preacher by 13. Pastor by 18. Public servant by 23. What a life Clementa Pinckney lived. What an example he set. What a model for his faith. And then to lose him at 41 — slain in his sanctuary with eight wonderful members of his flock, each at different stages in life but bound together by a common commitment to God.”
But Obama offered a short course in the importance of the black church in the weave of American history and African American culture. “Over the course of centuries, black churches served as ‘hush harbors’ where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah; rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.
“They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.”
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AND AS he’s done before, President Obama found the connection between the micro and the universal, between one event and another, between the recent events and the societal process that made the events possible.
“For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present,” he said. “Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career. ...
“Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system and leads us to make sure that that system is not infected with bias; that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure.
The full transcript of Obama’s speech in Charleston
“Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote. By recognizing our common humanity by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born, and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American – by doing that, we express God’s grace.”
On June 17, Dylann Roof tapped into one vein of the American character, performing an act that, the president said Friday, “drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress.”
Nine days later in a college basketball arena, President Obama sang “Amazing Grace” with 5,500 Americans who bear that grace. They all tapped into another vein of the American character, that deeper reservoir of fellow feeling and commonality, and reminded us all what being an American is supposed to be about.
Image credits: Charleston 9: via CNN.com. Dylann Roof I: Charleston County Sheriff's Office. Roof II: From his website. Mount Zion AME fire: Twitter via The Root. Obama: The New York Times.