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.