On Charleston

Vigil for victims of Charleston church shooting, from npr.orgI want to share a few of my thoughts regarding Wednesday night’s murder of the 9 worshipers in Emmanuel AME Church.

First, it’s hard for me to comment without becoming emotional. My mother’s father was a lynching victim, and my entire family remains wounded because of it. I know from firsthand experience the far-reaching ramifications acts of terror can sow. My heart goes out to the families of Wednesday’s victims, as well as to the church of which they were a part, and to their local community.

At the same time, I harbor a tremendous sadness for what this event may portend – not only for African-Americans, but also for the nation.

This morning, when I learned the news about Charleston, four names immediately came to mind: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denice McNair.

I was 12 years old in the summer of 1963, when those four little girls, while attending a session at the 16th street Baptist Church, became the victims of a brutal bombing attack. In the aftermath, television brought the news into thousands of living rooms across the country. That was a relatively new thing back then. There had been no TV coverage during the heyday of lynching, and many Americans were directly witnessing this level of brutality for the first time. Many Americans expressed disbelief at the callous nature of the attack on such innocent children.

But there was very little disbelief in the African American community. The deaths of those girls came as no surprise to us. For nearly a century, following the end of slavery, we had lived with the soul-destroying reality of Jim Crow segregation, and the massive culture of fear that was a constant feature of our normal, everyday lives. Fear was the weapon of choice for White Supremacists seeking to maintain the hierarchy of race that had existed under slavery, and fear was everywhere, supported both by an ideology of Black inferiority/dependence as well as by the physical weaponry to enforce the nation’s racially linked, tremendous social disparities. We strengthened our course as a country awash in guns and violence.

African-Americans may have been disturbed by the 1963 bombing, but we certainly were not surprised. And while many American families outside of the Black community were caught unawares, there were thousands who were not – not only in the South, but throughout the nation. Racial terrorism was no secret to them, either. They are the ones who can be seen in the photos of the large-scale public celebrations that accompanied lynching — the ones collecting souvenir body parts, enjoying refreshments, laughing and smiling. They are the State and Federal officials and prominent citizens who condoned such acts and allowed such acts to thrive.

I never want to see a return to those days.

Yesterday morning, Joe Riley, Charleston’s 72 year old White mayor, called Wednesday night’s event “unfathomable.” Listening to his words, I wondered where he’d been hiding all his life.

He is a Charleston native, living in a state that has a history of anti-Black race hatred that ranks among the worst in the nation. At age 72, he had to have lived through much of that history. One would think that, to him, what happened Wednesday night would be completely believable – and very immediate. How can he speak of that event without placing it within its proper historical context?

Far too many Americans have very little awareness of the racial context of our society. We know little of the specifics of the thousands of race-related laws, rules, and practices that at one time were consciously put into place to ensure the supremacy of Whites and to lock others out of assertive participation in the nation. It is the existence of those laws, rules, and practices that, over time, allowed to accrue the enormous racial disparities of wealth and social status that we currently live with.

Although many of those laws have been stricken from the books, the landscape of structural racial inequality persists.  When we talk about “racism”, every conversation should include a discussion of that real racial history.

Sadly, we don’t do that. When we do (rarely) acknowledge “racism,” we think about it as it appeared in 1963, or on Wednesday night – as personal, obvious, malicious, and intentional acts of ill will. And when we find examples of that malicious brand of “racism,” we jump all over it in an effort to “prove” that, apart from the actions of a few “deranged” individuals, it (racism) is a thing of the past.  A result of that approach is that the millions of Americans who are trained to believe racism is over also come to think that the nation’s millions of structurally disadvantaged African-Americans have no one but themselves to blame for their presence at the bottom of the American hierarchy.

The news coverage since Wednesday’s shootings have placed heavy focus on the perpetrator. He has been called “deranged”, “mentally ill”, and “sick.” It is very hard for me to listen to FOX News as they repeatedly attempt to let society off the hook, and locate these murders only in the actions of a single individual.

In 1963, shortly after the girls were killed, Dr. M.L. King said, “We’re not concerned with who killed these girls, but with what killed these girls.”

What killed those girls is the same thing that killed the 9 worshippers at Emmanuel AME: a culture and a social arrangement that regularly and routinely demonizes, criminalizes, and dehumanizes Black lives while simultaneously normalizing, ignoring, and making excuses for the social arrangements of White supremacy.

It is incumbent upon us to double and redouble our effort to create places where we can come to understand and transform the structures of American racism. In the absence of such an effort, Dylann Roof’s actions may trigger the wrong kind of response. We’ve already seen it in the aftermath of Ferguson and other locations, where individual Police have been targeted for “revenge” against what Police forces represent as a whole. I don’t want to see in the news where a Black gun(man) has targeted an all-White church. I don’t want Roof to have his “race war.”

This is not a time to talk about “punishing” one individual, “healing” one city, and quickly returning to the status quo. For a huge segment of our population, the status quo is palpably intolerable. For the rest of us then, it is unsustainable.


La’Ron Williams is a member of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice Board of Directors, an anti-racist educator, and an award-winning storyteller.