The Charleston Shootings: A Historical Perspective on South Carolina and Racism – posted 6/21/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/24/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 6/24/2015 under the heading “Flags at Odds”.
In the awful news department, the shootings of the nine black people in Charleston South Carolina is hard to surpass. Like so many, since the Charleston shootings happened, I have followed reactions of politicians and others.
The Mayor of Charleston, Joseph Riley, called the shootings an act of “one hateful person”. He said, “The only reason that someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate”. Riley also said the lack of gun control in the United States was “insane”.
Various presidential candidates have weighed in. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry initially suggested the fatal shootings were a drug-induced accident. On CNN, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said the alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, was just “one of those whacked out kids”. Graham went on to say: “There are people out there looking for Christians to kill them”.
To date, I have not seen the Charleston shootings placed in a historical context. Most politicians seem to see the shootings as isolated tragedies outside history and carried out by a crazed lone gunman. To see things that way is shallow and it assumes terrible things like the Charleston shootings exist independent of past events.
South Carolina has a long history as one of the most racist states in the country. I don’t think the shooter’s actions can be understood outside that background. While senseless murder borders on the incomprehensible, the shooter’s extreme racism came out of his world and life experience.
The tradition of racism in South Carolina long predates its history becoming an American state. The African slave trade had deep roots in South Carolina. It has been estimated that after the Middle Passage over 40% of African slaves reaching the British colonies before the American revolution passed through South Carolina.
The key port of entry was Charleston and Sullivan’s Island, a nearby island. Slaves were typically screened for disease on the island before they were sold in Charleston’s slave markets. Many slaves went on to work in the rice fields in South Carolina, a particularly brutal work environment.
Before discussing South Carolina’s history, I did want to mention a bit more about the Middle Passage, the slaves’ journey from Africa to America. The crowding on the voyage was so severe, the ventilation so bad, diseases so rampant, and the food so poor during the trip (which lasted five weeks to three months) that a loss of 14-20% of “cargo” was considered the normal price of doing business. Millions of slaves experienced that hellish journey.
South Carolina became rich off the slave trade. No other colony relied on slaves more. By 1760, Charleston was among the richest towns in America.
However, the white population lived in some fear of slave revolts. In 1739, the Stono Rebellion, a slave revolt, resulted in 21 whites and 44 blacks killed. Most of the captured blacks were executed – a few who survived were sold to markets in the West Indies. Severed heads of the rebel slaves were placed on stakes on the road outside Charleston.
South Carolina passed a comprehensive Negro Act of 1740 that made it illegal for slaves to move abroad, assemble in groups, raise food, earn money and learn to write English. Owners were given the right to kill rebellious slaves if necessary. If the slaveowner perceived the slave as “rebellious” that was enough to justify killing them.
Even after South Carolina joined the United States, slavery remained its way of life.
In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a former slave who had gained his freedom, planned a slave insurrection that was to take place on Bastille Day. Vesey was co-founder of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church – the same church the Charleston shooter just violated.
It is a fascinating story but Vesey did not succeed. Two slaves who were loyal to their owners informed on him. The South Carolina court ultimately convicted 67 men of conspiracy and hanged 35, including Vesey. Four white men were also arrested in connection with Vesey’s planned insurrection. The white community in Charleston feared the growing abolitionist movement in the North. The conviction of the white men was a warning to white sympathizers who might support black slaves.
Interestingly, the mayor of Charleston at that time, James Hamilton, blamed the insurrection on Black Christianity and the AME African Church, an increase in slave literacy, and misguided paternalism by masters toward slaves. I do wonder if the Charleston shooter picked the Emanuel AME Church because of its long historical role and leadership of the Black struggle.
In the 1990’s, African-American activists in Charleston proposed the erection of a memorial to honor Vesey’s anti-slavery effort. That effort did not meet with success. In 2014, a statue representing Vesey as a carpenter was completed but it was not placed near the main tourist areas.
On April 12, 1861, cadets from the Citadel fired the first shots against the United States at Fort Sumter. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union even before that. The secession declaration outlined South Carolina’s principal reason for leaving the United States:
“…increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery.”
At the time of the Civil War, only 2% of South Carolina’s black population was free although African Americans did comprise the majority of the state’s population.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the South Carolina Legislature passed new Black Codes (also known as Jim Crow laws) to control the work and movement of the allegedly free former slaves. These codes essentially attempted to reimpose slavery by another name.
Many South Carolina whites felt betrayed by the actions of their ex-slaves. During the Civil War, African Americans had deserted en masse and many joined the Union army. Not too long after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan emerged, dedicated to reinstituting white supremacy.
South Carolina was one of the most notorious zones of Klan activity. Between 1877-1950, South Carolina had 164 lynchings in 36 different counties. Lynchings were a form of terrorism designed to maximize fear among African Americans. They were a tool to enforce segregation. Lynchings were often very public events where Black men were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking crowds.
After President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South in 1877, the white power structure worked to unravel the reforms of the Radical Republicans. South Carolina again returned to unrestricted white supremacy. In fact, white supremacy was state policy. Blacks were excluded from the South Carolina political system in every way and were prohibited from voting.
The most famous South Carolina politician of the late 19th century was Governor Ben Tillman. Tillman had a deep-seated fear of Black power. The white leadership followed what was known as the Mississippi Plan designed to disenfranchise blacks. The plan made voting registration more difficult through the use of poll taxes and literacy tests.
Segregation remained the norm until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement. The State had enforced legal racial segregation in all public facilities. On the extralegal side, night riders firebombed churches and homes with the ongoing intent to intimidate. Black churches have long been targets of white supremacists. I am old enough to remember the church bombing in Birmingham Alabama when four little girls were murdered.
