The brutal murder of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17 was an act of “racial terrorism” – to quote NAACP President Cornell Williams Brooks.
It was also a chilling assault on fundamental freedoms guaranteed every American under the First Amendment – the freedom to worship, the freedom to speak out for justice, and the freedom to assemble and organize for change.
What happened in Charleston must not be reduced to a story about a mentally disturbed “lone wolf” – as often happens when a young white man commits mass murder.
If we are honest, this attack is part of a larger story about the state of our culture – a culture in which white supremacist groups thrive, racism infects many institutions (including law enforcement) and indifference to injustice helps keep millions of people trapped in an endless cycle of poverty.
Mother Emanuel – as congregants lovingly call their church – was targeted because it is an historic symbol of the long struggle to overcome those ills.
Since its founding in 1816, Emanuel AME has been burned to the ground by white supremacists, twice closed down by city officials, and outlawed for some thirty years. But today the church still stands, having won its religious freedom the hard way.
Leaders of the church – from Denmark Vesey, a founder of the church and a freed slave executed in 1822 for organizing a slave revolt, to Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the church killed in last week’s attack – can always be found on the front lines in the battle for social justice.
Black churches like Mother Emanuel are frequent targets for racial terrorism because, to quote Cornell Brooks again, “our churches have been at the crossroads of freedom.”
Throughout American history, black churches have served as the organizing center for African Americans managing, in the words of historian C. Eric Lincoln, “to survive obstruction” and endure as “the symbol of hope and determination.”
In a 2013 speech, Rev. Pinckney – who was also a state senator – describes the intersection of freedom and faith that is the legacy and mission of the black church in America:
“Could we not argue that America is about freedom – whether we live it out or not – but it is really about freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness, and that’s what church is all about. Freedom to worship, and freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends us to be, and freedom to have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you gotta make noise to do that. Sometimes, you maybe have to die, like Denmark Vesey, to do that. Sometimes you have to march, and struggle, and be unpopular to do that.”
Now come the painful funerals, the heartfelt eulogies, and the outpouring of support for the grieving families.
But after the dead are buried and the media moves on, what will be the legacy of the “Charleston shooting”?
As I write this, Confederate flags are being removed from government spaces and symbols across the South – a welcome, if long overdue step in the right direction.
But if it took the murder of nine people in a church to get those in power to remove a symbol inextricably tied to white supremacy and violence, what will it take to bring about true social justice for African Americans in South Carolina and throughout America?
Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston: It’s time to go beyond symbolic gestures and find the moral courage and political will to combat racism and hate by building a more just, equitable and compassionate society for every American.
For that, we will need to make a lot of noise.