Nothing seems to define the absolute worst of 21st century America quite like a bitter white guy with a chip on his shoulder and a gun in his hand. Such was the case in Charleston, South Carolina, where a twenty-one year old, bowl-cut-sporting, would-be Grand Wizard named Dylann Storm Roof allegedly opened fire into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing nine people in cold blood.
Of course, it’s no surprise whatsoever that Roof appears to have ties to have white supremacist organizations, as a picture on his Facebook page shows the little tool posing like a scowling cherub on the cover of a crappy teenage metal band’s first self-produced EP while wearing the patches of Apartheid-era South Africa and the former white-dominated Rhodesia, now modern-day Zimbabwe. Reports from the Emanuel church claimed that just before he opened fire on parishioners, Root stated that, “I have to do it, you rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
So while police and the news media will spend the next several weeks pouring over the background and motivations of the latest caucasian culprit behind what seems to be America’s ten-billionth mass-shooting (for freedom, of course), Roof’s actions call to mind a violent legacy of racially motivated terrorism against black churches that has, unfortunately, characterized much of U.S. history.
White supremacists of all stripes have long targeted the black church as a symbol of unwanted and undeserved black agency in what was supposed to be a white man’s nation. In the antebellum era, for example, southern slaveholders were always deeply suspicious of their slaves becoming religious for all the wrong reasons. The South’s white master-class didn’t want to completely bar slaves from learning about Christianity; after all, the path to Jesus was the “civilized” path that led blacks out of the “savagery” of Africa and into the Promised Land of Anglo-Western spiritual superiority. But slaveholders demanded that blacks learn the master-class approved brand of Christianity.
This was a Christianity that emphasized black obedience to whites and gratitude for the paternalistic blessings that the Lord bestowed upon slaves via the benevolent hands of slaveholders who gave their chattel food, shelter, work, and, above all, civilization. The Georgia clergyman Rev. A.T. Holmes epitomized this slaveholder-approved Christianity in his 1851 essay The Duties of Christian Masters. “The Apostle, Paul, in writing to the Ephesian Church, (Eph. vi., 5-8,) exhorts servants to obedience. They are admonished, that cheerful obedience is the will of God,” Holmes wrote. For the slaveholders, slaves were to show “obedience” to God by obeying their masters.
The Christianity that slaveholders tried to foist on blacks was, above all else, defined by total submission to whites. Indeed, the last thing that slaveholders wanted was for slaves to get acquainted with the “wrong” kind of Christianity: the kind that emphasized Moses leading an enslaved people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, the kind that featured Jesus predicting how an earthly future lay in the hands of the meek. This kind of Christianity — the kind that preached liberation and deliverance — was not cool with slaveowners. The master-class did their absolute darndest to monitor or outright suppress much independently organized black religiosity — especially the black church — lest the slaves get the wrong idea about their lot in life.
From the slaveowners’ standpoint, the black church was a real threat. In fact, religious blacks who came to understand Christianity as the path to liberation from white supremacy orchestrated one of the most famous slave revolts in U.S. history: the 1822 South Carolina uprising led by Denmark Vesey.
Denmark Vesey was a former South Carolina slave who purchased his freedom in 1799. A deeply religious and educated man, in 1818 Vesey co-founded a congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the first independent black churches in America. This church was an explicit attempt to escape the white dominance of the existing churches in Charleston. In 1822, Vesey planned a rebellion in concert with churchmembers with the goal of rallying slaves to kill their masters and then flee to Haiti, a country that came under black rule in 1804 following a massive slave revolt known as the Haitian Revolution. Vesey’s plan failed, however, when two slaves who were in on the plot ratted him out to whites, who executed Vesey and his co-conspirators and torched the black church that helped spawn the evil of slave rebellion. If you’re wondering why the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston is “historic,” it’s because Denmark Vesey was one of its founding members.
But even after the Civil War and the destruction of slavery, whites continued to view the black church as a symbol of black rebellion and resistance: the ultimate breeding ground for “uppity” negroes. During the Reconstruction Era, white terrorists organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Leagues relentlessly targeted black churches with violence and intimidation. In the wake of emancipation, black churches were more than just houses of worship: they served as community centers, educational institutions, and rallying grounds for black political activism. Southern whites, of course, didn’t take kindly to them colored folks wantin’ to partake in politickin’ and book larnin,’ and they reacted accordingly. Klan riders went on nighttime raids to torch black churches and beat and murder parishioners.
Whites viewed the schooling that took place in black churches with particular disdain. During Radical Reconstruction, blacks could vote, and an educated black was an educated voter, and since blacks outnumbered whites in most of the South, this was a problem for a whole lot of Bubbas with a whole lot of shoulder-chips. As historian Richard Paul Fuke notes, “for rural blacks, the church-school combination served as a highly visible center of community aspirations on land theat they owned themselves.” Thus, black churches suffered a wave of white attacks throughout the latter-half of the 19th century. In December 1864, for example, white arsonists in Somerset County, Maryland torched a black church where parishioners were trying to start a school. In the fall of 1865 in Kent County, Maryland, white terrorists set fire to multiple black churches over the course of three weeks. Similar instances occurred across the South, as black places of worship became racially charged, political battlegrounds.*
Indeed, black churches remained targets for white terrorists well into the 20th century. The prominent role that black houses of worship played in planning and organizing peaceful resistance during the Civil Rights Era continued a two-century old tradition of black political organization. As a result, white blowback came in the form of firebombings and nighttime harassment. In the most infamous example, on September 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan terrorists detonated a bomb in the 16th Street Black Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young black girls and injuring dozens more. Decades later, following President Barack Obama’s historic reelection on the night of November 7, 2012, white arsonists set fire to a predominantly black church in Springfield, Massachusetts as a way of “protesting” the election results.
If Dylann Storm Roof’s cold-blooded attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was indeed racially motivated, as appears to be the case, his savage act fits sadly into one of the most depressing and violent traditions in American history. Even in the 21st century, black cultural and political activism continues to be a threat to a small — but still very potent minority — of white terrorists. In the 21st century, the black church carries a symbolic political weight, a weight that it’s already carried for centuries and will continue to carry, the Dylann Storm Roof’s of the world be damned. In so-called “post-racial” America, the past is still very much alive in a very deadly way.
* See Richard Paul Fukes, “Land, Lumber, and Learning: The Freedmen’s Bureau, Education, and the Black Community in Post-Emancipation Maryland,” in Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, eds., The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999), 296.