The Charleston Shooting and the Potent Symbol of the Black Church in America

Emanuel landscapeLast night, Dylann Storm Roof entered the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, sat through an hour-long meeting, and then opened fire on those in attendance. Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a state senator, was among nine individuals who were killed. Many are shocked at not only the grisly nature of the shooting, but also its location. “There is no greater coward,” Cornell William Brooks, president of the N.A.A.C.P, declared in a statement, “than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture.” Yet this experience is unfortunately, and infuriatingly, far from new: while black churches have long been seen as a powerful symbol of African American community, they have also served as a flashpoint for hatred from those who fear black solidarity, and as a result these edifices have been the location for many of our nation’s most egregious racial terrorist acts.

The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Further, the very spot of land on which the Emanuel Church is built has witnessed much of this sobering history. In the summer of 1822, white residents of Charleston, South Carolina, discovered that one of their worst fears had come true: a slave conspiracy to rise against their masters and slaughter all white residents was afoot in the city. The accused ringleader, Denmark Vesey, was a former slave who had been a free carpenter in Charleston for two decades. His insurrection was supposedly planned to take place on July 14—Bastille Day. Once the plot was uncovered, however, authorities were swift with retaliation: 131 men were charged with conspiracy, 67 were convicted, and 35, including Vesey, were hanged. While historians today debate the extent of the conceived rebellion, the event proved formidable in confirming southern angst over an “internal enemy” and white supremacists knew they had to respond quickly and violently.

That Vesey was one of the founders of the Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church was no mere coincidence. To those that pushed prosecution, the church was central to the conspiracy. The year prior, city officials had closed the church because they feared it was breaking slave codes concerning unsupervised black gatherings after sunset and the law against teaching slaves to read. Charleston authorities depicted Vesey’s frustrations over their suppression of church activities as one of his three primary motivations. (The other two being the Haitian Revolution and the debates over the Missouri Compromise.) The punishment for these sins was the noose.


The AME wood church constructed on the sight of the original structure in 1872. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1886 and was replaced by the current Emanuel Church.

In the wake of the suppressed rebellion, Charleston lawyer Edwin Holland specifically blamed black churches. These preachers, he accused, carried “the Sacred Volume of God in one hand” while spreading ideas “of discord and destruction, and secretly disperse among our Negro Population, the seeds of discontent and sedition” with the other. The city decided the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which attracted nearly 2,000 congregants, was the problem. New draconian measures were instituted that banned religious services without a white person present. The AME Church, only built four years previously, was then burned to the ground even as the conspirators were hung from the sky. Seven years later, the state constructed an arsenal just around the corner to house arms and ammunition. They wanted to be prepared the next time their black population conspired an insurrection. Soon, in an agreement with the War Department, this location transformed into the South Carolina Military Academy–also known as the Citadel. The crown jewel of southern militarism, then, was in part birthed as a way to protect whites from the type of racial threats the AME Church posed.

This was just another moment in a long history of white angst over black churches. When slavery was originally established in America, enslaved persons were not even allowed to be baptized because it was feared that such an action would grant them civilization and problematize their coerced labor. Owners eventually embraced a paternalistic interpretation of Christianity that brought blacks salvation yet reinforced their current station in life. But even then, their worship was to be governed by white authorities and their message was to be filtered through white leaders. Measures were taken to ensure these gatherings were places to ameliorate possible revolt, rather than foment it, and harsh retaliation was instituted when those borders were crossed. Even as the “invisible institution” became more visible through organization and brick and mortar, white society still tried to control its power. Thus even while the black church became a bastion of harmony and a reservoir for support for black participants, it also became a locus of dread for white observers.

This paradox has remained in place ever since. Black churches became a central recruitment point for soldiers and a prominent pedestal for emancipation messages during the Civil War, yet they were also frequently targeted by Confederate forces. They were primary locations for mobilization during the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement—Martin Luther King Jr. even used the Emanuel Church in Charleston for meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—but also venues for violent backlash, as seen with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Sadly, these attacks continue to appear in staggering numbers today. If one were to find a central crossing point for racial conflict in America, it would be hard not to choose a church.

