‘Things Fall Apart’: On Mother Emanuel and White Terrorism

We are a nation sick with racism, refusing to seek comprehensive treatment, and black people are disproportionately suffering because of it.

Charleston County Sheriff’s Office via Getty Images

Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Natchez, Miss., the church of my youth, was established in 1866, approximately 50 years after Emanuel AME Church, referred to as “Mother Emanuel,” in Charleston, S.C.

It is the intertwining legacies of these two institutions that came to mind when I first heard that Emanuel’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, was one of nine people killed allegedly by 21-year-old domestic terrorist Dylan Storm Roof Wednesday night. The Rev. Pinckney, who also served as a South Carolina state senator, followed in the footsteps of Hiram Rhodes Revels, Zion Chapel’s first pastor, who served as a Mississippi state senator before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1870.

By all accounts, Pinckney fought tirelessly for racial equality in a state that continues to honor the Confederate flag, speaking out in support of police body cameras after the shooting death of Walter Scott by former North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager. Tragically, it is not completely shocking that he would be assassinated by a coward who lived by the same morally bankrupt code by which that flag remains firmly planted.

Roof, by several accounts a 21-year-old racist high school dropout with segregationist and Civil War fantasies, entered a prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel and asked for the pastor, reports the New York Times. Once he was directed to Pinckney, he sat beside him for one hour before suddenly standing and aiming his weapon at Susie Jackson, 87, according to the Times.

Jackson’s nephew Tywanza Sanders, 26, tried to reason with Roof, telling him that he “didn’t have to do it,” according to his cousin Kristen Washington, who was not there but heard the story from an unnamed woman who survived, the Times reported.

That’s when Roof allegedly said, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Then he opened fire, the Times reported, first killing Sanders, who tried in vain to save his aunt Susie Jackson’s life by diving in front of her, followed by the Rev. Pinckney; the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; Myra Thompson, 59; Ethel Lee Lance, 70; Cynthia Hurd, 54; the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; and the Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., 74.

Sanders’ mother, Felicia, and her 5-year-old great-niece survived the massacre by playing dead.

The threat that Roof, on the run and armed, posed wasn’t “perceived,” as is the excuse typically given when innocent and unarmed black people are gunned down around the country by thugs with badges—or men whose whiteness grants them the same freedom and authority to kill with impunity. And he was quietly captured 200 miles away in Shelby, N.C., and escorted to a plane that transported him back to Charleston without a blond hair on his head out of place.

As usual, killing while white affords you protection and the presumption of innocence, while existing while black gets you killed.

True to form, a mainstream media complex crafted to perpetuate white supremacy has quoted family members describing Roof as “quiet and soft-spoken,” and his sadistic smile has been described by media as “baby-faced.” Just as insulting, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley pulled out her best version of white tears as she led law enforcement on a victory lap for capturing the racist killer.

She insisted that we should “lift” them up—a very calculated political statement in the wake of backlash against unhinged law-enforcement officers who stay trigger-happy in the presence of African-American people—but she failed to mention that we should also “lift up” the victims of racial terrorism in her state. Instead, she gave an “all lives matter” speech, waxing poetic about the “heart and soul of South Carolina [being] broken.”

Let’s be clear: Haley’s commitment to flying a flag drenched in the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved Africans, and her stance that state hate crime legislation is not needed, proves that she doesn’t give a damn about the souls of black folks. To paraphrase Audre Lorde, her guilt does not serve us, and she’s better off saving her tears for someone else, possibly the hypocritical white Christians who screamed #IAmCharlie in support of Islamophobic free speech, but have yet to declare #IAmCharleston.

Maybe they can console each other.

As is the black church’s custom, Roof was freely allowed into Mother Emanuel’s congregation, only to have him spit in the face of their Jesus, showing that not only did he hate their black lives, but he also hated their black institutions and took pleasure in making a mockery of their black faith. This is why there are some people, myself included, who question civil rights leaders calling for prayer when the same God that they’re asking people to pray to allowed the devil to open fire in his house.