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.

woodchurch1

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

  1. Joe Vega says:

    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.

  2. […] So begins a fine historical background piece by Benjamin Park on Emanuel Church, Charleston. You can read the entire piece at Junto, a blog on by historians on “early America”: The Charleston Shooting and the Potent Symbol of the Black Church in America « The Junto. […]

  3. Wonderful and informative. Thanks for posting.

  4. clbutor says:

    Reblogged this on The Adventures of a Pissed Off Millennial and commented:
    An excellent article.

  5. bryanpascalh says:

    Wonderful Story, good…

  6. writegill says:

    A fine article, very well explained and argued.

  7. takayuki313 says:

    悠音さ

  8. Can u plz follow me im only starting thank you

  9. kernowsmith says:

    I’m from Britain,and there is so so much about America that I don’t know.It was good to get some context into the history of a people.Thank you.

  10. Simple Kinda Life says:

    Reblogged this on My Simple Life.

  11. Catalina says:

    This is a really powerful piece… Thank you.

  12. 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.

  13. dmarsters says:

    Reblogged this on His Very Own.

  14. mommyblues94 says:

    I truly loved reading this article, but what I loved most was the positive feedback from your readers! Truly a Blessing!

  15. Caitlin says:

    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.

  16. Dr. Henrik Jungaberle says:

    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.

  17. somiemyhomie says:

    Great post. Very informative.

  18. grosirdijakarta02160200096 says:

    Great post, 🙂 follow me n reblog this on https://kambingqurbann.wordpress.com/

  19. appscatcher says:

    Reblogged this on Apps Catcher and commented:
    Gottto love it! Early American history

  20. 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.

  21. This is new black history to me that I learned just reading this post! I enjoyed it a lot!

  22. 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).

  23. joeythebuddhist says:

    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.

  24. College Girl says:

    Thank you for this post. I just wrote a piece on this as well. I’d love some feedback as I’m new to blogging! It is a freehand poem I wrote when I learned about the massacre and I just couldn’t help but pour my feelings out in writing.

    https://thoughtsbyacollegegirl.wordpress.com/2015/06/21/i-hope-im-not-a-poet-but-this-is-my-poem/

  25. […] Benjamin Park has an excellent post on the Charleston shooting and its connection to the history of white violence against black […]

  26. am against discrimination

  27. Augury Harbinger says:

    More perspective on Charleston and two subsequent shootings.

  28. The racial problem in USA and other parts in the world seem to be very strong, until now…

    Thanks for writing this.

  29. Kate Lester says:

    Reblogged this on My Dog Ate a Lightbulb and commented:
    Some background on Charleston, SC and the Emanuel AME Church.

  30. Reblogged this on Tpmasuabilegal's Blog and commented:
    “Black man you are on your own”

  31. This is sad day for everyone….God Bless these families.

  32. evsetia says:

    So many history. Your writing described about one of United States in any other side.
    Thank you for share.

  33. prettyblacc0504 says:

    read all

  34. Joel says:

    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.

  35. Reblogged this on atlrobininsandestin and commented:
    I found out last night that those Children Of GOD in Emanuel’s Congregation prayed with that Man for that hour. How powerful is our Sovereign Lord. I ask you? PBTG

  36. Great history piece and point made at the same time. Thank you

  37. judy9nine says:

    PEOPLE ARE GOOD AND THEY NEVER GET TOO SERIOUS TROUBLE. I PERSONALLY WAS GLAD THEIRS A LOT GOOD PEOPLE AND WILLING TO FORGIVE AND GOOD WILLING TO HELP JESUS IS GOOD:

  38. judy9nine says:

    JESUS CORRECT AND KEEP ME INLINE EVERY DAY AND BECAUSE IT HELPS TO PRAY FOR OTHERS AND OURSELVES WE WILL ALWAYS HAVE LOVE & HOPE

  39. judy9nine says:

    TOO MANY GOOD FOLK HAVE GONE ON TO HEAVEN I MYSELF ASK WHY JESUS: SOMETIMES ITS HARD TO UNDERSTAND KEEP PRAYING IT WON BE LIKE THAT FOREVER:

  40. tactikod7 says:

    Pls take a moment to look at m blog
    Important content
    http://tactikod7blog.wordpress.com/

  41. AkinMore says:

    This is such a beautiful piece. Nice to read all through history and make it converge with today’s events.

  42. rrprewett says:

    “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.

  43. micatesh says:

    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.

  44. digga3k says:

    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

  45. 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.

  46. hfjkf says:

    شني اعل ابوكم

  47. Reblogged this on C. L. Swinney and commented:
    well said and certainly needed

  48. taoufik10 says:

    Reblogged this on taoufik10 and commented:
    Vrai

  49. Uy Do says:

    Reblogged this on My Blog.

  50. […] colleague Ben Park’s analysis of the shooting and the history of the Church, you can find it here. Other items of interest has been the much-discussed Charleston Syllabus, which was the brainchild […]

  51. Reblogged this on akastarmalik and commented:
    Smh!

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