Emanuel ShootingIn 2014, a monument to Denmark Vesey was raised in Charleston’s Hampton Park. It was meant to represent both a cooling in this racial conflict and a symbol that this violent past is indeed past. Yet tensions continue to simmer. The Confederate flag, a symbol of racial superiority, is still displayed in South Carolina’s capital. Police brutality is still inordinately directed toward the African American population throughout the nation. Today’s cultural circumstances still necessitate a reminder that black lives matter. And churches remain very much at the center of these conflicts. Created, in part, to resist the racist oppression forced upon them, they represent the most potent threat to white supremacy. This is especially the case in Charleston, where the Emanuel Church is located in the heart of the historic district–a tourist area otherwise dedicated to preserving the memory of the Old South–and not sequestered away to a segregated black area of the city. Last night’s shooting once again demonstrates the contempt many whites have for black churches as they continue to serve as a symbol of black organizational power.

Just as the original Emanuel Church was torched in 1822 due to fears of racial unrest, its replacement has become yet another location for American racial warfare. History has demonstrated that a particular segment of white America has often responded to racial fears with violence, yet this particular plot of land in downtown Charleston has seen more than its fair share of that unfortunate tradition. More, it stands in for the pregnant and powerful role of black churches in America—physical embodiments of both the necessity of strong black communities, yet also their continuing threat to white society.

143 responses

  1. Pingback: Charleston and the potent symbol of the black church | AN IMPERFECT PLACE

  2. Wonderful story to post at this particular time. I think it can really help in the discourse, to help heal the community of Charleston at this time. Great work.

  3. Pingback: The Charleston Shooting and the Potent Symbol of the Black Church in America | Buffalo Doug

  4. Reblogged this on thepensendeavour and commented:
    This article perfectly highlights the pitfalls of the American society and their negligence towards black people. Negligence doesn’t even begin to cover it. White supremacy is as rife as ever, and frankly it’s sickening.

  5. Pingback: The Charleston Shooting and the Potent Symbol of the Black Church in America | Royal

  6. This article is very well thought out and written. However, the subject matter outrages me! It is terrible to know that some people are so hated for just being themselves. They didn’t do anything to deserve that. In fact, they even welcomed you into their church. I can’t even wrap my head around it.

  7. Thanks for providing historical context. It’s very important to collect these stories of racist thinking and politics all over the world. Not only because of today’s victims, but also because the only chances that our futures will be democratic, self-organzing and respectful is unvealing and “fighting” the fear and hatred behind rascism(s). One of the major concerns of education and politics is: how can we evoke a curiosity for difference, for the “other”, for what is not us in children. We are still beginners in that.

  8. The most important changes seems to always be illegal at first, yet people deny systemic racism and privilege. That church is one of the best places in American history, which is why awful people attack it.

  9. Thank you so much, Benjamin Park, for writing this insightful and well-researched post. I feel enriched in my understanding of why this particular church and its members became the unfortunate targets of a hatred-filled, deranged young mind (who knows whose handmaiden he really was).

  10. I like’d the treatment John Stewart gave this tragedy. We need to start addressing these things and start healing in a real and meaningful way. This should never have happened and most definitely should never happen again.

  11. Pingback: The Black Church as an American Symbol

  12. I don’t think the church is a threat to white society. I think it was a threat to one white man who’s actions reflect his own prejudices and not mine.

  13. Pingback: Shared from WordPress | worldstories


  15. “And churches remain very much at the center of these conflicts. Created, in part, to resist the racist oppression forced upon them, they represent the most potent threat to white supremacy.”

    All churches should be a potent threat to white supremacy — or any other aspect of racism and injustice. One of the things that has encouraged me is seeing the multi-racial and multi-ethnic show of solidarity and support in Charleston following this tragedy.

    Thank you for this insightful, thought-provoking piece. When we fail to know our history, we do not fully comprehend the context or meaning of many current events.

  16. Thank you for this post. Ignorance spans all races and it is so important to understand a story and its history before commenting. If more of us could be understanding and less ignorant, I wonder what kind of difference could be made.

    The Charleston shooting breaks my heart and I cannot begin to understand how that boy rationalized his horrific actions.

  17. Wonderful story. I loved the historical background information provided to really show the severity of the situation and how it shows that things haven’t changed in how racial fear pushes people to violence

  18. That man had a cold, cold heart! Racism is one of the many huge issues in our society and has been for as long as many can remember! Going into a church where innocent people are learning about and worshiping in a way, God. Skin color shouldn’t be a issue. Everybody is born into a family that should love and care for them. That is all that should matter. Family, Friends, and love. Dylan went way too far, sitting with them for an hour before taking their lives.

  19. Pingback: This Week in Early American History « The Junto


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