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

Dylann Storm Roof is seen in his booking photo after being apprehended June 18, 2015, as the main suspect in the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in which nine people were killed in Charleston, S.C. The 21-year-old is suspected of gunning down the nine people during a prayer meeting at the church, which is one of the nation’s oldest black churches.  
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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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. 

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Prayer did not save them.

We live in a nation that systematically de-arms African Americans while fighting disproportionately for the Second Amendment rights of white Americans, leaving our communities vulnerable to these kinds of white terrorist attacks. In 1840, reports The Telegraph, the North Carolina Supreme Court passed a statute that said: “If any free negro [sic], mulatto, or free person of color shall wear or carry about his or her person, or keep in his or her house, any shotgun, musket, rifle, pistol, sword, dagger or bowie-knife … he or she shall be guilty … and indicted therefore.” This goes hand in hand with the Mulford Act, known as the Panther Bill, of 1967, which was approved so that African Americans would not be able to defend their communities.

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What happens, then, if we arm our communities and dare a white terrorist to try to infiltrate it?

At some point we’re going to have to talk about that.

President Barack Obama, who once again employed the careful language he reserves for public statements on white pathology, did not once say that this was an act of domestic terrorism. He did not once call Roof a thug as he skimmed over the United States’ history of violence against African-American churches. He chose to focus instead on an election-cycle statement about gun reform. He quoted a race-neutral message by Martin Luther King Jr., whose mother, Alberta Williams King, was assassinated inside Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1974, while failing to mention that the United States, with its investment in white supremacy, was complicit in the Mother Emanuel massacre.

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If it wasn’t a gun, it would have been a bomb; if it wasn’t a bomb, it would have been arson. We are a nation sick with racism, refusing to seek comprehensive treatment, and black people are disproportionately suffering because of it.

At some point we’re going to have to talk about all of that, but today I’m thinking about my grandmother’s hands as she adjusted the hem of my slip in the pews of Zion Chapel, AME. I’m thinking about my uncle singing “The Lord’s Prayer.” I’m thinking of my Sunday school teachers and the pastors who baptized me and officiated my wedding.

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Most important, I’m thinking about the nine victims of the terrorist act at Mother Emanuel and the family and friends they leave behind. There are Dylann Storm Roofs all across the country, and the atrocities that occurred in South Carolina could have happened anywhere. Black safety is an illusion, and even our most sacred spaces are exposed to the venom of those who hate us.

The days ahead will be rife with political-dodgeball debates on racism, gun control, white supremacy, and the continued and pervasive dehumanization of black lives. Today, though, we mourn and we rage. We brace ourselves for that inevitable moment when it happens again.

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Because this is America.

Infestations of racism will continue to gnaw relentlessly at this country’s white supremacist foundation—weakening it along its fault lines—until things fall apart and it all comes down.

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