Imagine the scenario. You invite a person, in fact, a stranger, into your home at their request. On the surface he seems to be normal, sincere and interested in getting to know you better and being a part of your life and community. Everything seems to be going smoothly. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the individual you have befriended suddenly pulls out a gun and decides to murder you and your fellow family, friends and associates.
Horrific and almost unimaginable, right? This was the horrifying scenario that took place on at the historic Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17.
This is the house of worship where mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof betrayed the kindness and generosity of the members who granted him permission to worship in fellowship and communion with them. After sitting quietly in a church pew for over an hour, Roof suddenly jumps up, makes the misguided and deluded charge that Black men are raping White women and that Black people are taking over America and must be stopped from doing so.
He then proceeds to gun down various church members, eventually taking the lives of nine men and women. Three of his victims were over 70 years old, including an 87-year-old great-grandmother. The church pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney was also a victim of this madness. Roof decided to spare the life of one church attendee, informing her that he wanted her to tell the world what had transpired. Murdering people in church: incomprehensible.
Needless to say, Roof’s actions leave the congregation members and the nation perplexed, stunned and outraged by such a sadistic act of homeland terrorism. Roof is a 21-year-old White male with White supremacists affinities and ties. He has had a history of deviant behavior and drug use. The sad and sobering truth is that this is hardly the first time that a Black church has been the target of homegrown terrorism by White supremacists.
Attacks on Black churches have been a common occurrence in America since the nation’s inception. The ongoing and relentless bombing and burning of churches during the era of the modern civil rights movement of the 1950 and ’60s, as well as the intense period of church burnings that occurred in the South and in pockets of the Midwest during the mid-1990s, were indicative of a long and tormented history of violence directed toward Black houses of worship and Black Christianity in general.
Black ministers such as the late Revs. Fred Shuttlesworth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were under relentless attack from the Ku Klux Klan, other virulent and vicious racists and, in some cases, Southern law enforcement. In the case of Dr. King, he managed to earn the deep enmity of then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. The hostility directed toward these men also placed their welfare and that of those close to them in jeopardy.
The behavior of Dylann Storm Roof, who had conveyed his intention to start a race war, was an act of racial terrorism. Pure and simple.
There have been some media outlets that have been reluctant to ascribe this label to Roof and, rather, have decided to focus on the fact that he was vulnerable to mental illness. This is a disturbing example of intellectual dishonesty. There are many people who suffer for mental illness, yet do not go on mass murder sprees and deviously plot to kill other human beings.
This was a premeditated attack. He purposely targeted a church with Black parishioners to inflict his acts of racialized violence upon its members. Dylann Strom Roof is a bigot and his actions were driven by hardcore bigotry. His deeds and actions have made this evident. There is no other way to describe it.
After details of the tragic event became known, a number of White nationalist/supremacist and race-oriented websites saw a number of its subscribers express considerable concern that Roof’s actions would make it considerably more difficult for such groups to successfully effectively recruit new members and that current membership may, in fact, decline. Only time will tell in regards to this matter. However, given the long history of racial paranoia among many fringe segments of American society, such a prospect is highly unlikely.
It will take a long time, if ever, for the residents of Charleston, South Carolina, the family of the victims and perhaps even members of Roof’s family to fully heal from such a senseless tragedy. In the meantime, what we as a nation can do is make a genuine effort to come to grips with the rabid political, social and economic fragmentation plaguing our nation and make a valiant effort to rectify and heal such an unhealthy level of potentially destructive stratification.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D., is a professor of history, African-American studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University.