For 60 years, African Americans had no political representation in South Carolina. It was not until the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Blacks regained suffrage.
While much has changed in South Carolina, the Confederate flag still flies at the state capital. Imagine if the swastika flag still flew over Germany and if Germans justified it on the basis of “heritage”. South Carolina is awash in Confederate memorials allegedly celebrating its Southern heritage.
The actions of the Charleston shooter cannot be seen apart from the racist history of South Carolina. The shooter said his intention was “to shoot Black people”. Allegedly he said, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go”.
Racism is learned. Even though it is pathological, bigotry is not mental illness. Pictures in the media of the shooter show him with the Confederate flag as well as the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). These are all symbols of the ideology of white supremacy.
I would speculate that the shooter turned to white supremacist ideology to reverse his own feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy as an unemployed high school dropout. White supremacy gave him an identity.
The shooter’s actions are consistent with a powerful strain in the history of his state. Unless we see the underlying racism, we will not be challenging the forces who push the shooter and people like him.
I have to say Ghettoside by Jill Leovy was not what I expected. We are awash in crime fiction, crime-solving TV shows and a million shallow and stereotyped portrayals of inner city crime. Ghettoside is not like any non-fiction book or novel of that genre. It is a very sharply drawn book with compelling characters and a unique perspective.
Leovy takes on the subject of the murder of Black men in America. Through the true story of one murder in Los Angeles County and its successful investigation, she makes a powerful argument.
“…where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.”
Leovy argues that the criminal justice system has preoccupied itself with control, prevention and nuisance abatement rather than responding to victims of violence. She says the criminal justice system has done a poor job in addressing black on black homicide.
It is admittedly a difficult and sensitive topic to tackle. Leovy recognizes the harshness of the American criminal justice system, the racist misuse of capital punishment, the excessively punitive drug laws, and the mass incarceration of young black men but she forcefully argues the State has failed to protect black men from bodily injury and death. Leovy sees too little application of the law – not too much.
Leovy’s theme is quite consistent with the campaign Black Lives Matter which has grown out of the police shootings of young black men. She argues that homicides in the black community have garnered inadequate attention and resources. Generally, these murders are not well-covered by the media. Too often they are ignored completely.
That tragic lack of attention and indifference are rooted in racism and devaluation of Black lives. An L.A. detective coined the term “the Monster” to refer to the epidemic of black on black homicide. Especially in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, there was a crazy ravaging where murder followed murder. Leovy says the murder rate has declined since then but the underlying phenemonon remains.
She says that the lack of media coverage was intended to convey the message that black on black homicide is “small potatoes”. She writes:
“Gangs were a big topic but atrocity, trauma, and lifelong sorrow were not part of the public’s vocabulary about black on black violence. Somehow mainstream America has managed to make a fetish of South Central murders yet still ignores them. The principal aspect of the plague – agony – was constantly underrrated.”
There is nothing cliched or less than three dimensional in Ghettoside. Leovy develops the characters in her story from the victims, to the victims’ families, to the police and homicide detectives. She gets into the role of homicide detective and the special talents required to be a good one. She describes the homicide detectives’ creed this way: “…standing over the body of a murdered prostitute..”She ain’t a whore no more”, he said. “She some daddy’s baby.” To the homicide detective, the murdered person, no matter their criminal involvement, deserved justice. As she says, the murdered were inviolate.
Leovy looks hard at high-homicide environments and adds to our understanding of why there have been so many killings. She says a large share can be described by two words: men fighting.Stupid grudges, debts, competition over women, snitching, and drunken antics – all have led to murder and lasting feuds. Whatever the original basis for the dispute, the desire for vengeance intrudes. The fixation on honor and respect in circumstances of weak legal authority leads to more acts of violence.
Since the 1980’s and 1990’s there has been a decline in the murder rate in Los Angeles County. Leavy provides a nuanced explanation for the decline. She cites an easing of residential hypersegregation. She says that integration and mobility into mixed communities tended to reduce homicide rates. A reduced caseload has then allowed for better archiving, investigation of cold cases and clearing new cases. Detectives have more time and new technology allows for better, faster matches of bullets to revolvers.
Interestingly, she thinks an increase in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits paid to poor black people has been a positive. While SSI is often maligned, she argues that the receipt of SSI has reduced homicides. Leovy cites the federal Second Chance Act of 2005 which inspired efforts to provide SSI to prisoners upon reentry. Many prisoners qualify for SSI on the basis of mental illness such as bipolar disorder and ADD. Leovy explains it this way:
“An eight hundred dollar a month check for an unemployed black ex-felon makes a big difference to him. He can move, ditch his homeys, commit fewer crimes, walk away from more fights.”
Leovy remarks that SSI has been a transformational positive force. She says “cold cash paid out to individuals is a powerful thing”. It has countered extreme economic marginalization. Leovy sees SSI as saving many from being murdered or maimed. This is a perspective that is rarely if ever heard but it makes perfect sense. When people have nothing and opportunities are totally lacking, what are the alternatives?
While there are many cool things about this book, it is uniquely a product of personal reporting. For years Leovy had created a website called the Homicide Report. She attempted to provide a comprehensive accounting of every homicide in Los Angeles County. She began seeing patterns and as she wrote she tried to penetrate the mystery of disproportionate black homicide. She particularly listened to the bereaved – all those parents, children, spouses and siblings who had suffered. I don’t believe anyone has attempted anything like this before.
At the same time as Leovy offers up this book, she maintains a degree of humility about understanding all the murders. She recognizes that black on black homicide remains an ongoing issue. I do think that the book offers many insights into how police departments and our larger society could reform and do a better job at addressing the roots of violence. She makes clear that we have brushed over tremendous tragedies out of indifference and racism. I hope this book is widely read. It takes up a significant problem that has been largely swept under the rug.