Wednesday night’s massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston conjures up painful memories of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
In what Dr. Martin Luther King described as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” four men with ties to the Ku Klux Klan planted dynamite beneath the front steps of the church, killing four young black girls and injuring more than a dozen, just before their Sunday service.
Over fifty years later, we live in a time where many are convinced “post-racial America” actually exists. So events like Charleston shouldn’t happen right?
Well, they shouldn’t, but they do. And black churches are historically a target.
Events spanning the past two decades show that we are still very much in the midst of racially-motivated violence and aggression rivaling that of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
No, we have not yet overcome.
Violence against blacks is a bloody strand, tightly woven into the fabric of American history – especially as it pertains to black churches, which have long stood as the nucleus of black political and social life in this country.
They were the hubs of the Civil Rights Movement, housing organizers and community members alike, as well as some of the most defining moments of the tireless movement. They are regarded as a place of respite for those in the black community; their symbolism is greater than simply being a building visited on Sundays.
Even during the years of American slavery, the Church provided slaves with a means of support not restricted to spiritual well-being, including a medium by which to retain their own cultural identity and, at times, establish sub-political structures within the oppressive system in which they were forced to exist.
As a result, slave owners often committed intense violence against those found to be engaging in what was seen as the beginnings of an insurrection. Whippings, violence against women, and sometimes public murders, were used as tools to curb the political activity taking place within the church.
This rationale – that violence was necessary to end the pursuits of anyone who dared demand to be treated as an equal – would be used to justify attacks on black people and churches for more than a century after slavery saw its end.
The mid-1990s saw a string of arson attacks on predominantly black churches in the South, several located in South Carolina. An article published in 1996 in the New York Times describes the scene as Rev. Sherron Brown, the pastor of a small church in West Tennessee at the time, stands in a field watching his church burn to the ground.
Speaking with reporters, Brown is dejected, saying at one point “It has been one hurdle after another.”
But many across the South would encounter those same hurdles, which came in the form of racial-hatred and an unceasing effort to destroy the core of black political action and self-empowerment. During this time, the church that Brown pastored would be one of nearly ten that would face destruction, ranging from Iowa to Texas.
More recently, though, in 2006, suspects burnt a cross outside of a black church in Virginia. In 2008, mere hours after President Barack Obama was first elected, three white men set fire to a black church in Massachusetts.
Like acts of domestic terrorism in the past, the motive behind these attacks was certainly two-fold: to instill a sense of fear in black people, and to squelch any hope of social progression for black Americans. Black people’s dark history in America has cultivated an intimate connection with the church. Consequently, attacks on them often have the purpose of shaking the emotional stability of the community as much as crumbling the church’s physical structure.
Roof’s attack on ‘Mother Emanuel’ in Charleston stems from a distorted social-perspective shared by too many within our society, one with remnants of the Jim Crow South’s outlook of black inferiority.
It’s a perspective that seeks to destroy what it views as the heart of the black community. The proof is in America’s painful history and eerily reminiscent present.
Roof’s frustrations, fears, and subsequent actions, like many white men in South Carolina’s racially divided past, were borne out of an inexplicable desire to subjugate black Americans. This, in part, helps explain why he targeted a church.
So when I wake up to a story telling of nine black churchgoers being killed by a white gunman, I see the faces of those four young, black girls killed over fifty years ago at the 16th Street Baptist Church, that early Sunday morning.
America: 1963 is a lot closer than you think.