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“Safe, Sheltered And Protected”: In America, There Is No Sanctuary

The main hall of a church is called a sanctuary.

It is where you go to worship, to seek fellowship and solace, and commune with your maker. The dictionary definition of the word adds an additional layer of resonance. A sanctuary is where you are sheltered and protected. A sanctuary is where you are safe.

Wednesday night, Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, was a church without a sanctuary. Wednesday night, Emanuel AME was a killing ground.

Authorities say a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Storm Roof entered the African-American church Wednesday during Bible study, sat with the black congregants for an hour, and then started shooting. Nine people died in the attack, including the church’s pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney, who was also a state senator.

“I have to do it,” Roof is quoted as saying. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

If there is reason to believe Rev. Pinckney or any of his congregants guilty of raping anyone or plotting to overthrow the government, it has not yet come to light.

But of course, when Roof said “you,” he did not mean “you,” singular. Rather he meant, “you,” plural. “You” people. “You” all. Individuality is, after all, the first casualty of racism. And indeed, an image circulated after the shooting shows Roof scowling at a camera while wearing a jacket with patches depicting the flags of two famously racist regimes: Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) and apartheid-era South Africa. Roof was apprehended the following day not far from Charlotte, North Carolina.

It was to seek sanctuary from people like him and beliefs like his that the church Roof shot up was founded in the first place. Emanuel AME, affectionately called “Mother AME,” was one of the earliest churches of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, which was started in the late 18th century by black worshipers fed up with the discrimination they faced in the white church. In 1821, one of its members, Denmark Vesey, organized a slave revolt that failed when an informant leaked word of the plot. Nevertheless, the people traders of the South were galvanized by the audacity of the plan. The church was burned as a result.

It was rebuilt. In 1834, black churches were outlawed in South Carolina. Emanuel went underground until the law was changed. An earthquake destroyed the building in 1886. The church was rebuilt yet again.

Now, there is this.

Roof’s alleged attack is being called many things. It is being called appalling and tragic, and it is. It is being called a hate crime and it is. It is being called an act of white extremist terrorism and it is that, too. But one thing, let no one dare to call it, and that is, “surprising.” This attack can be regarded as surprising only by the very innocent, the very ignorant, and those who have not been paying attention.

In the first place, a nation whose gun love amounts to nothing less than fetishism has no right — ever — to describe a mass shooting as a surprise. Indeed, at this point, one is more surprised when the country passes a day without one.

But if the means of the attack is unsurprising, the motive is, too.

There is a myth in this country, a fable some people cherish because it makes them feel good and demands no moral or intellectual heavy lifting. That myth holds that we are done with race and have been for a very long time; that we overcame, learned our lesson, reached the Promised Land, and built luxury condos there.

Bill O’Reilly believes that myth. Sean Hannity believes it. Rush Limbaugh swears by it. Indeed, for most of the people who are pleased to call themselves “conservative,” that myth is nothing less than an article of faith.

Let them go to Charleston. Let them visit a church with no sanctuary

For that matter, let them go to Baltimore, let them go to Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, St. Louis, Miami. Let them go to any of a hundred cities and talk to black people who are sick of hearing how America overcame, learned its lesson, reached the Promised Land, yet somehow, sister can’t get a loan, dad can’t find a job, brother has to factor stop-and-frisk encounters into his travel time to and from school and Walter Scott gets shot in the back while running away. All for rapes they never committed and government takeovers they never planned.

If what happened in Charleston was extraordinary, and it was, this is the ordinary, the everyday of existing while black that grinds your faith down to a nub and works your very last nerve. Especially when the background music is provided by a bunch of people who don’t know, don’t know that they don’t know, and don’t care that they don’t know, singing operatic praise to a faded myth.

Solange Knowles, sister of Beyoncé, put it as follows Thursday in a tweet: “Was already weary. Was already heavy hearted. Was already tired. Where can we be safe? Where can we be free? Where can we be black?”

Where, in other words, can we find just a moment to breathe free of this constant onus? Where can we find sanctuary?

What happened Wednesday night at a storied church in Charleston is a painful reminder that in America, no such place exists.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, June 21, 2015

June 22, 2015 Posted by | Black Churches, Emanuel AME Church, Mass Shootings | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The More Things Change…”: The Charleston Massacre And The Cunning Of White Supremacy

According to Matt Ford at The Atlantic, the Charleston, South Carolina, church where a white gunman murdered nine people was

The oldest black church south of Baltimore, and one of the most storied black congregations in the United States, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church’s history is deeply intertwined with the history of African American life in Charleston. Among the congregation’s founders was Denmark Vesey, a former slave who was executed in 1822 for attempting to organize a massive slave revolt in antebellum South Carolina. White South Carolinians burned the church to the ground in response to the thwarted uprising; along with other black churches, it was shuttered by the city in 1834. The church reorganized in 1865, and soon acquired a new building designed by Robert Vesey, Denmark’s son; the current building was constructed in 1891. It has continued to play a leading role in the struggle for civil rights.

