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The Charleston Massacre and the Confederate Flag

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 – are punctuated with an abiding sense of history that does not exist solely in our past but instead ruptures our present with a visceral lineage of White domestic terrorism.

By drawing on the fear of miscegenation and concocted fears of dangerous Black male sexuality, the murderer reenacted the very same cultural paranoia that animated nearly a century of lynching in the United States. Indeed, Roof had a perverse fascination with a mythologized version of American history. 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 historic 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.

Although lacking a mature and complex understanding of American history and race, Roof’s manifesto giving the reasons for his murderous rampage connect the past with the present by simultaneously 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.” Roof hoped to draw on the historical tradition of the “Lost Cause” as a violent response to the modern-day Black Lives Matters movement.   Roof’s perverse historic sensibility reminds us that our nation’s history of racial violence continues to matter and is not merely a reflection on the past but an ongoing struggle over our present and future.

In the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, we must, as a nation, have the kind of historical reevaluation and cultural reckoning that Germany countenanced following the horrors of the Nazi regime when they 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 evoke 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 might be to change the name of the street where the Emanuel AME Church sits from Calhoun street, named for the staunch proponent of slavery John C. Calhoun, to Emanuel street.

Three inter-related 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 mast, while the confederate flag, maintained at the State Capitol’s civil war and Confederate memorial as part of a political “compromise,” stood at full mast. As a symbol of this living legacy, Glenn McConnell, former State Senator and now current 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 State Capitol with the promise that he would never allow “symbolically burying the Confederate banner” because “encasement represents entombment.” Yet this is the same flag that the murderer Dylann Roof had on his license plate and 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 the AME Church, a front page insert ran a 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.”

Such a stark symbolic contrast in the Post and Courier is more than irony. It 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 liberty and freedom for African Americans. From the assassinations of Medger Evers in 1963, to South Carolina’s Orangeburg Massacre of 1968 where three Black students were fired upon and killed by police for protesting segregation, to Martin Luther King in 1968, to the assassination of Reverend 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 the “Mother” Emanuel AME, in 1962 the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther 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 Pickeney at the 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 confessed murderer Dylann 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 Vessey conspiracy in 1822, the AME Church was investigated for having a role in the plot, and even though its pastor, Reverend 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.

While the nation celebrates the resiliency of Black spirituality in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, the historical suppression of Black-controlled churches and religion was 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 3,000 Black churches during 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. Perhaps it was these historic examples of racial violence against Black churches during moments of resistance to racial oppression that guided Roof’s fateful and terrible act.

These historic episodes of both racial oppression and resistance tread a terrible path directly to the door of the AME “Mother” Emanuel Church. Following this path shows both the resiliency of African American spirituality, religiousity, 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 are not just fleeting ironies of history, but they serve as a stark reminder that unearths the link between a nation full of guns and the ever-persistent history of racial violence and its attendant symbols.

Only a few weeks ago, the Blacks Lives Matter movement in Charleston interrupted Sunday brunches at euphemistically named restaurants such as High Cotton when they defiantely read the names of African Americans killed by police gun violence. They reminded tourist and local diners alike that Black Lives Matter. As we reconcile this act of domestic terrororism, 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 the danger that it presents to people in the present.

Robert Chase is an Assistant Professor of History at Stony Brook University, SUNY.

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