Denmark Vesey is one of the most prominent names in America’s long history of racial terror. And the killer didn’t choose just Vesey’s church but his anniversary. Based on fragmentary evidence, white Charlestonians in 1822 came to believe that Vesey’s revolt “would begin at the stroke of midnight as Sunday, June 16, turned to Monday, June 17.” And they identified Vesey’s church as the center of the conspiracy.

White militia began to arrest both freemen and slaves, 10 that weekend, and many more in the days that followed. Vesey, a freeman, was captured on June 22. It’s not just the executors of the “war on terror” who have used euphemisms to describe torture. A Charleston official referred to the interrogations the captured men were subject to like this: “No means which experience or ingenuity could devise were left unessayed to eviscerate the plot.”

Then, after a quick trial and guilty verdict, Vesey and five others were hung on July 2. More arrests were made, and more executions followed, 35 in total, often in front of immense crowds.

Here’s the historian Ira Berlin, summing up what is known of Vesey’s life:

It is a story well worth the telling. One of millions of young Africans sold into the Atlantic slave marts in the 18th century, the young Telemaque—later transmuted into Denmark—was plucked from a cargo of some 400 slaves by Captain Vesey, who was taken by his ”beauty, alertness and intelligence.” Vesey assigned the lad to his cabin, taught him to read and write, and allowed him to learn a trade—and much else.… The Veseys, both the captain and his slave, eventually alighted in the city of Charleston, mainland North America’s largest slave port. There, Captain Vesey retired to a comfortable respectability, supported in part by the earnings of his slave, who was permitted to hire himself out on his own.… While Denmark Vesey crossed the line from slavery to freedom, he did not…affiliate with Charleston’s growing community of free people of color. These artisans and tradesmen, with light skins that betrayed their mixed racial origins, aspired to the privileges of the master class, whose deportment, speech and values—including slave ownership—they emulated. Rather than being satisfied with a pale imitation of freedom, Vesey became increasingly discontented. In the back alley groggeries and weekly Bible classes, he denounced slavery as criminal usurpation, citing the Scriptures, the Declaration of Independence and even Congressional debates. He sneered at those who accepted bondage and deferred to whites, declaring that they deserved to be slaves. The angry old man awed even those he did not intimidate. Vesey believed slavery would only end with fire, and understood that a successful insurrection rested upon uniting the fragmented black population. While he may have dismissed the assimilationist-minded free people of color, he believed the other elements of the black community could be brought together. To those taken with Christianity, he quoted the Bible. To those mindful of power, he spoke of armies of Haitian soldiers in waiting. To those fearful of the spirit world, he enlisted one Jack Pritchard—universally known as Gullah Jack—a wizened, bewhiskered conjurer whose knowledge of African religious practices made him a welcome figure on the plantations that surrounded Charleston. And while he drew followers from the slave quarter and the artisans’ shops, he also enlisted from the master’s household, recruiting even the personal servant of South Carolina’s governor. Vesey coaxed and cajoled, implored and exhorted, flattered and bullied until his scheme was in place.

Berlin writes that “while slaveholders sent Denmark Vesey to the gallows and committed him to an unmarked grave, they failed to consign him to historical oblivion.… Former slaves preserved his memory, even as former slaveholders denied it. Today it seems clear that Denmark Vesey will not remain buried much longer.”

Maybe others remembered him as well, though it might just be a coincidence that “the clean-shaven white man about 21 years old with sandy blond hair and wearing a gray sweatshirt, bluejeans and Timberland boots” chose the anniversary of Vesey’s preempted revolt to massacre nine members of the congregation Vesey founded.

Or maybe history, along with white supremacy, is just cunning that way.

 

By: Greg Gandin, The Nation, June 18, 2015

June 19, 2015 Posted by | Charleston SC Shootings, Emanuel AME Church, Racism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A History Lesson We Adamantly Refuse To Learn”: Our Racist History Isn’t Back To Haunt Us. It Never Left Us

When, on Wednesday night, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof entered the Charleston church founded by former slave Denmark Vesey on the anniversary of Vesey’s planned 1822 slave rebellion and shot and killed nine people, he provided the United States with the latest installment of a history lesson we adamantly refuse to learn: that our racist past is not past. It is present. It is unending. It is, in many ways that we seem congenitally unable to acknowledge, fundamentally unchanged.

In recent years, especially the years during which Barack Obama has occupied the White House, there have been many valuable meditations on the ways in which American policy structures that were shaped in and informed by the slave-holding and Jim Crow chapters of our nation’s story, continue to define today’s racial power imbalances. There’s been history, analysis, and contemporary commentary: Michelle Alexander’s indispensible The New Jim Crow, about our prison and legal systems; Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration; Tom Sugrue’s books on integration and racism in northern cities and on housing policy in Detroit. At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has produced a body of work—culminating (for now) with his Case for Reparations—showing how we have gotten from “there” to “here,” contemporary America, with its persistently unequal scales of opportunity. Throughout our history, racism has indeed found fresh manifestations: from real estate restrictions and usurious interest rates to physical segregation to job discrimination to stop and frisk and police brutality.

There is usually the sense, however, that at least we’re changing, at least we’re moving in some direction, away from the where we started. Except on days like today, when the reminder is that we have not moved one bit.

In addition to new forms of subjugation and prejudice, we live in a country in which racist violence exists in precisely the same forms it always has—unabated, unreconstructed. We are not distant from the crimes and inhumanities and hatred of the past. We are still acting them out and still refusing to accept them for what they are: this country’s original and defining sin.

What happened on Wednesday night is violence enacted on different individuals than the violence enacted on four little girls who were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, but it is a crime with the same shape and contours, a crime that leaves innocent people dead in their place of worship because of their race.

Too often, we look at iconic images of our racist past with a kind of antiqued horror. We recall with horror, if we’re old enough, how police turned dogs on innocent people. If we are younger, we suck in our breath and shake our heads with disbelief as we try to fathom a world inhabited by our parents, our grandparents, in which a city official, Bull Connor, ordered the use of fire hoses on peaceful protesters. But we also know that Bull Connor is long dead, a comfortable relic. We can just barely imagine that this happened to John Lewis. Lewis is now a long-serving congressman; his past is crucial, moving, but remote. That was then, look at him now.

But this—a white policeman shoving a 14-year-old girl’s face to the ground, stepping on her, kneeling on her at a pool party in McKinney, Texas—is also now. It’s this month. This, in Fairfield, Ohio, is not simply an altercation “between police and teens” as the caption says, but between a white police and black teens who scream in terror and anger. It is also this month, also at a community pool. Community pools, a locus for racial conflict. Does that sound distant? Or does it sound contemporary?

It is contemporary.

When we think of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy murdered in Mississippi in 1963 after reportedly speaking to a white woman, we recall his open casket. His mother insisted on it, because she wanted the world to see the brutality that had been visited on her son because of the color of his skin. Look at this picture, printed on pages yellowed by all the years that have come between his death and today. Those years have made him famous; we take some cold comfort in the fact that though Till was robbed of the opportunity to love and thrive and work and change the world in life; his death profoundly altered it, kicking off the cycle of social progress that has brought us here, a world away from Money, Mississippi, 1955.

Now look at this image, of Frederick Jermaine Carter, a 26-year-old black man found hanging from a tree in a white suburb in Greenwood, Mississippi. It was taken ten miles south and 55 years after Emmett Till was killed. Carter died in 2010.

Yes, southern (and northern) trees still bear strange fruit. In March of this year, Otis Byrd, a man who had served time for killing a white woman, was found hanging from a tree in Claiborne County, Mississippi. (A special investigation ruled that there was no evidence proving his death a homicide.) Less than a year ago, the body of 17-year-old Lennon Lacey—a young man in a relationship with a white woman—was found hanging from a swing-set in Bladenboro, North Carolina. His death was immediately ruled a suicide, despite a series of inconsistencies and a report from an independent examiner suggesting that given his height and weight, a self-hanging would have been impossible. This death recalled the 2000 hanging of Raynard Johnson from a pecan tree in Kokomo, Mississippi. Johnson, like Lacey, had been dating, and been harassed for dating, a white woman, and his death—on June 16, in advance of a local Juneteenth celebration—was promptly ruled a suicide.

There’s no way to know for sure whether these deaths were lynchings or suicides, but what they are not are echoes of some distant past. They are original sounds. They are simply later chapters in the story of Emmett Till and countless, less well known others. They are a story of violent white resistance to the perceived incursion of blackness on bodies—on women’s bodies and on the nation. These bodies are not just presumed to be white, but presumed to belong to white men, a dynamic made crystal clear by Dylann Roof’s reported locution, during his Wednesday murder spree: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

We can try to comfort ourselves, as a local news anchor tried earlier this year, by assuring viewers that the cross found burning on the front lawn of a black woman in Elizabethville, Pennsylvania, was “not like those huge crosses from the old days.”

But these are the old days. In February, a Tennessee man and member of a church affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan was fined and sentenced to jail for burning a cross in the yard of a black man in Minor Hill, Tennessee. In 2014 in White River Township, Indiana, a black man was awakened in the middle of the night to find a three-foot cross burning on his front lawn. This is today.

This is Eric Garner, being killed by cops. This is Walter Scott, being shot in the back and killed by a police man. This is Freddie Gray, howling with pain after having had his body broken by police, a week before his death. This is Tamir Rice. He was 12 when he was shot to death, in November of last year, by police.

As Jelani Cobb wrote on Wednesday, recent incidents can “seem like gruesome boomerangs of history until we consider the more terrible idea that they are simple reflections of the present.”

It’s not just a terrible idea, it is a terrible reality. The cold reality of our country right now. We are not post-civil rights. We are not post race. We are not better than we were. We do not inhabit a world in which stray instances of violence might recall a distant and shameful history. This shame is a flood that has never abated.

 

By: Rebecca Traister, The New Republic, June 18, 2015

June 19, 2015 Posted by | Charleston SC Shootings, Domestic Terrorism, Hate Crimes | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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